18th-century German Romantics: Brilliant, Petty

Jennifer Szalai at the NYT:

The grand title of Andrea Wulf’s new book is wonderfully sneaky — at least that’s how I chose to read it, considering that “Magnificent Rebels” happens to recount plenty of unmagnificent squabbling among a coterie of extremely fallible humans.

Wulf’s exuberant narrative spans a little more than a decade, when a group of poets and intellectuals clustered in the German university town of Jena in the last years of the 18th century and became known as the “Young Romantics.” This “Jena Set” undoubtedly saw themselves as magnificent rebels — gloriously free spirits bent on centering the self, in all of its sublime subjectivity, and throwing off the shackles of a stultifying, mechanistic order. But what gives Wulf’s book its heft and intrigue is how such lofty ideals could run aground on the stubborn persistence of petty rivalry and self-regard.

more here.