by James Wallace Harris, 2/23/23
The TV show Friends was a huge success for many reasons. However, there is one important reason few people mention that I want to reference for this book review. Group friendships don’t happen often in our lives and they usually don’t last long — yet they are often the ones we miss most when they are gone. Group friendships are usually created for us, by the classroom, churches, sports teams, the military, the office, arts and crafts groups, or hobby clubs. I fondly remember several such friendships and miss them. I even dream about them.
Magnificent Rebels by Andrea Wulf and Jena 1800 by Peter Neumann are about a very special group of friends. Friends who made history. Friends who inspired how we think today. Because they were German and their relationships happened over two hundred years most people won’t know their names. However, those friends influenced people who became famous in the English-speaking world. We remember those friends as the founders of Romanticism. Interestingly, both Magnificent Rebels and Jena 1800 came out in 2022. Magnificent Rebels is longer, and the story is told more like a novel, and Jena 1800 is shorter but focuses more on the concepts, but both tell about the same people. I recommend reading Magnificent Rebels first to see if you like the people, and if you do, you’ll probably want to read Jena 1800.
As a kind of warning I must ask, do you really want to read a book about a bunch of Germans from the 18th century with hard-to-pronounce names? Names that are hard to remember because so many of them began with the letters Sch – Schlegel, Schelling, and Schiller. And there were too many damn Friedrichs. I admit this made the book hard to read but it was worth the effort.
Here’s the thing, I knew practically nothing about these people. I’ve heard of Goethe and Hagel, but haven’t read anything by them. The reason why I read Magnificent Rebels is that I read Andrea Wulf’s book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humbolt’s New World and was completely blown away. And I don’t even remember hearing or reading about Alexander von Humbolt before. Wulf opened up a whole new historical territory for me to explore.
For most of my life, I’ve read and studied English literature and science from the perspective of English history. I’ve read very few European novels and haven’t studied their history and culture. I knew about the English Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats), but I didn’t know or had forgotten, they were inspired by the German Romantics. Being introduced to this new knowledge was the first reason I enjoyed Magnificent Rebels.
But the second reason, and by far the more important reason, is I love reading about counter-culture friendship groups that spark a revolution. If you enjoy reading about the Beats, the Lost Generation, the Bloomsbury Group, the Transcendentalists, the Futurians, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or even the personal computer pioneers of the 1970s, then adding the German Romantics should be a pleasure.
Both books focus on the German romantics that lived in Jena which is in Germany. But their homeland wasn’t modern Germany. The books mainly cover 1796-1803, after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic Wars when Europe was in upheaval. At one point in this story, Jena is occupied by Napoleon’s army who sacked the city taking any food, valuables, and wood.
I admire books about a group of people who do something so exciting that biographies are written about the group and the individuals. Magnificent Rebels makes me want to read more books about the German Romantics, but also books by and about all the individuals involved. Here’s a scorecard for the main personalities in the book, and the ones I’d want to study more. There were many other people mentioned in Magnificent Rebels.
The first block list the young people that had all the love affairs. The next block is Geothe and Schiller who were best friends and mentors to the German Romantics. They were older and represented the previous generation. The final group was the philosophers and scientists who were friends of the first group, but who were also successful in other fields.
Caroline Schlegel and Wilhelm Schlegel were married but had a best-friends kind of arrangement. Wilhelm accepted Caroline’s love affair with Fredrich Schelling. Friedrich Schlegel was lovers with Dorothea Veit, who was married. That affair was far less accepted.
To me, both Caroline and Dorothea are the most interesting people in Magnificent Rebels. In a way, because they were women, they had the most to rebel against.
The German Romantics remind me of the 1960s counter-culture. The German Romantics weren’t exactly the hippies of the 1790s, but there are comparisons. They were rebellious, flouting sexual conventions, and excited about everything new. For a while they did everything together, reading poetry, going to plays and concerts, discussing philosophy, attending literary salons, hiking in nature, and defying what was expected of them. They almost had a little commune. The men taught at the university in Jena and promoted new ideas that attracted students from all over Europe. But the women were thinkers and writers in their own right.
However, like with the student revolutionaries of the 1960s, things fell apart, often because of egos. It’s hard for two people to maintain a friendship, and group dynamics are infinitely harder to maintain. When the Jena set broke up, it felt like the Beatles breaking up. What we think of as The Sixties was really only from 1964-1969. The Sixties really began with The Beatles arriving in America in February 1964 and ending with Altamont in December 1969. These two books about Jena cover a similarly short period.
Magnificent Rebels and Jena 1800 both try to capture a certain era of exciting social transformation that happened in a small town with a few colorful people seeding changes that spread across the world. I also compare them with the Beat Movement of the 1950s.