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Johann Christoph Gottsched Biography

Johann Christoph Gottsched Image

GOTTSCHED, JOHANN CHRISTOPH (1700–66). A noted German critic and author, who for about 15 years exercised an almost undisputed literary dictatorship in Germany. He was born near Königsberg, Feb. 2, 1700, studied theology and especially philosophy at the University of Königsberg, and in 1724 went to Leipzig, where his lectures on polite literature made him speedily known, and where he became professor at the university—first of poetry (1730), then of logic and metaphysics (1734). As editor of the weeklies Die vernünftigen Tadlerinnen (1725–26) and Der Biedermann (1727), modeled after the English, he entered upon his career of untiring critical activity, continued in other literary journals, all tending towards purification of the language and towards conventional forms. In 1726 he was elected senior of the Poetic Society of Leipzig, which he reorganized, and whose influence was considerably extended by him. Directing his criticism at first chiefly against the bombast and absurd affectations of the Second Silesian school, he proceeded to lay down strict laws for the composition of poetry. He was exclusively a man of reason who sought to reduce all rules of rhetoric and poetry to philosophic principles, confining himself, however, strictly to external perception, evidently incapable of fathoming the intrinsic merit of creative genius. Voiced in all his various periodicals and treatises, this tendency was especially apparent in his Versuch einer kritischen Dichtkunst vor die Deutschen (1730 and repeatedly after). Here Horace and Boileau were his models. His main endeavor was directed towards the reformation of the German drama, for which he was bent upon creating a national theatre on the model of the French. Aided by his cultured wife, Luise Adelgunde Viktorie (1713–62), a prolific writer and translator, and with the coöperation of the theatrical manager Neuber and his wife, Caroline, a clever actress, he succeeded indeed in bringing about a considerable improvement in the condition of the German stage by substituting for the prevailing operatic performances translations of French dramas and original plays, and by banishing from it forever the coarse buffooneries of the "Hanswurst" (Jack Pudding). His own tragedy, Der sterbende Cato (1732), fashioned after Addison's and Deschamps's work to serve as a model of what a true tragedy should be, and enthusiastically applauded by Gottsched's faithful followers, is a dreary and stilted production, barren of poetry and dramatic action. Growing ever more vain and dictatorial, and carrying his reforms to pedantic excess, he became involved in a violent controversy with the Swiss critics Bodmer (q.v.) and Breitinger, who advocated the introduction to the German public of the great English writers, especially Milton, and when, in 1748, Gottsched went so far as to belittle the rising genius of Klopstock (q.v.), he drew upon himself ridicule and scathing criticism. The new literary spirit inaugurated by Lessing (q.v.) remained a closed book to him. Long before (1741) he had also fallen out with Caroline Neuber regarding practical stage matters and even placed himself in opposition to his wife. Gradually his influence and authority declined, leaving him embittered and isolated, and thus it came to pass that this worthy man, who in his day had done yeoman service for German literature, became a byword for foolish pedantry years before his death, which occurred at Leipzig, Dec. 12, 1766. But his services to the German language and literature, especially to the drama, are now looked upon with more favor. He left at least one important work, Nötiger Vorrat zur Geschichte der deutschen dramatischen Dichtung (1757–65), a valuable, though incomplete, repertory of information intended to embrace an account of all dramatic productions in Germany from 1450 to 1760. 

The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. X (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920)