Goethe’s Homecoming

The Weimar Edition at the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles

Thomas Mann House
Oct 29, 2019 · 11 min read

Goethe’s Weimar Edition crossed the Atlantic together with Thomas Mann and followed him all the way to Los Angeles. In 1952, the luxury editions left the Pacific Palisades and are now returning home.

For the German version click here.

By Thomas Mann Fellow Stefan Keppler-Tasaki

The American horizon of Goethe’s 1829 emigrant novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Travels) owes its silver lining in particular to the 1825/26 American expedition of the court of Weimar: Envisioning an independent existence at the Western frontier of settlement, far removed from European strife and decline, Duke Bernhard had not only called on founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson but also paid a visit to the family of William Clark, the pioneer of the American West Coast and visionary of the Union’s Pacific prospects. Thomas Mann brought with him several editions of the novel — which revolves around the central figure of Makarie, an anagram of “Amerika” — when he relocated to the shores for which Eckermann’s interlocutor had predicted an auspicious future: “along the whole coast of the Pacific Ocean, … important commercial towns will gradually arise, for the furtherance of a great intercourse between China and the East Indies and the United States.”

When Mann moved there from Princeton in 1941/42, Pacific Palisades was located on the furthest outskirts of Los Angeles, allowing spacious properties with room for huge book collections, such as could be found in Feuchtwanger’s “Villa Aurora” and Mann’s “Seven Palms.” Mann’s personal library of about 5,000 volumes was mainly arranged along the wide northern and narrow western wall of his new study — the “most beautiful [study] of my life,” as he wrote. A glazed Jugendstil bookcase stood against the eastern wall of the living room.

Fig. 1: Bookcase in the salon

A reading corner with an armchair and footrest had been set up in the master bedroom. The “packing up of the library” in Princeton was done by movers, the “setting up” in Seven Palms by Katia and Golo Mann. “Stirring,” noted the paterfamilias about these handlings of his most intimate possessions.

Fig. 2: Reading corner in the master bedroom

The study was among the first rooms that Thomas Mann had furnished in the “P.P. Haus” (P[acific] P[alisades] House), as he called it, in February 1942. On February 10, he writes: “The shelving of the books, including the great Goethe, in the studio is finished.” This furnishing with books obviously helped turn the house into a home: “How at home I feel in the Goethean sphere,” Mann had noted earlier. The beginning of 1944 saw the addition of a “Goethe corner in the study” — named after the portrait of Charlotte Buff that was hung there, but also referring to the kinds of books that Mann sought to have within easy reach. Photographs of Mann’s study in Pacific Palisades show both the “Goethe corner” and the volumes of the Weimar, or Sophien, edition of Goethe arranged behind the writer’s back next to the Propyläen and Tempel-Klassiker editions.

Fig. 3: “Goethe corner in the study”

The mahogany desk and the Goethe volumes were thus in a mirroring relationship whose axis was Thomas Mann. What here becomes visible is the object-historical equivalent of the “affirmation of one’s own self through his [Goethe’s] glorification, ideality, completion” that was avowedly pursued by Mann.

Fig. 4: The volumes of the Weimar edition

Mann’s volumes of the Weimar edition were bound by the Munich bookbinder Fritz Gähr in red-brown half-calf with gold-embossed titles on the spine. The spine features five raised bands and four identical fleur-de-lis ornaments, also gold-embossed. The covers and endpapers are marbled. Gilt edges and red ribbons complement the edition, which was to correlate with Thomas Mann’s standard of living. How valuable this edition was for its owner is shown by a Küsnacht diary entry dated March 5, 1937: “3 big crates with the hundred-volume Goethe from Munich. Unpacked two of them after tea and dinner. Individual volumes [are] in bad shape and in need of repair. A magnificent possession, however.”

Goethe was part of the cargo when the Nobel laureate coined the formula of exile in February 1938: “Where I am, there is Germany. I carry my German culture in me.” They were classic words from the outset, because Mann deliberately pronounced them in the form of a maxim as might have been uttered by a French moralist, an American founding father — or Goethe, for that matter. This is why Mann, in the vein of his seamless montages, could immediately put them back in the mouth of the classical author: “They think they are Germany — but I am. Let the rest perish root and branch, it will survive in me,” says Mann’s Goethe in the famous seventh chapter of Lotte in Weimar (1939). Mann’s claim for cultural representativeness necessitated his continuous recourse to Goethe, who is also quoted in the novel as saying: “I was born to be representative.” With “Tommy” on the path to becoming an American citizen in 1944, this self-aggrandizing identification with Goethe increasingly demanded an image of Goethe as an American, which Mann completed in his 1949 speech on “Goethe and Democracy.”

