In Association with

Choose another writer in this calendar:

by name:

by birthday from the calendar.

Credits and feedback

for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Georg (Morris Cohen) Brandes (1842-1927)


Danish critic and scholar, who had great influence on the Scandinavian literature from 1870s through the turn of the century. Brandes formulated at the age of thirty the principles of a new realism and naturalism, condemning hyper-aesthetic writing and fantasy in literature. According to Brandes, literature should be an organ "of the great thoughts of liberty and the progress of humanity." His literary goals were shared my many authors, among them the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen.

"That a literature exists in our time is shown by the fact that it sets up problems for debate. Thus, for instance, George Sand debates the question of marriage, Voltaire, Byron and Feuerbach debate religion, Proud'hon private property, the younger Alexandre Dumas the relationship between the sexes, and Émile Augier the societal relationships. For a literature not to raise any question for debate is the same as for it to set out to lose all significance." (in the Main Currents lectures, 1872-1887)

Georg Brandes was born in Copenhagen of middle-class Jewish parents. He was the eldest son of Herman Cohen Brandes (1816-1904), a wholesaler, and Emilie Bendix (1818-1898). Brandes was born two months prematurely. "I was forever hearing that I was pale and small, pale in particular," Brandes said in his book of memoir, Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth (1905). "Others remarked in joke: "He looks rather green in the face." And so soon as they began talking about me the word "thin" would be uttered."

At home the atmosphere was nonreligious, but when Brandes encountered Kierkegaard's uncompromising Christianity, he went through a serious crisis, which ended about 1863. His parents did not discuss of religious faith, nor did they attend synagogue. Throughout her mother's life, Brandes had a very close relationship with her. Emilie rejected both Christianity and Judaism. "She appeared to me as the superior mind, corrected and raised me through satire," he recalled many years later. ('Georg Brandes: Kierkegaard's Most Influential Mis-Representative' by Julie K. Allen, in Kierkegaard's Influence on Literature, Criticism and Art. Tome II: Denmark, edited by Jon Stewart,  2013, p. 21)

Finding it impossible for him to undertake the leap of faith, Brandes devoted himself entirely to aesthetics. He studied at the University of Copenhagen, receiving his master's degree in aesthetics in 1864, and worked then as a lecturer and drama critic. His early writings Brandes collected in  Æsthetiske Studier (1868) and Kritiker og portraiter (1870).

From early on, Brandes was convinced that criticism is an art rather than a science.  Under the influence of Hippolyte Taine and Sainte-Beuve, he turned away from the Hegelian philosophy. In his doctoral thesis,  Den franske Æsthetik i vore Dage (1870), Brandes examined French aesthetics with a special emphasis on Taine, but did not accept his conception of the genius as a manifestation of Zeitgeist.

Brandes made an impact on Danish and Scandinavian cultural life with the first of his public lectures on Hovedstromninger I Det 19De Aarhundredes Litteratur (1872-87, Main Currents in the 20th Century Literature). The lectures started on November 3, 1871 and were published later in six volumes between 1872 and 1890. Brandes thought that people in Denmark were forty years behind the rest of Europe. He wanted to awaken his country. Writers should reject abstract idealism and work in the service of progressive ideas and the reform of modern society. His lectures became events of agitation, and angered conservative circles. He was denied the chair in aesthetics at the university that had been promised to him – a reaction to his Jewish origin, atheism, and unorthodox thinking.

In 1870-71 Brandes traveled to England, Italy, and France, and was impressed by the Mediterranean climate and Renaissance art. Between the years 1874 and 1877 he published with his brother Edvard Brandes the magazine Det nittende Aarhundrede. Also this enterprise failed, and he left Denmark and lived for five years in Berlin. There he laid the groundwork for the later breakthrough "Brandesianism." During this period he published such monographs as Benjamin Disraëli (1879) and  Ferdinand Lassalle (1881). He also wrote about Esaias Tegnér (1878), a Swedish poet and theologian, and Søren Kierkegaard (1877), who was not recognized during his lifetime as a genius, but whose philosophical views were later adopted by the French existentialist movement.

Brandes became the principal leader of naturalistic movement in Scandinavian literature, befriending with Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Henrik Ibsen, Jonas Lie, Alexander Kielland, and August Strindberg. In a short period, Scandinavian adopted realism and no longer ignored social issues and biological factors. Brandes awanted that authors deal with "problems": gender roles, atheism, marriage, private property, but he also defended ultra-individualism in Aristokratisk Radikalisme. En Afhandling om Friedrich Nietzsche (1889), Nietzsche responded to Brandes' analysis by saying that the "expression 'aristocratic radicalism,' which you employ, is very good. It is, permit me to say, the cleverest thing I have yet read about myself." Brandes' closest follower in Denmark was Jens Peter Jacobsen, whose naturalist Fru Marie Grubbe (1876) depicted a noblewoman who ends up with her erotic choices as the wife of a ferryman and sometime convict.

