I recently got Brief Lives: Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, by Andrew Piper, as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and I thought I’d add my review here in case anyone wants to talk about Goethe, Felicia Hemans (pronounced HEMM-unz), or anything else.

This book satisfies the basic requirement of a hundred-page “Brief Life”: it gives you the facts of the author’s life and mentions his most important works, with a few quotes thrown in as flavoring. I regret to say it’s not very well written or proofread (“ex-patriot artists”!). On a two-page spread (50-51), we get this unintelligible line from a translation (Piper apparently did them himself): “As though I enter for the first”; he says “Iphigenia was an exploration of what the romantic poet Felicia Hemans … said was the experience of ‘the bitter taste of another’s bread, the weary steps by which the stairs of another’s house are ascended'” when Hemans is simply rendering in her flat prose some of Dante’s most famous lines (“Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e com’ è duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale”); and he refers to Iphigenia’s ill-fated family, the House of Atreus, as “one of the most gruesome genealogies in human history” (history??). Furthermore, Piper has the bad habit of characterizing everything he writes about as “the greatest” this or that, as if he were trying to sell us a car rather than describe a writer’s life. Still, if you want a quick introduction to Goethe, this is a perfectly serviceable one that could give you the impetus to seek out a longer, weightier biography or critical study.


  1. I truly love “ex-patriot artists”–those damn “terrerists” artists! Goethe, by the bye, was quite a man. Selah.

  2. I regret to say it’s not very well… proofread (“ex-patriot artists”!).
    Oxford U. P. still sets the standard for all of publishing.

  3. “As though I enter for the first”
    What is the original line ? If Goethe is imagining the start of a baseball game, it should be “As though I innings in the first”.

  4. “one of the most gruesome genealogies in human history” (history??).
    Why do you think that literature is not part of human history ?

  5. Well, by that standard everything is history, so we might as well retire the word. Last night I had one of the weirdest dreams in human history!

  6. No no, there is geological and animal history, for instance. Not to mention the history of bear-baiting.

  7. Grumbly, is The Cheshire Cat part of human history or animal history?

  8. marie-lucie says

    in human history (history?)
    NO, mythology, unless you expand in human history to dreamed up in human history.

  9. is The Cheshire Cat part of human history or animal history?
    It’s part of the history of literature. And also of philosophy, like the Black Swan. I can now reveal the identity of the cat on the mat.

  10. Animal history, unless it’s written by animals, is human history — except that humans are, of course, animals.

  11. Shouldn’t Goethe be pronounced “Goaty” in English?

  12. Go-eath-y, accent on the “eath”, “th” as in “thin”. There’s such a street in Chicago.

  13. Go eathy on the Chicagoans, they don’t learn German in thcool.

  14. Go eathy from the Speak-eathy?
    Speaking of editors, I’m sad that even I can see that Aroup Chatterjee coulda used (a better) one. His Ma Teresa takedown is juicy, but a bit too … unpolished in places. Pity.

  15. TH! TH! TH! As in THIN!

  16. Is that JE or Bill the Cat?

  17. Didn’t Billy Graham once embarrass himself by pronouncing the name Go-eth? (I think, accent on first syllable but second vowel not a schwa)

  18. Many times I have driven past Chicago’s Goethe Street, but I don’t know anyone who lives there so I can’t tell you how they pronounce it. (Actually it’s a north-south street, so it would be more of an avenue.)
    I did once meet someone from Pedro, South Dakota, so I can tell you how they pronounce that. It’s PEE-dro.

  19. marie-lucie says

    In Halifax (NS) there is a Gottingen Street, pronounced “Gottidgen” (stress on Gott).
    I met an American woman (a Christian) called Leila, pronounced Lee-i-la (perhaps on the trisyllabic model of Leola).

  20. Nijma: My Germanist mother collected pronunciations of Goethe Street in Detroit by trolley-car conductors back in the 1940s. There were many styles, of which “geetee” was the most common and “go-eeth” the most grotesque.

  21. My wife, who grew up here (Chicago) says she always heard “Goathy” (go + th as in thin).

  22. That’s how Goethe Avenue in St. Louis is (or was) pronounced.

  23. Poor Goathy. 22 comments and not a word about anything he wrote or did.
    So, the difference between a girder and a joist?

  24. Speaking of the “girder and joist” joke, what dialect could the foreman have been speaking to make the technical terms similar enough to the names? Apparently an r-less dialect that would elide the T at the end of “joist”. My own Northern Cities pronunciation fits the latter criterion (at least sometimes) but not the former.

  25. The human intermaxillary bone is really quite impressive.

  26. There used to be a graffito in Building 7 (the main entrance on Mass. Ave. and the location of the Architecture Department), “Jambs Joist. Didn’t he write Portrait of the Arches as a Long Span?” Amazingly, Google doesn’t find it; maybe my memory corrupted it a bit.

  27. I’m proud and impressed that an architect would be capable of making a joke like that. Of course the main difference is that a girder is much deeper than a joist.

