Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Violence, Identity, Nation

Steven Howe


Camden House



By reconsidering Kleist's reception of Rousseau and placing it in historical context, this book sheds new light on a range of political and ethical issues at play in Kleist's work.
Heinrich von Kleist is renowned as an author who posed a radical challenge to the orthodoxies of his age. Today, his works are frequently seen to relentlessly deconstruct the paradigms of Idealism and to reflect a Romantic, even postmodern, perspective on the ambiguities of the world. Such a view fails, however, to do full justice to the more complex manner in which Kleist articulates the tensions between the securities of Enlightenment thought and the anxieties of the revolutionary age.
Steven Howe offers a new angle on Kleist's dialogue with the Enlightenment by reconsidering his investment in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Where previous critics have trivialized this as intense but fleeting and born of personal identification, Howe here establishes Rousseau's importance as a lasting source of inspiration for the violent constellations of Kleist's fiction. Taking account of both Rousseau's critique of modernity and his later propositions for working toward the Enlightenment promise of emancipation, the book locates a mode of discourse which, placed in the historical context of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, sheds new light on the political and ethical issues at play in Kleist's work.

Steven Howe is Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, UK. He is co-editor, with Ricarda Schmidt and Seán Allan, of Heinrich von Kleist: Konstruktive und Destruktive Funktionen von Gewalt (forthcoming, 2012).


December 2012
248 pages
9x6 in
Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture
ISBN: 9781571135544
Format: Hardback
Library eBook
Camden House
BISAC BIO007000, LIT004170, HIS014000
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Interpreting Kleist's Paradoxes
Kleist, Rousseau, and the Paradoxes of Enlightenment
Das Erdbeben in Chili
Die Verlobung in St. Domingo
Die Herrmannsschlacht
Prinz Friedrich von Homburg


A) fascinating study of Rousseau's seminal influence on Kleist. Although (Kleist's) response to Rousseau and other philosophers has been addressed before . . . no one has treated the subject as thoroughly and with as much aplomb as Howe. . . . (His) contribution is to fill in the literary-historical gaps and to set a standard that will serve as a scholarly reference point for years to come. Highly recommended. CHOICE

Howe's intricately argued and meticulously documented study is an important contribution to reading Kleist in his historical and intellectual element. . . . (Howe's) positions are well considered and weighed carefully against scholarly alternatives, his judgments are nuanced, and the breadth and depth of his reading of Kleist are impressive. An important contribution that will appeal to readers interested in Rousseau and his German reception and the role of ethics and political violence in Kleist. GOETHE YEARBOOK (Joseph D. O'Neill)

(O)ffers a detailed and rewarding assessment of Kleist's engagement with Rousseau's political and ethical theories. . . . (T)his excellent monograph is to be strongly recommended. Not only does it provide a valuable addition to Kleist scholarship, but it will (also) serve as an invaluable reference point for scholars working more generally on German literature and culture around 1800. ORBIS LITTERARUM (Ernest Schonfield)

(Howe) sets out moments in Rousseau . . . that address the different problems raised (in the works of Kleist he examines) and makes his own judicious contribution . . . . The results . . . are all the more valuable for being carefully grounded in evidence and not over-stated. . . . (A)cademically impeccable and grounded in a really impressive grasp of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century political and moral thought. JOURNAL FOR EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES (Michael Minden)

Howe's readings prove an impressive attempt at sharpening the analytical depth and accuracy of Kleist's engagement with Rousseau's philosophy. JOURNAL OF EUROPEAN STUDIES (Sarah Wilewski)

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