This introductory chapter provides an overview of the book's main themes. On December 12, 1819, in an auditorium at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu in Estonia), an obscure professor of rhetoric by the name of Karl Morgenstern coined what would become one of the central terms not merely of German, but of world literary study: Bildungsroman. The Bildungsroman, or “novel of formation,” is a kind of novel that focuses on the spiritual and intellectual maturation of its protagonist. Using the contradictory elements of Morgenstern's biography as the starting point, this book presents a cosmopolitan interpretation of the German Bildungsroman. It entails a critical approach that pays particular attention to the ways in which individual novels repeatedly run into difficulties when they attempt to fulfill Morgenstern's dictum and link national experience to the life of their hero. It is argued that the Bildungsroman is a genre connected more than any other to the rise of modern nationalism. But repeatedly and consistently, the knot that ties literature to politics comes undone in precisely those cases where the stakes are the highest. Five German novels are examined over the course of this study: Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795–96), Karl Leberecht Immermann's The Epigones (1836), Gustav Freytag's Debit and Credit (1855), Alfred Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (1947).
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