April 20, 2022

Looking Behind the Facade — Thomas Mann in Princeton

By Stuart Mitchner

The way that history has taken has been so filthy, such a carrion-strewn path of lies and baseness, that no one need be ashamed of refusing to travel along it, even if it should lead to goals we might commend if reached by other paths.

   —Thomas Mann, from a letter (1938)

… grave, genial, aloof, a little shy still because of his English, [Mann] was silent most of the time: but his deep feeling in the reading of his paper on democracy impressed everyone: at one point he could hardly keep back his tears.

—Lewis Mumford (1940)

The passages above appear in Stanley Corngold’s The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton (Princeton University Press 2022). The first is from a letter Mann wrote on his September 1938 arrival in Princeton; the second is from an account of his appearance at the City of Man conference in Atlantic City, May 1940. I added this glimpse of Mann writing and speaking to supplement the cover image, shown here, in which he eyes the reader with a look that seems to say “Who are you, why are you here, and what do you want?”

What a contrast is the cover of The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s 2021 novel about Mann and his family — a treat for the eyes, the packaging bold and bright, with Mann nowhere to be seen, unless you count the dark figure in the foreground gazing at a Venetian fantasia, San Marco in a mist. The dust jacket hooks are all about Tóibín, “the bestselling author of The Master and Brooklyn, one of today’s most brilliant and beloved novelists.”

Unfortunately Tóibín ran into problems when attempting to “saturate himself in the dense intellectual world of Mann,” as D.T. Max reports in the September 20, 2021 New Yorker. Tóibín knew that he could “capture Mann’s erotic yearnings and his conflicts with his children; but could he make repartee about abstract ideas come alive on the page?” Apparently not. His editors told him that ideas “stopped the novel in its tracks,” and he agreed.

Einstein and Kafka

More at home in the intellectual world Tóibín necessarily circumvents, Professsor Emeritus Corngold devotes the most substantial part of his book, around 120 pages, to a section titled “Reflections of a Political Man,” in which he summarizes and discusses talks Mann gave during his two-and-a-half year residence in Princeton (1938-41).

And since I’m more at home with Corngold as a Kafka scholar, I paid particular attention to an anecdote in the preface about Mann’s admiration for Kafka, which moved the author of The Magic Mountain to give Albert Einstein a copy of The Castle that was returned “not too many days later” with the comment, “I couldn’t read it for its perversity.”

Although the story of the returned book may be apocryphal, it’s likely that Mann, who “exchanged infrequent visits with Einstein,” had terms like “perversity” in mind when he composed a fine, deeply felt homage to Kafka dated “Princeton June 1940.” For whatever reason — in this instance to correct the notion that Kafka could be cast as “either a romantic, an ecstatic, or a mystic” — Mann contends that the author of The Castle is “too clear-cut, too realistic, too well attached to life and to a simple native effectiveness in living” to be so labeled. “Yes, he was a dreamer,” Mann writes, “and his compositions are often dreamlike in conception and form; they are as oppressive, illogical, and absurd as dreams …. But they are full of a reasoned morality, an ironic, satiric, desperately reasoned morality, struggling with all its might toward justice, goodness, and the will of God.” At the same time, Kafka’s style is “conscientious, curiously explicit, objective, clear and correct.”

Warming to Mann

After reading Mann’s appreciation, which is included with the 1954 Definitive Edition of The Castle, I feel closer to the solemn gentleman on the cover of The Mind in Exile. I can even imagine him smiling as he writes about Kafka’s tendency to laugh out loud while reciting his work to friends: “His listeners laughed through their tears, and Kafka too had to laugh so hard that his reading was interrupted.” Mann adds: “Mirth of that kind is very deep-seated and involved …. But when you consider that laughter of such a sort, with such deep and lofty sources, is probably the best thing that remains to us, then you will be inclined, with me, to place Kafka’s warm-hearted fantasies … in the world’s treasury of literature.”