Main Currents in 19th Century Literature, Brandes's major work in the 1870s, caused sensation, when its first volumes appeared. Brandes argued that the most significant literature in Germany, France, and England from 1789 to 1848, was in debt for the French Revolution. On this basis he criticized such writers as Coleridge, Novalis, and Lamartine, whom he saw representing the conservative order. His belief in the significance of great individuals is especially seen in the final volumes of the Main Currents.

On moving to Berlin, Brandes planned to establish himself as a German writer, but came into the conclusion that he would never feel at home in the German language. Frustrated, he said in a letter to Paul Heyse that "I lose all linguistic refinement in German."

In 1888, in a further series of public lectures in Copenhagen, Brandes "discovered" Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who became a myth even before he died in 1900. In one lecture he described Nietzsche as  "a diviner, a seer, an artist less fascinating by what he does that what he is."  (Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance by Freddie Rokem, 2010, p. 92) The two began a lively correspondence. Brandes said that he would make Nietzsche famous. On his behalf, the philosopher praised Brandes for coining the term "aristocratic radicalism" by which Brandes had characterized his work.

While living in Germany, Brandes adopted Nietzsche's doctrice of the Übermensch  and disavowed democracy. "I love the one who has a free spirit and a free heart," declared Zarathustra. Although Brandes managed to introduce Nietzsche to his countrymen, his Copenhagen lectures were not translated into English, Yiddish and Spanish until interest inon Nietzsche's thought began to spread. ('Modern Denmark: Brandes - Jacobsen - Bang' by Annegret Heitman, in Danish Literature as World Literature, edited by Dan Ringgaard and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, 2017, p. 157)

Like Nietzsche, Brandes considered geniuses as best products of high culture. However, when his study Aristokratisk radikalisme (1889) was criticized for self-sufficient elitism, he somewhat downplayed his hero-worshipping and view that superior human beings have the right to ignore certain moral and democratic principles. ('Georg Brandes: the Telescope of Comparative Literature' by Svend Erik Larsen, in The Routledge Companion to World Literature, edited by Theo D'haen, David Damrosch, Djelal Kadir, 2012, pp. 24-25)

Committed to the Great Man theory of history, Brandes published biographies on such figures as William Shakespeare, J.W. von Goethe, Voltaire, Julius Caesar, and Michelangelo, who all had transcended their own time. His friend, the English literary critic  Edmund Gosse stated that William Shakespeare: A Critical Study (1895) was "the best popular or general portrait of Shakespeare yet given to a Continental audience, certainly, and perhaps even to an English one".  ('Shakespeare and Non-fiction: in Search of the Biography' by Katherine Scheil, in The Shakespearean World, edited by Jill L Levenson and Robert Ormsby, 2017,  p. 310) Among the many admirers of Brandes was also James Joyce, who owned a copy of the study. He quotet from it in his lectures on Hamlet and it provided him material for Stephen Dedalus's Hamlet theory in Ulysses.

"Dersom jeg siger: Menneskehedens Maal er at frembringe store Mennesker ‒ hvad Dybsind er der da i den Indvending: Enten betragter disse store Mennesker sig selv som Formaal ‒ i saa Fald er de ikke store. Eller de gør det ikke ‒ i saa Fald ligger Maalet altsaa ikke i de store Mennesker. Jeg finder intet Dybsind deri.
Dersom jeg siger: Menneskehedens Maal er at frembringe Mennesker som Æschylos, Cæsar, Jesus, Leonardo, Michelangelo,Spinoza, Kopernikus, Newton, Goethe, Beethoven - kan man fornuftigvis ikke spørge: Mener Du Leonardo med eller uden hans Malerier, Goethe med eller uden hans Værker? ‒ Hvor kan maa skrælle Manden for hans Livsgerning, Stjernen for dens Straaler!" (in Tanker om Liv og Kunst, 1902)

In his later years Brandes traveled widely, but Denmark remained his primary place of residence. His biographer Jørgen Knudsen estimated that in 1912 Brandes  gave lectures in forty-two different European cities. University of Copenhagen awarded Brandes after his thirty years work a full professorship. When he visited the United States in 1914, eight thousand schoolgirls performed Danish folk dances for him in New York City's Central Park. Brandes' opposition to World War I and religious skepticism made him still a controversial figure. For decades he refused to support Jewish nationalism and Theodor Herzl's thoughts, but with the Balfour declaration of 1917, which favored the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, Brandes changed his mind. Sagnet om Jesus (1925, Jesus, A Myth) provoked wide protests. Brandes argued that the Jesus story is comparable to the William Tell legend from the Swiss folklore. Although he never existed, he has remained an effective ideal.

