Caroline’s Review of Johannes Müller’s Letters to Bonstetten

Caroline’s Review of
“Johannes Müller’s Fragments from the Letters of a Young Scholar to His Friend”
Athenäum (1799) 313–16 [*]


If ever an empty, directionless journal might acquire stature through a single excellent contribution, such should certainly have been the case with the Deutsches Magazin [1] when it was privileged to share with the world the “Fragmente aus den Briefen eines jungen Gelehrten an seinen Freund” (in volumes 15, 16, and 17), [2] namely, Johannes Müller’s letters to Bonstetten, which he wrote during the years 1775–78 in Switzerland and in which he opens his entire soul to his adored friend, making him the confidante of everything he wants, admires, and loves.

What a magnificent mind and what serious, grand striving is revealed here! How the young man dedicates himself to becoming precisely what he has since become, namely, the first historiographer of modernity, or rather, the last of antiquity, just as Brutus was the last Roman! [3] Such devotion, such labor, and such abiding focus on the loftiest and noblest goal. He cultivates the entire human being within himself for the practice of his chosen vocation. These letters are remarkable not least because of the beautiful harmony they reveal between what he desired and what he accomplished.

At every point, however, the chain of circumstances resisted him. At the time, he was struggling with privation, dependence, and the problems of asserting himself and gaining recognition; as a man of firmly established renown, he served circumstances that had no need of his extraordinary talents even though the disposition of this Helvetian was indeed able to accommodate itself to them. Posterity, though it may well recognize him in the portrait of an earlier age, will fail to find him in the history of our own age, for the grand manner of perceiving events seems to negotiate the most authoritative validity at grand occasions. In times past, he could not belong to his own fatherland in any dignified fashion: “it is slumbering,” he prophesied, “and its awakening will be fatal”; now he perhaps no longer even has a fatherland. —

The youth worked on behalf of the future, indeed, on behalf of eternity itself, while the want and need of the moment oppressed him; “he was happy only when he was composing,” the rest of his time was occupied with care and worry: and yet he could never bring himself to let up in order that he might perhaps harvest quickly consumed fruit from frivolously scattered seeds. Part of his immortal work was already written, but no bookseller could be found who might have offered compensation sufficient to support him while he continued. [4] Admittedly, twenty years ago things were still being made more difficult for the young writer, while in the meantime the question is still valid whether even today things might not have played out precisely the same for him and his history, since all that commends it is excellence that is neither familiar nor even understood. —

This situation was aggravated by the philistine attitude of petty republican censors, and the comforting counsel of good friends, one of whom rejected the German language, preferring the book be written in French instead, and another (Bonnet, who must have meant a great deal to him in every respect) [5] who found his writing style much too dry and unadorned. It took a truly enormous amount of character for him to avoid forfeiting his talent.

Here one can see the determinative influence his acquaintance with the ancients had on him, and how that acquaintance put the seal of recognition on his kindred nature. It was not only a receptivity of mind that the ancient encountered in him, but also a loving heart. The friendship that breathes in these letters is proof of such, since it is cast entirely in the style of the ancients, just as are his works. Who can doubt that this friendship permeated his entire person, that it was his consolation and, as it were, the nourishment for him who was in such need?

In this as in every other relationship that emerges in these letters, he stands before us with an original and naive charm, and even the least of his utterances, judgments, and desires offer material for the double interest of intellect and feeling. Their greatest appeal and charm is that they are not really there for the eyes of a third person, and yet what a third person does find in them is all the more the very ground of his soul. They are like genuine love letters that accidentally fall into the hands of a stranger. The man may well smile at the ardor of his own youth, but it is only along precisely this path that he does indeed become a man.

Those familiar with Müller’s Swiss history must read these letters in order to understand it better, and those unfamiliar with it must read them in order to develop receptivity for it. What history really is can be illuminated by the sanctity with which Müller deals with it. [6]


[*] Footnotes are those of the present editor. — Portraits: Alfred Hartmann, Gallerie berühmter Schweizer der Neuzeit, vol. 1 (Baden/Aargau 1868), nos. 5 and 33. Back.

[1] Edited by C. U. D. von Eggers (Berlin 1791 [Altona after 1792]). Back.

[2] Johannes Müller, “Fragmente aus den Briefen eines jungen Gelehrten an seinen Freund,” Deutsches Magazin (1798) 15 (January–June 1798) 167–76; 16 (July–December 1798) 537–88; 17 (January–June 1799] 180–218; published subsequently as Briefe eines jungen Gelehrten an seinen Freund, ed. Friederike Brun (Tübingen 1802). Back.

[3] Müller’s presentation in his history of Switzerland (see below; this history extended only up to the fifteenth century) was composed in a consistent style reminiscent of Roman rhetoric. Back.

[4] Geschichten schweizerischer Eidgenossenschaft, 5 vols. (1786–1805). Back.

[5] Charles Bonnet (1720–1793), Swiss scientist and Enlightenment philosopher whom Müller had known in Geneva 1776–80 while working as a private tutor and scholar. Back.

[6] Johannes Müller writes to his brother, Johann Georg Müller, on 14 December 1799 after reading Caroline’s review (Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 6, Lebensgeschichte [Stuttgart 1811] 348; the editors included a reprint of Caroline’s entire review as an addendum to this letter to his brother, ibid., 6:352–54):

Do you have a copy of Schlegel’s Athenaeum? In part 2, page 313, there is a review of my correspondence with Bonstetten; although I do not know the author, he is my most intimate friend; never in a review has anyone said so much that is so true about me, my situation, my character, or deciphered so much that is true about me from one of my writings.

Schelling wrote to Pauline Gotter on 13 November 1811 concerning this essay (Plitt 2:273) that “the male author was — she herself.” Back.

Translation © 2013 Doug Stott