Reading Goethe used to be considered essential to Western civilization. For at least a century after his death in 1832, Goethe, alone among modern writers, was generally reckoned to be deserving of mention in the same breath as Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare. For a George Eliot or a Ralph Waldo Emerson, Goethe was the supreme high priest, not only of literature but of life itself. For Carlyle, he was “the Hero as Man of Letters.” For Matthew Arnold, he was “the physician of the Iron Age.” For T. S. Eliot, he was simply “the sage.” Thomas Mann wrote not only one novel about Goethe (Lotte in Weimar) but another (Doktor Faustus) as an homage to Goethe’s greatest work.

Nor were they exaggerating. Everything about Goethe was prodigious. He put German literature on the map under the banner of

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