Hamann, Johann Georg
Hamann, Johann Georg an eminent German writer and poet, was born at Konigsberg, in Prussia, on the 27th of August, 1730. His early education was miscellaneous, and to it he attributed the want of taste and elegance of his style. At last, when about sixteen years old, his father decided on sending him to the high school. He there acquired a knowledge of Latin and of ancient literature. For a while he felt inclined to study theology, but an impediment in his speech, and want of memory incident upon a sickness he had while at school, made him give it up. Law, for which his parents destined him, was distasteful to him, and he applied himself diligently to the study of antiquity, the fine arts, and modern literature. In 1751 he closed his course of study at Kinigsberg with a philosophical dissertation entitled De somno et somnis, and turned his attention to teaching. After teaching for about eighteen months in Courland he returned to Riga, where he became a friend of John Christopher, son of a rich merchant named Berens, at whose house he met all the celebrities of the day, and for whom, some years afterwards, he made a journey through Hamburg, Bremen, and Amsterdam, going so far as London to transact business. Before he set out on this journey, however, he lost his mother, which event deeply affected him. While in London he consulted a distinguished physician, hoping to have the obstruction in his speech removed; disappointed in that hope, he spent some months in dissipation; and then, deep in debt, and disheartened, he retired to an obscure part of London, procured a Bible, and applied himself diligently to its study. His eyes were opened, and he beheld his past life in its true colors, of which he gives evidence in his Gedanken über izeinen Lebenslauf (Thoughts on my Life). He then returned to Riga, where he resided with his friend Berens until family circumstances led to an estrangement between them, and in 1759 he returned to his parents' house. There he wrote his Sokratische Denkwürdigkeiten, which were severely criticized at their first appearance by the majority of the literati of the day, but which gained him the esteem and respect of such men as Claudius, Herder, and Moser, to which we must afterwards add Lavater, Jacobi, and Goethe. His writings did not suffice for his support, and he had to take other employment, first as copyist, afterwards as clerk in a public office. On the slender income derived from these two sources Hamann married in 1763; but, unfortunately, this marriage cost him many of his friends, and shortly afterwards he lost his situation. In 1754 he took a journey to Switzerland in the hope of meeting his friend Moser, who was to obtain him employment; but, not meeting with him, we next find him again filling a small subaltern position. In 1767, his father having died, he inherited some property; but having at the same time to assume the charge of an infirm brother, his worldly position was not much improved thereby. Shortly afterwards, however, he obtained another situation, and in 1777 was appointed to a good position in the customhouse. From that period date his finest epistolary and miscellaneous writings, among which we find his admirable Golgotha and Scheblimini — "Seat thee at my right." His prospects now brightened; one of his admirers, Francis Buchholz, offered- him a handsome fortune, with $1000 towards the education of each of his four children, on the condition of his adopting him. The well-known princess Galitzin having in 1784 become acquainted with his writings, was brought over by them to a positive Christian belief. In 1787 he came to Minster with his adopted son Buchholz, and became acquainted with the princess; from thence he went to Pempelfort to the philosopher Jacobi, with whom he remained a short time. He intended to return there once more, but was prevented by his death, which occurred on the 20th of June, 1788. He was, by order of the princess Galitzin, interred in her garden, from whence, in 1851, his remains were transferred to the cathedral at Münster.
Among the great men of his country, Hamann is worthy of a place alongside of Copernicus, Kant, Herder, and kindred intellects. Although he cannot be called a classical German writer-his weird, irregular style forbids it-yet can he be classed among the patriarchs of the modern school, the uniting link between the old and the new German literatures. "Hamann is one of those men of whom it is difficult to give an estimate correct and satisfactory in all respects. Our estimation of his character cannot be blended with our general opinion of the age, as may be done with many other men, because he stood rugged and alone, like a rocky island in the midst of the waves of the surrounding ocean. As we cannot wholly praise or blame that age, we shall not admire, much less censure, all in Hamann" (Hagenbach, German Rationalism, tr. by Gage, p. 268). Herder says: "The kernel of Hamann's writings contains many germs of great truths, as well as new observations, and an evidence of remarkable erudition; the shell thereof is a laboriously woven web of pithy expressions, of hints, and flowers of rhetoric." "His understanding," says F. H. Jacobi, "was penetrating like lightning, and his soul was of more than natural greatness." Most of his writings are collected in Roth's edition of his works (Berlin, 1821-43, 8 vols.). See A. W, Muller's work, entitled J. G. Hamann, Christliche Bekenntnisse und Zeugnisse (Münster, 1826). — Herzog, Real-Encyklopadie, 5, 486; Biographie v. Joh. Geo. Hamann, by Charles Carvacchi (Münster, 1855); Hegel, Werke, 7, 38; Vilmar, Geschichte der deutschen Literatur; Gildemeister, Hamann's Leben und Schriften (1864- 6, 4 vols.); Saintes, History of Rationalism, ch. 8.