Getting to Know Goethe

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Occasionally you can actually learn about classic authors at the Modern Language Association (MLA).

Attended by thousands of English professors from around the world, too often the MLA emphasizes the “Modern” part of their acronym in their annual meetings at the expense of the classical. Yet and still, there was at least one exception at this year’s meeting in Austin, Texas.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) may be Germany’s Shakespeare but he is barely known outside of German classes. The MLA attempted to remedy that, in part, by resurrecting one of his signature books, the autobiographical The Sorrows of Young Werther.  The story is told in a series of letters from Werther to his friend Wilhelm.

Werther goes through life and love with minimal success. His life is a struggle between love and profession, adventure and a stable home life, according to Karin Anneliese Wurst of Michigan State University. “He turns down a job as a clerk in court as unworthy of his skills,” Wurst said.

Wurst, a professor at MSU, may be the foremost authority on Goethe in the United States. She is also Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at MSU.

Werther has a “moral failing in himself that he sees and despises in others,” Wurst avers.