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New Left Review I/133, May-June 1982


Walter Benjamin

Goethe: The Reluctant Bourgeois

When Johann Wolfgang Goethe came into the world on 18 August 1749 in Frankfurt-am-Main, the town contained 30,000 inhabitants. In Berlin, the largest town in Germany at the time, there were 126,000, whereas both Paris and London had already surpassed 500,000. These figures are an important signpost to the political situation in Germany, for throughout the whole of Europe the bourgeois revolution depended on the big cities. On the other hand, it is a significant fact about Goethe that during his entire life he never lost a powerful feeling of antipathy towards living in big towns. He never visited Berlin [1] Benjamin was in error here: Goethe visited Berlin 16–20 May 1778. and in later life he paid only two reluctant visits to his native Frankfurt, passing the larger part of his life in a small princely town with 6,000 inhabitants. The only cities he ever became more familiar with were the Italian centres, Rome and Naples. Goethe was the cultural representative and, initially, the political spokesman of a new bourgeoisie, whose gradual rise can be clearly discerned in his family tree. His male ancestors worked their way up from artisan circles and they married women from educated families or families otherwise higher in the social scale than themselves. On his father’s side his great-grandfather was a farrier, his grandfather was first a tailor and then an innkeeper, while his father Johann Caspar Goethe began as an ordinary lawyer. Within a short time, however, he acquired the title of Imperial Councillor and when he had succeeded in winning the hand of Katharina Elisabeth Textor, the daughter of the Mayor, he definitively established his position among the ruling families of the city.

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