He is to German what Shakespeare is to English: the master, a writer who transcends mere language to become a cultural and national icon, spoken of with reverence. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is considered the master of the German language. And this is where he was born.
The house feels out of place on a street of more modern construction, and rightly so. As with much of Frankfurt’s altstsdt, the old city, this four story home was almost completely destroyed by allied bombing during World War Two. Only one wall and the bottom four stairs of the massive central staircase survived. And yet, a mere seven years later in 1951, it was fully rebuilt and reopened. That is how important Goethe is to German national identity, and how important his childhood home is to Frankfurt and to the story of the writer.
Johann Wolfgang Goethe was born here, at this house, in an upstairs room, in 1749. (The von in his name was a later addition, the result of his being granted a noble title later in his life in Weimar.) The oldest child of Johann Caspar Goethe – and one of only two of six to survive to adulthood – the young Goethe grew up in relative wealth. It was said that the family had so many linens that laundry needed to only be done a few times a year. He was provided with private tutors, studying languages and literature. He also developed a passion for theatre, said to have come from a puppet theatre he was given as a young child. That puppet theatre would play prominently in his work “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.”
From a young age, Goethe wrote poetry. However, it was his first novel, “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, published in 1774, that led to his commercial success. It also led to the end of his time in Frankfurt, as the now-25 year old Goethe was invited by Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, to join him at his court in Weimar. Goethe would spend the majority of the rest of his life in Weimar, living to the age of 82. (The German Weimar Republic between the two world wars was said to take its name and seat from Goethe’s fame there, showing just how important the author is.)
While most of his works would be published during his time in Weimar, many of them were written right here at his home in Frankfurt. His original high writing desk was his favorite workplace, and I can imagine him standing with pen and paper, putting words down that would become the epic play in two parts, “Faust”.
Faust is probably Goethe’s greatest legacy, although his 1797 poem “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” would inspire the scene of the same name in Disney’s Fantasia. In Faust, which Goethe first penned from 1772-75, though it would change forms many times before being published in 1808 (part two was published in 1832), Goethe tells the story of Mephistopheles attempting to lure a human – Faust – through transcendent knowledge. Faust signs a contract in blood stating that if the devil can provide him with a moment of pure transcendence, that he will serve him in Hell forever. In Part Two, Faust ultimately finds redemption.
The entire two-part story of Faust is incredibly long, and has only been performed in its entirety a couple of times, most notably in 2000 at the Hanover World Expo. It has also been adapted to stage and screen, from Schubert and Liszt symphonies to a Randy Newman musical film. The play is regarded as the most important work of fiction ever produced in German.
While sadly there are no manuscripts on display at the Goethe House, there is still plenty to discover about the author and his life here. The furnishings and artwork are nearly all original, having been removed to a safe shelter during World War Two, thus being spared the fate of the house itself. The staircase is a centerpiece, taking up nearly one third of the area on each floor, with wrought iron railings bearing the Goethe initials.
Back in front of the house, a close look above the door reveals the Goethe family crest and its three lyres, as well as the initials of Goethe’s father.
There is no author who is more beloved in Germany than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Master of the German language, writer of the most iconic work in German, he transcends literature to become a folk hero. And here, in this house, is where his story began. Being here is an experience I will treasure.
Thank you to the Goethe House for sponsoring my admission to both the house and the next door German Romanticism Museum.
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