Around the turn of the nineteenth century, a steady stream of young German poets and thinkers coursed to the town of Jena to make history. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had dealt a one-two punch to the dynastic system. Confidence in traditional social, political, and religious norms had been replaced by a profound uncertainty that was as terrifying for some as it was exhilarating for others. Nowhere was the excitement more palpable than among the extraordinary group of poets, philosophers, translators, and socialites who gathered in this Thuringian village of just four thousand residents.
[A] novelistic group biography...admirably translated by Shelley Frisch. It’s an exhilarating account of a remarkable historical moment, in which characters known to many of us as immutable icons are rendered as vital, passionate, fallible being ... Neumann, in drawing his subjects, selects marvelous vivifying details ... In lively, precise, and accessible short chapters, the book conveys both the earnest intensity of those heady days and the entropic forces that swiftly brought them to a close.
A group biography, the book offers scenes and episodes illustrative of a period of extraordinary intellectual ferment. Alongside ideas, it narrates war, romance, university politics, professional rivalries and domestic tragedies ... The book is novelistic and eccentric. Translated from the German by Shelley Frisch, it assumes more background knowledge than anglophone readers will generally possess and is too brief and sporadic to offer a comprehensive intellectual history. Nevertheless, it succeeds at conveying the personalities, the atmosphere, and the exhilaration of Jena’s philosophical and aesthetic revolution ... The success of Jena 1800 relies on its kaleidoscopic narrative style. The doctrines of the Idealists and the effusions of the Romantics are not neatly summarized as if in retrospect. Instead they spill out in real time, amid the personal triumphs and tragedies of their authors ... Mr. Neumann has provided an evocative account of a rich episode in Europe’s cultural history. How relevant readers will find his subjects is another question ... These critiques are highly exaggerated, and certainly Mr. Neumann has no time for them. His book is much warmer toward the Jena free spirits, whom he presents as progressive visionaries. One suspects, however, that they would have found our late liberal world naively empirical in philosophy and unattractively solipsistic in culture. Jena 1800 is, in this respect, the devoted account of a lost cause.
This vivid group biography captures the moment, at the end of the eighteenth century, when Jena, a small university town, suddenly emerged as the 'intellectual and cultural center of Germany' ... Neumann is adept both at conveying the gossip, feuds, and eccentricities of this tight-knit milieu and at grappling with his subjects’ political and philosophical ideas, which were crucial to the development of German Romanticism.