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. more