A concise, fast-paced biography of the German poet, critic, and essayist.
As part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series, Prochnik, whose previous subjects include Stefan Zweig and Gershom Scholem, takes a sympathetic look at the life and work of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). Born in Düsseldorf and having grown up under French rule, Heine developed a devotion to Napoleon that never waned. Under French occupation, Jews were granted civil rights, and Heine’s ambitious mother hoped her son would rise in the French bureaucracy. In 1814, however, when anti-Semitism once again pervaded post-Napoleonic Germany, Heine’s mother revised her goals: Heinrich should become a financier or lawyer, professions in which the young man had no interest. At universities in Bonn, Göttingen, and Berlin, although enrolled in law classes, Heine pursued a literary career, publishing poetry and a series of letters in which he vented his critique of growing German nationalism and narrow-mindedness. Although the letters attracted public attention, they also provoked derision that, Prochnik notes, “exacerbated his sense of persecution.” He was drawn into membership in the short-lived Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews, whose mission was to raise the image of Jews through education. Later, hoping to promote his professional chances, he converted to Protestantism, a futile gesture, he discovered: “Jews saw him as a traitor, while Christians viewed him as corrupting their faith from within.” Prochnik recounts significant connections: to Hegel, “Heine’s first great man of ideas”; Goethe, who gave him an “icy reception” when they met; and Karl Marx, who became a close friend in Paris, where the gregarious Heine also counted among his friends George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, Frederic Chopin, and Gérard Nerval. Heine championed liberalism, justice, and art just as he disparaged nationalistic tribalism and the anti-Jewish sentiment that dogged him throughout his life.
A discerning portrait of the writer and his times.
Pub Date: today
Page Count: 336
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online: Sept. 8, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2020