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Thomas Mann, Epilogue to Buddenbrooks (1905)

Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was one of the most accomplished German authors of the twentieth century. Published in 1905, his breakthrough novel Buddenbrooks followed the decline of a Lübeck merchant family over a period of generations. [The novel’s subtitle, Verfall einer Familie, translates as The Decline of a Family]. Formal innovations such as changing narrative perspective were coupled with a descriptive realism stripped of edifying literary allusions. Mann’s descriptions were so true to life that he was almost called as an expert witness in a libel trial against an author whose portrayal of a local lawyer was too close for comfort.

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Newspaper clippings from various sources have recently been sent to me, and they are all reporting about the same event: namely the defamation suit that the attorney Ritter, in Tondern, brought against the author Dose, in Lübeck, and in the end finally lost – everyone knows what is at stake here.

I do not know the attorney, I do not know the writer, and I have not read his book. But I did see that in the proceedings mention was made several times of my novel “Buddenbrooks,” and of course that caught my attention, all the more so when I noticed that I had come within a hair of being called before the court in this matter as an expert witness.

Well, quite contrary to the expectations of Mr. Dose and his attorney, I would not have been a witness for the defense, – I would have been a witness for the prosecution, at least to the degree that I could by no means have supported the two gentlemen in their assertion that when a writer portrays living persons it happens unconsciously. When I wrote “Buddenbrooks,” I looked with full consciousness at the realities from which I formed my work, adding my own very personal material. Had I been accused of defamation, then I would have spurned as disreputable a defense based on the concept of unconsciousness. I would have said to myself, “The middle-class laws are clearly different from those which I harbor within myself; but I enjoy, like everyone else, their protection, and they also apply to me. And when in my artistic activity I happen to come into conflict with them, then that is a mishap which was probably unavoidable, unfortunately, and I will have to deal with the consequences myself.” This is how I would have addressed myself in this matter and I would have accepted a judgment of censure without any grumbling or griping.

The opportunity was missed to accuse and condemn me. But now, since it was missed, I should be left in peace, and my name should not be dragged before the court after the fact and in relation to a case that has nothing to do with me. Indeed, it is an improper and unjust mode of behavior to insult me in absentia in the open courtroom.

Did this happen? Yes, it did, and for this reason I am writing down these thoughts and plan to publish them in Lübeck. It happened in connection with the plaintiff’s attorney in the Dose case, who spoke in his plea of “Bilse novels,” and as an example of such he mentioned my story “Buddenbrooks” by name.

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