During his career, Brandes corresponded with such famous writers and critics as Edmond de Goncourt, Anatole France, Romain Rolland, John Stuart Mill, Paul Heyse, Gerhart Hauptmann, Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke. He never met Maxim Gorky, but in 1921 he was approached by Maria Andreyeva, the commonlaw wife of Gorky, who appealed for help for the suffering Russian people. A thoroughgoing sceptic, Brandes had not been seduced by the promises of the Revolution, but at the same time he denounced the Western nations' armed intervention in Russia.

Brandes died on February 19, 1927. By the time of his death his critical method was outmoded but his biographical works on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and William Shakespeare present deep psychological portraits of these authors. Brandes's ideas about political and scientific freedom surfaced again in the 1960s along with the new radical movements.

For further reading: Georg Brandes by C.G. Elberling (1937); Georg Brandes by B. Nolin (1976); Den politiske Georg Brandes by Hans Hertel (1982), Det ukendte Georg Brandes, ed. by Georg Philipp (1982); A History of Scandinavia Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Georg Brandes by Jørgen Knudsen (8 vols.; 1985-2004); Twentieth Century Literary Criticism (1983); World Authors 1900-1950, ed  Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Georg Brandes og Goethe by Lars Peter Rømhild (1996);  Georg Brandes by Werner Thierry (1998); 'Georg Brandes: the Telescope of Comparative Literature' by Svend Erik Larsen, in The Routledge Companion to World Literature, edited by Theo D'haen, David Damrosch and Djelal Kadir (2012); Icons of Danish Modernity: Georg Brandes and Asta Nielsen by Julie K. Allen (2012); 'Modern Denmark: Brandes - Jacobsen - Bang' by Annegret Heitman, in Danish Literature as World Literature, edited by Dan Ringgaard and Mads Rosendahl Thomsen (2017); Georg Brandes' Representations of Jewishness: Between Grand Recreations of the Past and Transformative Visions of the Future by Søren Blak Hjortshøj (2017) - See also influence: Karl Gjellerup

Selected works:

