The Idea of Bildung and the Bildungsroman

  • Thomas L. Jeffers


Having examined Goethe’s treatment of the Bildungsroman, I now want to place it in relation to the German tradition and, my main concern, to the Anglo-American. As I mentioned in my Prologue, the idea of Bildung was conceived by the late-eighteenthcentury Weimar classicists, and in the following century was adopted in England by writers such as Carlyle, Mill, Arnold, and Pater, and in America by Emerson, Thoreau, and other transcendentalists—all romantics or heirs of romanticism—who helped create the climate of concepts and assumptions that novelists in their day and after worked within. Germans, Englishmen, and Americans sustained the idea of Bildung in different ways. Very simply, the Germans tended to focus attention on the individual’s cultivation, while neglecting responsibility for the national culture. The English tried, with marked success, to be attentive toward both: one’s development as an I depended not only on the richness of one’s inner life, but on the affiliations one had with the people—family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers—who constituted and shared one’s social environment. The American note, which I won’t sound till my chapters on James and Santayana, was struck somewhere between the German and the English. Nineteenth-century Americans could be very civically responsible, but material conditions—from the greater privacy afforded people within a still largely rural or small town population, to the cushion provided by widely shared wealth—favored a Germanic sort of profundity about the individual self.


French Revolution Ballet Dancer Moral Economy Ideological Center German Tradition 
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© Thomas L. Jeffers 2005

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  • Thomas L. Jeffers

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