The Manns’ second transatlantic move in 1952 brought the Weimar edition back to Switzerland. “The great Goethe splendidly arranged around the ‘foyer,’” reads an entry in the Erlenbach diary. After Thomas Mann’s death in 1955, the heavy goods went to his youngest son, Michael, who shortly afterwards took the books with him first to Pittsburgh and then to Boston where he studied German literature. For the aspiring literary scholar, the Weimar edition was an ideal seed capital. When Michael Mann joined the German Department at Berkeley in 1961, the 315 shelf-feet of Goethe came with him to Orinda, an eastern suburb of the university town.

Michael died in Orinda in January 1977, his widow, Gret Mann-Moser, in May 2007. Their heir, Frido Mann, did not send the Weimar edition across the Atlantic once again but gifted it to a former colleague of his father’s in the German Department, Frederic C. Tubach. The “hundred-volume Goethe” thus for the first time in decades changed households, though only a few blocks away in Orinda. Frederic and Sally Patterson Tubach finally donated the treasure to the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles. The festive handover took place as part of a panel discussion entitled “Goethe’s Homecoming” on October 8, 2019.

Fig. 5: Mann’s volumes of the Weimar edition as arranged today at the Thomas Mann House

Today, the volumes occupy the central eight shelves along the main wall of Mann’s former study, behind the virtual back of the writer whom photographs in the room show seated at his desk. Among the growing book collection of the Thomas Mann House, the Goethe volumes are the only ones previously owned by Mann, and they — together with the Thomas Mann first editions, some of them signed, which had been donated by Wolf von Lojewski in October 2018 — are the centerpiece of today’s library. Creating such relics was part and parcel of the business of history, which was systematically pursued by both Goethe and Thomas Mann. Goethe’s skills in building a tradition of self through objects is detailed, for example, in the 1908 volume Goethe und die Seinen: Quellenmäßige Darstellungen über Goethes Haus (Goethe and His Family and Friends: Representations of Goethe’s Household Based on the Sources), which Mann owned and frequently consulted — with obvious benefit.

The Weimar edition, the Rolls-Royce of the Goethe editions, seems to have been rarely used by its first owner and contains relatively few reading traces. When Mann began his work on Lotte in Weimar, excerpting “all kinds of Weimariana” in October 1936, he did not have the edition to hand, and it therefore did not play the role of the main working tool. For the exile, however, the concern for the Weimar edition became a medium for the emigré experience, the saved set of books a mirror for his own body. The “faring” of the Weimar edition is the subject of “a continuous bulletin” in Mann’s diaries, as Werner Frizen has pointed out. The metaphors of a physical body at risk and under threat cannot be overlooked, for example in an entry dated March 19, 1937: “Numerous volumes with broken leather spines. Restoration will be costly.”

The Zahmen Xenien (Tame Xenia), a frequent go-to source for Mann when it came to the art of living, in particular engaged his pencil. He marked, for example, the following verse:

Mit sich selbst zu Rathe gehn,

Immer wird’s am besten stehn:

Gern im Freien, gern zu Haus,

Lausche da und dort hinaus

Und controlire dich für und für,

Da horchen alt und jung nach dir.


Deliberating with one’s self –

There is no better course of action:

Go abroad, stay at home,

Turn your ears in every direction

And always observe yourself,

Then old and young will pay attention

Mann’s marking of the following xenion is rather transparent in light of the political situation:

Ich habe gar nichts gegen die Menge;

Doch kommt sie einmal in’s Gedränge,

So ruft sie, um den Teufel zu bannen,

Gewiß die Schelme, die Tyrannen.


I have nothing at all against the crowd;

But as soon as there’s a jostle and crush,

It will surely, to keep the devil out,

Send for the pranksters, the autocrats.

Another of Goethe’s aphorisms proves to be surprisingly topical in the context of the Second World War: “Der Achse wird mancher Stoß versetzt, / Sie rührt sich nicht — und bricht zuletzt” (The axis is struck by quite a few knocks, / It does not move — and finally crocks). Biting comments about the German nation that “sich erst recht erhaben fühlt, / Wenn all ihr Würdiges ist verspielt” (feels superior all the more / one its dignity has gone out the door) were also not lacking in contemporary use value.

A similar density of markings can be found in the volumes of Goethe’s conversations. There, Mann comprehensively and meticulously highlighted those passages that are relevant for Goethe’s half-divine, half-debauched characterization in Lotte in Weimar — including, for example: “seine Figur ist jetzt im vollkommensten Ebenmaß und von höchster Schönheit. […] Er ist ein geborner König der Welt.” (His figure is now of the most perfect symmetry and of the utmost beauty. … He is a born king of the world.) The account of Charlotte “Lotte” Kestner, née Buff, which is so crucial for Lotte in Weimar, is also extensively marked by pencil, including passages that relate to the very self-tradition through objects that Mann deliberately imitated. Mann used Goethe’s conversations also in the separate edition of 1890 that did, however, not yet include the relevant passages.

