Michael Dirda at The Washington Post:
Two centuries ago, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was, with the possible exception of Lord Byron, the most famous writer of his time. His 1774 short novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther ”— about a poetical young man whose unrequited passion for a married woman ends in suicide — had swept across Europe, elevating its youthful author into a cultural celebrity. Napoleon, no less, claimed to have read it seven times. Yet Goethe was even more accomplished as a poet. Just think of his chilling ballad “Der Erlkönig” (The Erl-King), the limpidly beautiful “Heidenröslein,” (Heather Rose) or “Gretchen am Spinnrade”(Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) — all of which provided the texts for some of Schubert’s most beautiful lieder. Not least, Goethe’s verse drama “Faust” — in which a Renaissance magus sells his soul to the devil — stands high among the world’s classics.
Needless to say, all this sounds very impressive, but is Goethe still read outside of an ever-diminishing number of college courses in German literature? I suspect he isn’t, which is why I hoped Rüdiger Safranski’s “Goethe: Life as a Work of Art” might re-introduce this great writer to American readers. Alas, the book, though excellent in its way, won’t do that. Safranski — the author of biographies of Schopenhauerand Nietzsche , and a philosopher himself — focuses on Goethe’s evolution as a thinker and artist at the expense of narrative excitement and anecdote. Given how little of the German’s work most Americans have read, we don’t really need analysis so much as enthusiastic cheerleading.