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Thomas Mann

June 6 marks the birthday of novelist Thomas Mann, who was born in Lübeck, Germany, in 1875.  He was the son of a wealthy father, who was in the trading business and had twice been elected to the position of burgermeister of Lübeck.  His mother, Bruhn da Silva, came from a German-Portugese-Creole family.

Mann's father died in 1891, and his trading firm was dissolved.  The family moved to Munich where young Thomas received his education at the University.  He took a job with the South German Fire Insurance Company from 1894-95.  His career as a writer began with some of his short works being published in the magazine, Simplicissimus.  Mann's first book, Der Kleine Herr Friedman (Little Mr. Friedman), was published in 1898.

Mann enjoyed the benefits of a relatively privileged life.  He rarely struggled over money, his writing, or recognition.  He immersed himself in the work of philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as in the music of composer Richard Wagner.  He published his first novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), when he was twenty-six years old.  The novel was about the decline of a family, and it took place in an old mansion that Mann crafted after his own grandfather's house. 

Considered today to be his early masterpiece, Buddenbrooks relies heavily on the technique of the leitmotif, which Mann adapted from Wagner.  He had begun writing the book in 1897 as a small story about one member of a family.  During the writing process, he expanded his scope to enlarge the story into a saga of a wealthy Hanseatic family that falls from grace due to personal decadence.  The last Buddenbrook, the young Hanno, becomes a depraved artist. 

The book was so popular that the house that Mann had used as his model became a national monument.  It was destroyed during World War I.  Afterwards, the German government paid for its reconstruction.

married Katja Pringsheim, the daughter of a wealthy Munich family, in 1905, and they had a total of six children over the years.  In 1909, Mann's Kongliche Hoheit reflected his views of duty and sacrifice.  Three years later, he published Der Tod in Venedig, or Death in Venice, his most famous novel.  It was inspired by a young, sailor-suited boy named Wladyslaw Moes, whom the author saw in Venice in 1911.  Other characters in the novel also have their counterparts in real life; although in the book, Tadzio is 14, whereas in real life, Wladyslaw was only 11. 

In the story, an author, Gustav von Aschenbach, fells hopelessly in love with a young teenager, Tadzio. Obsessed with the boy, he stays in Venice during a cholera epidemic and dies of the disease.  The story was adapted into film by Luchino Visconti.  It starred Dirk Bogarde and Bjorn Andresen. 

In 1924, Mann published The Magic Mountain, the story of life within the walls of a tuberculosis sanitarium.  It depicted a fight between liberal and conservative values, an enlightened civilized world and non-rational beliefs.  Hans Castorp, the protagonist, goes to the elegant tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos to visit his cousin.  Castorp is not really ill, but he stays for a period of seven years, undergoing advanced education on the Magic Mountain.  Two men struggle for his soul, Settembrini, an Italian humanist, and Naptha, a radical reactionary, who speaks constantly of blind and irrational faith.

As Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and as World War II loomed on the horizon, Mann sought refuge in the United States, where he lived near Hollywood.  He quickly made friends with many other exiled artists, including composers Schoenberg and Stravinsky, who inspired him to write his last great novel, Dr. Faustus (1947), about a composer who sells his soul to the devil. 

Mann fell in love with the movies and tried his hand at screenwriting, but he enjoyed little success in Hollywood.  When Harvard and Princeton offered him jobs in academia, he wrote to his son, "I'd really prefer [to stay with] the movie mob."  He left the United States only because he feared that Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist investigations were a sign of growing American neo-fascism. 

Thomas Mann spent his waning years in Switzerland, where he died in 1955.

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