E. T. A. Hoffmann and Transgressive Romanticism – 5 minutes with Christopher R. Clason

To celebrate the release of E.T.A. Hoffmann: Transgressive Romanticism, Christopher R. Clason discusses the work of the author and the revelations of viewing his work through a ‘transgressive’ lens.

Can you tell us a bit about the life of E.T.A Hoffmann and how it influenced his work?

Hoffmann was born in a somewhat dysfunctional family in January, 1776, and he was raised by an overbearing and controlling uncle and two aunts; he remained completely under their control until he attended the university in Königsberg, at which point he began testing the borders of acceptable behavior, a trait which he retained throughout his life. Although he wished to study music (Hoffmann was widely known both as a highly accomplished musician and as a better-than-average composer), his uncle Wilhelm insisted that he enrol in law school. As a result of these experiences, and of the fact that he was gifted both in intelligence and artistic talent, Ernst developed a strongly antagonistic streak and a fondness for humour and satire. After completing his degree, Hoffmann entered the Prussian bureaucracy and obtained a fine position in the culturally bustling, stimulating Polish city of Posen in 1800; however, because of caricatures in which he brutally satirized several socially elite Posen families and officials, he was punished and “exiled” to the far less interesting and somewhat backwater Polish town of Plock. Despite having had several unconventional love affairs with women who were either already married or of incompatible temperament with him, Hoffmann married a Polish woman, Mischa, who patiently endured his alcohol-inspired antics and pipedreams for the rest of his life. Their only child, an infant daughter, died of cholera. When Napoleon invaded Prussia and replaced most Prussian bureaucrats in Poland with French ones, Hoffmann, now unemployed, left Poland for Berlin, the Prussian capital, to seek work.

Hoffmann’s prospects for his artistic career improved greatly when in 1808 he secured a position as Kapellmeister (composer and music director) of a theatre in the scenic, Baroque-Franconian city of Bamberg. However, after he and Mischa arrived in the town, the management of the theatre changed hands, and because of artistic disagreements, Hoffmann’s role in the theatre was sharply curtailed. In order to survive financially (and to underwrite his seemingly insatiable thirst for strong drink), Hoffmann began to offer private music lessons; almost predictably, in 1810 he fell in love with one of his students, a fifteen-year-old named Julia Marc (at this time Hoffmann was thirty-four and married), and after three years of unrequited, secret worship of the young girl he publicly embarrassed himself in a drunken rage over her, and thus lost not only his student but also his position at the theater. Hoffmann managed to acquire a temporary job at the opera in Dresden but eventually was forced back to Berlin.

Fortuitously, at this time Hoffmann began to discover his talent for creating fiction; enjoying some success with his collection of Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner, he embarked on a new career, and by the time he arrived in Berlin in 1815, he had already become known as a gifted writer of wildly Romantic tales. Furthermore, by this time Napoleon had been defeated and Hoffmann’s career as a lawyer was also reinstated. Quickly, he moved up the ranks to become a magistrate on the Prussian Kammergericht, an important post in the state’s legal apparatus. However, in this post Hoffmann’s excellent work had made him more visible, and when the oppressively conservative powers that controlled Prussia after the Congress of Vienna demanded that Hoffmann take part in a judicial commission dedicated to stamping out progressive political organizations, he found himself in an impossible quandary. His refusal to press on with pointless investigations into these political “criminals” eventually drew the wrath of his superiors. In his fictional writings, which finally include two novels, three major collections of tales, several lengthy stories and Märchen, and a large corpus of music criticism, the political tensions sometimes break through into the stories. In several of his works from his later years, he brutally satirizes the politicians and officials leading the crack-down, while once again caricaturing them and risking reprimand. However, his declining health ultimately saved him from being prosecuted himself. When he died in 1822 from a general paralysis complicated by syphilis and alcoholism, other investigators were just initiating proceedings against him.

Why did you choose to examine the works through the lens of ‘transgression?’

As I described in the short biography above, Hoffmann’s all-too-brief life was marked by “transgression” in three ways: 1) Hoffmann’s career as a lawyer and as a justice on the Prussian Kammergericht placed him in contact with numerous criminals, and since for most of his career he was active as a prosecuting magistrate, he was forced to investigate crimes, perpetrators, and victims; 2) his personal life and actions were often transgressive – he suffered from acute alcoholism and syphilis, his (albeit unrequited) passion for Julia Marc was far from appropriate, and his penchant for lambasting his superiors with satire and caricature was nearly self-destructive; and 3) his characters are often criminal or insane, and they suffer from various psychological aberrations. His writings most commonly explore what Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert (1780-1860) described as “the Nightside of Romanticism” – the dark space betrodden by Doppelgänger and somnambulists, where alchemy and animal magnetism are virtually routine and where antagonists often practice witchcraft or diabolism. As the contributors and I looked more and more closely at Hoffmann’s works, the common thread that drew us all together was the tales’ resistance to any “normal,” middle-class life and the (often unhappy) turn to things sinful or forbidden.

His writings, perhaps more than those of any other German Romantic, portrayed the “dark side” of existence. How is this the case? How does the work of Hoffmann compare to that of his contemporaries?

Hoffmann’s contemporaries, the German Romantics, often explored transgressive actions as well, and one finds some parallel, transgressive situations, for example, in the early tales of Tieck (such as “Blonde Eckbert” or “Rune Mountain”), or in Friedrich Schlegel (e.g., Lucinde).  However, no German author can match Hoffmann in producing fictions that arouse terror and the feeling of uncanniness (as Freud would later point out). One could perhaps make a comparison regarding such aspects of Hoffmann’s writings with tales of terror by Edgar Allan Poe, or to some similar works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, both in American Romanticism writing decades later.

How do you think this book will pave the way for further research into the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann?

Interest in Hoffmann has been increasing over the past several decades. There are numerous translations available of a few of the tales, such as “The Sandman,” but the breadth and depth of his other works are still new discoveries for many who read only English, and for some tales good translations are lacking. Students are still often amazed when they discover that Hoffmann authored the Christmas story of “The Nutcracker,” for example. When it comes to American and British scholarship, there are unfortunately few current and comprehensive studies of Hoffmann’s body of work. Scholars have generally explored somewhat esoteric aspects of parts of his oeuvre, for example, the “Serapiontic Principle” in his stories or aspects of his narrative technique. This study of transgression in Hoffmann focuses on a far more concrete and comprehensible aspect of his works; the essays deal with many of his best-known fictions and attempt to explain qualities that make the tales unique and interesting to most readers, whether they be academics or the general public.

Thus, in this collection of essays, we hope to provide a clear, concrete, and straightforward means of appreciating this fine author. It is our further hope that the essays will stimulate more students of literature to read a broader selection of Hoffmann’s excellent tales and that our work will inspire more inclusive and accessible research on this wonderful author.


Christopher R. Clason is Professor of German at Oakland University. He is co-editor of ‘Romantic Rapports: New Essays on Romanticism Across the Disciplines’ (Camden House, 2017) and ‘Literary and Poetic Representations of Work and Labor in Europe and Asia during the Romantic Era’ (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011).


Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.