Fig. 6: Markings and underlinings by Thomas Mann in the Weimar edition: Charlotte Kestner’s account of her meeting with Goethe in September 1816

In the Erläuterungen zu Goethes Gesprächen (Commentary on Goethe’s Conversations), Mann highlighted information on people associated with Goethe, including Johannes Daniel Falk, Karl Ludwig von Knebel, Friedrich Justin Bertuch, and Johann Heinrich Meyer. He was also interested in Goethe’s stunning confessional quotation from the Biographische Einzelheiten (Biographical Details): „Ich habe niemals einen präsumtuöseren Menschen gekannt als mich selbst […]. Niemals glaubte ich, daß etwas zu erreichen wäre, immer dacht’ ich ich hätt’ es schon. Man hätte mir eine Krone aufsetzen können, und ich hätte gedacht, das verstehe sich von selbst.” (I’ve never known a more presumptuous person than myself …. Never did I believe that there was something to achieve; I always thought I had it already. One could have put a crown on my head, and I would have thought this quite natural.) In Goethe’s autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (Truth and Fiction), Mann consistently underlined the passages related to Friederike Brion, Lotte’s predecessor.

On the whole, these reading traces give the impression that Thomas Mann, between 1937 and 1939, reread or completed what he had mostly read already elsewhere, mainly in the Propyläen and Tempel-Klassiker editions of Goethe’s works. On July 14, 1937, his diary records: “Readings [in] G. conversations of the Sophieen [sic] edition.” The markings in the Zahmen Xenien clearly point to the time of the Second World War, more specifically to the time around and after 1942, when the “axis” had already received quite a few “knocks.” For the history of the creation of Lotte in Weimar and the evolution of Mann’s self-reflections in Goethe, the Weimar edition is therefore less significant than the volumes that are part of the Zurich estate, including the Propyläen and Tempel-Klassiker editions. We nevertheless owe to the gift of the Turbachs a rounding off of the tradition, which will be much appreciated by researchers concerned with what Werner Frizen has called Thomas Mann’s “Goethe mimicry.”


Fig. 1: Bookcase in the salon, Pacific Palisades, ca. 1948. Source: Thomas Mann Archives, ETH Zurich, Sign. TMA_3203.

Fig. 2: Reading corner in the master bedroom, Pacific Palisades, ca. 1948. Source: Thomas Mann Archives, ETH Zurich, Sign. TMA_AL29_6128.

Fig. 3: “Goethe corner in the study” (in the left background), Pacific Palisades, ca. 1948. Source: Thomas Mann Archives, ETH Zurich, Sign. TMA_3206.

Fig. 4: The volumes of the Weimar edition (in the left background), Pacific Palisades, ca. 1948. Source: Thomas Mann Archives, ETH Zurich, Sign. TMA_3204.

Fig. 5: Mann’s volumes of the Weimar edition as arranged today at the Thomas Mann House, Pacific Palisades 2019. Source: Thomas Mann House Los Angeles.

Fig. 6: Markings and underlinings by Thomas Mann in the Weimar edition: Charlotte Kestner’s account of her meeting with Goethe in September 1816.


Translated by Manuela Thurner.


Stefan Keppler-Tasaki, born in 1973 in Wertheim, scholarship holder of the Studienstiftung des deutschen Volkes from 1993 to 1999 and again from 2000 to 2003, assistant professor for modern German literature at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg from 2002 to 2005 and at the FUB from 2005 to 2008, taught as Junior Professor for Modern German Literature at the Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of the FUB from 2008 to 2012. In 2012, he became professor for Modern German Literature at the University of Tokyo, Faculty of Letters / Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology. In 2014, Keppler-Tasaki was appointed Einstein Visiting Fellow at the Free University Berlin. Author of Grenzen des Ich. Die Verfassung des Subjekts in Goethes Roman und Erzählungen. (De Gruyter, 2006) and of Alfred Döblin. Massen, Medien, Metropolen. (Königshausen & Neumann, 2018). Co-Founder/co-publisher of the book series WeltLiteraturen (De Gruyter) and Rezeptionskulturen (Königshausen & Neumann).

thomasmannhouse

Thomas Mann House | Residency center and space for transatlantic debate in Los Angeles, California | vatmh.org

Thomas Mann House

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www.vatmh.org | Residency center and space for transatlantic debate in Los Angeles, California.

thomasmannhouse

Thomas Mann House | Residency center and space for transatlantic debate in Los Angeles, California | vatmh.org

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