Skip to main content

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749–1832)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German dramatist, poet, and essayist who influenced many writers in Whitman's America through his leadership of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress), an artistic movement of the 1770s which exalted freedom and nature. Although renowned in Europe for such works as Faust (1808) and The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), Goethe influenced mid-nineteenth-century America primarily through two newly translated texts which put forward his theory of the importance of character in the life of the artist. The first, Margaret Fuller's translation of Conversations with Eckermann (1838), proved influential among the New England transcendentalists. The second, Parke Godwin's translation of Goethe's Autobiography (Dictung und Warheit), would profoundly affect Whitman's development of his own artistic persona.

Whitman's first public exposition of Goethe came on 19 November 1846, when he reviewed the Autobiography for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He celebrated the simple directness of Goethe's approach to life and was especially impressed that Goethe managed to avoid overt moralizing. By relying on inference, Goethe allowed the reader to see how circumstance had imbued him with "character." Whitman was so taken by this history of the "soul and body's growth" that he dedicated three columns of the paper to extracts from it ("Incidents" 140).

In addition to his appropriation of the German poet's theory of character, Whitman also found in Goethe a source of nationalistic poetic theory, declaring in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1888) that new American poets had first and foremost to realize the lesson that Johann Gottfried Herder had taught the young Goethe so many years before: "[P]oetry is always . . . the result of a national spirit, and not the privilege of a polish'd and select few" (Prose Works 2:732).

In time, however, Whitman's enthusiasm for Goethe seems to have cooled. Although he had once declared Goethe to be "the first great critic" (Notebooks 5:1824), in his later prose criticism, such as the 1881 essay "Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—The Future," Whitman dismisses Goethe's "Nature" as artificial (Prose Works 2:485), and in his "American National Literature," published ten years later, he ascribes Goethe's assertion that the poet could live by art alone to the "conventionality" of a court poet (2:665).


Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Stovall, Floyd. The Foreground of "Leaves of Grass." Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1974.

Whitman, Walt. "Incidents in the Life of a World-Famed Man." Rev. of "The Auto-Biography of Goethe." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 19 November 1846. Rpt. in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. Vol. 1. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972. 139–141.

———. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

———. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

Back to top