Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749 - 1832

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was (and is) not only the preeminent figure in all of German literature but also--owing to the remarkable broadness and brilliance of his accomplishments--the prime instance of a "universal genius" in the history of European culture.  The New England Transcendentalists extensively discussed and debated Goethe; Ralph Waldo Emerson, in fact, owned the complete 55-volume edition of his works published by J. G. Cotta in Stuttgart (1827 - 1833).  Transcendental authors also translated Goethe into English--for example: Thomas Carlyle, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1824); Margaret Fuller, Torquato Tasso (1834, 1860); and James Freeman Clark, "Orphic Sayings from Goethe" (1836).  Although the Transcendentalists were prone to distrust Goethe's broad-minded humanism, they nevertheless defended him from the accusations of "immorality" of their more conservative Unitarian peers.  They also appreciated and supported Goethe's dominant ideal of Bildung, or the complete and harmonious development of the individual, as it enriched and contributed to their understanding of self-culture.
Goethe has been written about as follows by Octavius Brooks Frothingham, the first historian of American Transcendentalism.
It was through the literature of Germany that the transcendental philosophy chiefly communicated itself.  Goethe, Richter and Novalis were more persuasive teachers than Kant, Jacobi or Fichte.  To those who could not read German these authors were interpreted by Thomas Carlyle, who took up the cause of German philosophy and literature, and wrote about them with passionate power in the English reviews; not contenting himself with giving surface accounts of them, but plunging boldly into the depths, and carrying his readers with him through discussions that, but for his persuasive eloquence, would have had little charm to ordinary minds.  Goethe and Richter were his heroes: their methods and opinions are of the greatest account with him; and he leaves nothing unexplained of the intellectual foundations on which they builded.  Consequently, in the remarkable papers that Carlyle wrote about them and their books, full report is given of the place held by the Kantean philosophy in their culture.  The article on Novalis, in the "Foreign Review" of 1829, No. 7, presents with a master hand the peculiarities of the new metaphysics that were regenerating the German mind.  Regenerating is not too strong a word for the influence that he ascribes to it.  Thus in 1827 he wrote in the "Edinburgh Review:"
"The critical philosophy has been regarded by persons of approved judgment, and nowise directly implicated in the furthering of it, as distinctly the greatest intellectual achievement of the century in which it came to light.  August Wilhelm Schlegel has stated in plain terms his belief that in respect of its probable influence on the moral culture of Europe, it stands on a line with the Reformation.  We mention Schlegel as a man whose opinion has a known value among ourselves.  But the worth of Kant's philosophy is not to be gathered from votes alone.  The noble system of morality, the purer theology, the lofty views of man's nature derived from it; nay, perhaps the very discussion of such matters, to which it gave so strong an impetus, have told with remarkable and beneficial influence on the whole spiritual character of Germany.  No writer of any importance in that country, be he acquainted or not with the critical philosophy, but breathes a spirit of devoutness and elevation more or less directly drawn from it.  Such men as Goethe and Schiller cannot exist without effect in any literature or any century; but if one circumstance more than another has contributed to forward their endeavors and introduce that higher tone into the literature of Germany, it has been this philosophical system, to which, in wisely believing its results, or even in wisely denying them, all that was lofty and pure in the genius of poetry or the reason of man so readily allied itself."
After quoting from "Meister's Apprenticeship" a noble passage on the spiritual function of art, Carlyle comments thus: "To adopt such sentiments into his sober practical persuasion; in any measure to feel and believe that such was still and must always be, the high vocation of the poet; on this ground of universal humanity, of ancient and now almost forgotten nobleness, to take his stand, even in these trivial, jeering, withered, unbelieving days, and through all their complex, dispiriting, mean, yet tumultuous influences, to make his light shine before men that it might beautify even our rag-gathering age with some beams of that mild divine splendor which had long left us, the very possibility of which was denied; heartily and in earnest to meditate all this was no common proceeding; to bring it into practice, especially in such a life as his has been, was among the highest and hardest enterprises which any man whatever could engage in."
. . . The second volume of the "Dial," July, 1841, opened with a remarkable paper on Goethe, by Margaret Fuller.  The pages of the "Dial" abounded in references to Goethe's ideas and writings.  No author occupied the cultivated New England mind as much as he did.  None of these writers taught formally the doctrines of the transcendental philosophy, but they reflected one or another aspect of it.  They assumed its cardinal principles in historical and literary criticism, in dramatic art, in poetry and romance.  They conveyed its spirit of aspiration after ideal standards of perfection.  They caught from it their judgments on society and religion.  They communicated its aroma, and so imparted the quickening breath of its soul to people who would have started back in alarm from its doctrines.