  28. It was probably the architect’s literate girlfriend.

  29. Still, if you want a quick introduction to Goethe, …
    Ach! Cuán breve es nuestra vida – too short to read even brief lives of all the greats. I’ll say this for Goethe: he wrote some damn fine short poems, among the longueurs for les heures longues. Indeed, I am pleased to find that the BBC chose to use my translation of “Wandrers Nachtlied (II)” in some radio feature called Goethe’s Oak, recently. Eight short lines on the shortness of life. Acht!

  30. marie-lucie says

    Noetica, how tantalizing! we can’t listen to that radio program.

  31. I have not heard it myself, Marie-Lucie. Meh.

  32. Ach! … Acht!
    Christian Morgenstern put it this way (I’m sure Goethe would have approved):

            Das Gebet
    Die Rehlein beten zur Nacht,
    hab acht!
    Halb neun!
    Halb zehn!
    Halb elf!
    Halb zwölf!
    Die Rehlein beten zur Nacht,
    hab acht!
    Sie falten die kleinen Zehlein,
    die Rehlein.

  33. So do we get to read Noetica’s translation, if we can’t hear it? (Maybe someone more googly than I could find it the BBC website or somewhere, but I couldn’t.)

  34. Another thing about Goaty, could someone explain why you’re not supposed to use an ö in his name and in some other names in German? Is it just convention? Are there rules for this?

  35. His grandfather changed it.

  36. find it the BBC website
    It was 2010-07-11 and you can only listen again for a week.

  37. I’d no idea his grandfather was only a Schneider. I wonder where the “von” came from, then.

  38. He was ennobled so he could have dinner at the ducal palace in Weimar (which sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant place).

  39. marie-lucie says

    In the old days, quite a few people, upon enriching themselves or becoming famous enough, added some noble-sounding detail to their name. “Linnaeus” (who went from “Linne” to “von Linné”) was another one.
    In the fable Le Corbeau et le Renard, the fox shamelessly flatters the raven by addressing him as Monsieur du Corbeau instead of the more plebeian (but still very polite) Monsieur le Corbeau, setting him up for more outrageous flattery.

  40. We still don’t know why Goethe’s ancestor chose that spelling.

  41. marie-lucie says

    It says in the bio that he changed the spelling after moving to another city. Perhaps the digraph oe was preferred in that city? Obviously he was not changing the pronunciation of his name.

  42. He wasn’t only a Schneider. He was a Schneider who married a Gasthaus and built up a Weinhandlung. His son was a Jurist and a Kaiserlicher Rat and a man of independent means, but never made it into the highest Kreise. His son got the “von”.

  43. you can only listen again for a week
    The linked BBC site says you can’t hear it at all.

  44. Perhaps it seemed posher?
    Friedrich Georg’s name was spelled all kinds of ways. I believe there is a document signed (perhaps on his behalf by some lawyer) “Fridericus Georg Göthé.” The time in France may have been an influence.
    I am pretty certain that by the time Johann Caspar entered the Casimirianum in Coburg he was a Goethe.

  45. Here we go. Google’s OCR thinks it says “l’riclericu8 (,eurß (^ütbe,” so it doesn’t show up in direct searches. It also has a nice list at the bottom of the page. Note that the author says Friederich Georg was never Goethe, but I think the Wikipedia is based on newer information, cause I’ve heard that before.

  46. marie-lucie says

    Ø, I tried the BBC site too earlier, and the program is no longer accessible.

  47. What I really want is for Grumbystew to tell me if he somehow knows when to write “oe” and when to write “ö” or if you just have to remember it, like with Mac and Mc. It sounds like it must be the latter, but I’d like to be sure.

  48. I would say that plain German words with an “ö” sound are usually spelled with “ö” instead of “oe”. It can be a bit tricky with furrin words from Latin and Greek, so you have to memorize them extra-special. For instance, Duden says Apnoe is pronounced a’pno:ə, but I’ve heard it pronounced apnö on TV by a physician. Diarrhö is written and pronounced “ö”.
    You also have to be careful with place names. The city name Soest is pronounced “sooost”, with the “o” as in English “oh”. Similarly, Grevenbroich is pronounced “grevenbroooch”. I read somewhere that these words show older spelling conventions where “e” and “i” were used to indicate that the preceding vowel was long. Between Cologne and Bonn you have the small towns Roisdorf and, on the other side of the Rhine, Troisdorf. Some people say “oi”, others “oo”.

  49. And there’s the famous anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna a century ago, Karl Lueger, whose name (as I found out the hard way in Vienna) is pronounced in three syllables, loo-EH-ger [luˈeɡɐ].

  50. I still wish I could read the translation.

  51. Thanks, very interesting. I’m sure to remember diarrhö, which I can never remember how to spell in English, and Lueger as in hasta luego.

  52. Ø, Noetica must have the translation even if he doesn’t have access to the BBC site.

  53. “Who was Novalis?”
    “Who was Heine?”
    “Who was Kleist?”
    “The Chinese Messiah?”

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