Thursday, November 18, 2010

Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, & Weltschmerz

Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart

At the moment I am reading "Thomas Jefferson", a bio of Jefferson by Fawn Brodie. I don't have to remind you that Jefferson became President of the United States in 1801. Now, one of the main reasons I, as opposed to other family members, was interested in the Samuel Meeker portrait was because he was a peer of Goethe. As was Jefferson.

Here is a tale of a lovesick Jefferson taken from Brodie's biography: "In April [1764] he barely missed seeing the new Mrs. Ambler [a passion of Jefferson, she married another fellow] at a party at the home of Frances Burwell..., to which he had been invited. "What I high figure I should have cut had I gone!" he wrote to Page. "When I heard who visited you there I thought I had met with the narrowest escape in the world. I wonder how I should have behaved? I am sure I should have been at a great loss." The deprivation for Jefferson in losing Rebecca Burwell was more anguishing than has been acknowledged by some of his biographers. Malone holds that 'Jefferson carried on this rather absurd affair mostly in his imagination.' Nathan Schachner believes 'his passion could not have been too unmanageable, for he made no move to journey down to see her,' and labels his melancholy 'sentimental Weltschmerz.' "

Sentimental Weltschmerz can be roughly translated into an emotional 'ennuie and sadness with the world'~ This feeling and expression of emotion, by men, was increasingly common in the mid 1700s to the early 1800s, culminating in the novel "Die Leiden des jungen Werther" (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang Goethe in 1775, when he was 25. In this fiction told in letter-form, Goethe capitalized on the fad of men expressing suffering, emotion, ennuie [this was the time of Sturm und Drang]~ and with the publication of this story of male suffering, Goethe enjoyed huge success as his book became the main topic of the salons, and he became a worldwide celebrity.

"Die Leiden des jungen Werther" gelten den meisten nur als gefühlvoller Liebesroman, und das Werk ist in der Tat einer der schoensten and leidenschaftlichsten Liebesromane der Weltliteratur.

Jefferson was devastated at the death of his wife Martha, he never married again, but his long term relationship with Sally Hemmings raised eyebrows, for she was a slave. Goethe would have approved, or lets say, he would not have disapproved. He knew very well what it was like to transgress social norms.



Maureen said...

as always, fascinating, I sort of fell in love with Jefferson in the John Adams TV series. Now that I'm living on Cape Cod, that period of time has really captured my attention.

StimmeDesHerzens said...

Maureen, you have moved~ I adored the John Adams series!

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