The Photographer 

The photograph of Thomas Mann used for the cover of The Mind in Exile was taken by Fred Stein, who returned to Princeton to photograph Albert Einstein on the occasion of his 67th birthday, March 14, 1946. Stein had been allotted a mere 10 minutes of the physicist’s time; as it turned out, Stein and Einstein conversed for hours about art, politics, and religion. The physicist was intrigued by the photographer’s personal history: born in Dresden in 1909, a rabbi’s son active in anti-Nazi circles who fled to Paris in 1933 with his new wife under the pretense of taking a honeymoon; Einstein and his wife had settled in Princeton for good in October of the same year. The photograph that resulted is one of the most hallowed images of Princeton’s patron saint.

Although Mann might well have enjoyed the good-looking, 30-something photographer’s company, the result suggests that not much was said beyond hello/thank you/goodbye. In the complete, uncropped photograph, which resides in Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Mann is posed at his desk holding a typed letter the way a wealthy merchant in a Rembrandt or Holbein might hold a proclamation.

Reading with Mann

In “A Typical Evening’s Reading,” Corngold describes Mann’s custom of reading before going to bed: “His days were symmetrical: the morning was invariably devoted to writing one creative page; his evenings were rounded with a read.” According to his diary for October 22, 1940, he read in “Nizer’s book” and “in Mumford’s.”

In Louis Nizer’s Thinking On Your Feet: Adventures in Speaking, where Mann is termed “the greatest living man of letters” and “part of the intellectual treasure that Hitler expelled from Germany,” the passage Corngold thinks would have particularly interested Mann concerns a ceremonial encounter with Einstein at the Manns’ 65 Stockton Street residence. With newsreel cameramen there to film Einstein presenting Mann with a medal for high achievement,” Mrs. Mann observes “that Einstein is wearing no socks. It is bitter cold out. He has come in without a hat. A simple sport coat which buttons high in the neck relieves him of the necessity of wearing a shirt or tie. With motherly solicitude she condemns him for not wearing socks. Without the slightest trace of humor, he replies that he never does, because he has trouble with them when they get holes. His simplicity staves off laughter. We all maintain an acquiescent silence.” 

While it’s not clear which book of Mumford’s Thomas Mann was reading that night, Corngold later quotes from a letter in Works and Days in which Mumford offers “a vivid picture of Mann’s public persona” — “the creator of Joseph, who always … carries with him the indefinable aura of a true German prig, an aura conveyed best by the tone of his voice: just a touch of fussiness and unction.”

Yes Yes Yes

On the rebound from Mumford’s allusions to “fussiness and unction,” I’ve gone back to my ancient, marked-from-stem-to-stern copy of H.T. Lowe-Porter’s translation of The Magic Mountain. What follows is a paragraph about the novel’s hero, “honest Hans Castorp,” beneath which, at age 20,  I wrote in huge crazed letters, Yes Yes Yes

“For then, in the very innermost of his nature,  and in the inmost of that innermost, perhaps there was just himself,  just Hans Castorp, again and a hundred times Hans Castorp, with burning face and stiffening fingers, lying muffled on a balcony,  with a view across the moonlit, frost-nighted high valley, and probing, with an interest both humanistic and medical, into the life of  the body!”

At the time, I assumed that Mann’s translator H.T. Lowe-Porter must be an Englishman with Germanic sensibilities. All these years later, reading over the passage that roused that ecstasy of yesses, I’m aware of a marked contrast with the more straightforward style of Edwin and Willa Muir’s translation of The Castle. I like the “inmost/innermost,” the “hundred times Hans Castrop,” and “the moonlit, frost-nighted high valley.”

Found in Translation

I’ve only just discovered that H.T. stands for Helen Tracy, a native of Towanda, Pa., and that she and her paleontologist husband Elias lived in Princeton and, according to Corngold, belonged to the same circle of friends that the Manns did. Searching further online I find a photo of the translator in her youth looking like the young Isabelle Huppert and in her early forties, surrounded by three children, looking like a woman you’d be curious to know more about — even if it means discovering that she is the present English Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s great grandmother. On that note, I turn to the last words in my copy of The Magic Mountain, from Mann’s account of the making of the novel: “The Grail is a mystery, but humanity is a mystery too. For man himself is a mystery, and all humanity rests upon reverence before the mystery that is man.” Or, if you like, Mann.


The real magician here is Stanley Corngold, who has pulled Weimar in Princeton: Thomas Mann and the Kahler Circle out of his Mind in Exile hat. With the focus on Goethe in Princeton, the book has been released in the Bloomsbury series, New Directions in German Studies.