  • Dualismen i vor nyeste Philosophie, 1866
  • Æsthetiske Studier, 1868
  • Kritiker og Portraiter, 1870
  • Den franske Æsthetik i vore Dage, 1870 [Die französische Ästhetik in unseren Tagen] 
  • Hovedstrømninger i det nittende Aarhundredes Literatur, 1872-1890 (6 vols.) - Main Currents in 19th Century Literature (tr. 1901-1905) - Päävirtauksia 19:nen vuosisadan kirjallisuudessa: syyslukukautena 1871 Köpenhaminan yliopistossa pitämiä luentoja. 1 vihko  (suom. Minna Canth ja Hilda Asp, 1887)
  • Forklaring og Forsvar. En Antikritik, 1872
  • Danske Digtere. Charakterbilleder, 1877 [Danish Poets]
  • Søren Kierkegaard. En kritisk Fremstilling i Grundrids, 1877
  • Ferdinand Lassalle.  Ein literarisches Charakterbild, 1877 - Ferdinand Lassalle  (tr. 1911) - Ferdinand Lassalle  (suomentanut Kalle Kajander, 1909)
  • Esaias Tegnér. En litteratur-psychologisk Studie, 1878
  • Benjamin Disraëli, Jarl af Beaconsfield. En litterær Charakteristik, 1878 - Lord Beaconsfield: A Study by Georg Brandes (translated by Mrs. George Sturge, 1880)
  • Mennesker og Værker i nyere evropæisk Litteratur, 1883
  • Det moderne Gjennembruds Mænd. En Række Portræter, 1883 - Men of the Modern Breakthrough / Eminent Authors of the Nineteenth Century: Literary Portraits (translated by Rasmus B. Anderson, 1886)
  • Ludvig Holberg. Et Festskrift, 1884
  • Berlin som tysk Rigshovedstad, 1885
  • Fire Forelæsninger i Skt. Petersburg og Moskva, 1887
  • Indtryk fra Polen, 1888 - Poland: A Study of the Land, People and Literature (tr. 1903)
  • Indtryk fra Rusland, 1888 - Impressions of Russia (translated by Samuel C. Eastman, 1890)
  • Ivan Turgenev, 1888
  • Aristokratisk radikalisme, 1889 - Friedrich Nietzsche:  An Essay on Aristocratic Radicalism  (translated by A. G. Chater, 1914)
  • Essays, 1889 (2 vols.)
  • Shelley und Lord Byron, 1894
  • Om Nationalfølelse, 1894
  • William Shakespeare, 1895-1896 (3 vols.) - Shakespeare: A Critical Study (tr. 1898)
  • Rahel, Bettina und Charlotte Stieglitz, 1896
  • Heinrich Heine, 1897
  • Henrik Ibsen, 1898 - Henrik Ibsen. Björnstjerne Björnson. Critical Studies (tr. 1899)
  • Julius Lange. Breve fra hans Ungdom, 1898
  • Ungdomsvers, 1898
  • Danskheden i Sønderjylland, 1899
  • Samlede Skrifter, 1899-1910 (18 vols.)
  • Tanker om Liv og Kunst, 1902
  • Anatole France, 1905 (translated into German by Ida Anders)
  • Skikkelser og Tanker, 1905-05
  • Levnet, 1905-08 (1: Barndom og første ungdom; 2: Et Tiiar; 3: Snevringer og Horizonter) - Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth (tr. 1906)
  • Om Læsning, 1908 - On Reading: An Essay (tr. 1906)
  • Før og nu. To tragiske Skæbner, 1911
  • Fugleperspektiv, 1913 
  • Wolfgang Goethe, 1915 (2 vols.) - Wolfgang Goethe (translated by Allen W. Porterfield, 1924)
  • François de Voltaire, 1916-17 (2 vols.) - Voltaire (translation by Otto Kruger and Pierce Butler, 1930)
  • Verdenskrigen, 1916 - The World at War (translated by Catherine D. Groth, 1917)
  • Udvalgte Stykker, 1916 (ed. Georg Christensen)  
  • Napoleon og Garibaldi, 1917
  • Cajus Julius Cæsar, 1918 (2 vols.) - Gaius Julius Cæsar  (tr. 1918) - Cajus Julius Caesar (suom. Jaakko Tuomikoski, 1922)
  • Tragediens anden Del. Fredslutningen, 1919
  • Danmark, 1919
  • Ansigtets gaade, 1919
  • Sønderjylland under prøjsisk Tryk, 1919
  • Taler, 1920
  • Homer, 1921
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1921 (2 vols.)  - Michelangelo: His Life, His Time, His Era (translated and with a foreword by Heinz Norden, 1963)
  • Bogen, 1922
  • Vexelvirkning mellem italiensk og fremmed Aandsliv, 1922
  • Hertuginden af Dino og Fyrsten af Talleyrand, 1923
  • Hellas, 1925 - Hellas: Travels in Greece (translated by Jacob W. Hartmann, 1926)
  • Sagnet om Jesus, 1925 - Jesus, A Myth  (translated by Edwin Björkman, 1926) - Jeesus-taru (suomentanut A. B. Mäkelä, 1929)
  • Petrus, 1926
  • Urkristendom, 1927
  • Liv og Kunst, 1929
  • Store Personligheder. Essays og Erindringer, 1930
  • Kulturbilleder. Studier og Strejfog, 1932
  • Georg Brandes' Breve til Hjemmet 1870-1871, 1938
  • Georg og Edv. Brandes. Brevvexling med nordiske Forfattere og Videnskabsmænd, 1939-1942 (8 vols.)
  • Georg Brandes und Arthur Schnitzler; ein Briefwechsel, 1956
  • Naturalism in Nineteenth Century English Literature, 1957
  • Essays, 1963 (ed. Werner Svendsen)
  • Brandes' romerske sygeleje januar til marts 1871, 1967
  • Den politiske Georg Brandes, 1973 (ed.  Hans Hertel and Sven Møller Kristensen)
  • Breve til Forældrene 1859-71, 1978 (3 vols., ed. Morten Borup)
  • Georg Brandes og Emil Petersen: en brevveksling, 1980  (ed. Morten Borup)
  • Udvalgte Skrifter, 1984 (ed. Sven Møller Kristensen)
  • Selected Letters, 1990 (selected and edited by W. Glyn Jones)
  • Georg Brandes og Dreyfusaffæren, 1994
  • Breve til Forældrene 1872-1904, 1994 (3 vols.; på grundlag af Morten Borups forarbejder udgivet af Torben Nielsen)
  • Georg Brandes - den mangfoldige: en antologi, 1995
  • Georg Brandes - K.E. Franzos: ein Briefwechsel, 2001 (hrsg. und kommentiert von Karin Bang; mit einem Nachwort von Jørgen Knudsen)
  • Georg Brandes in Italia, 2004 (a cura di Maria Giacobbe)
  • Edvard og Georg Brandes' brevveksling 1866-1877, 2016 (edited by Eva Seibæk)
  • Georg Brandes brev till en smuk ung dame: brevväxling mellan Georg Brandes och Gerd Ribbing 1920-1924, 2017 (utgiven av Bengt Gustaf Jonshult) 
  • Anarkismens tid: en brevveksling mellem Peter Kropotkin og Georg Brandes, 2017 (edited by Vagn Lyhne, Lis Norup)
  • Æstetiske studier, 2017

In Association with

Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2018.

Creative Commons License
Authors' Calendar jonka tekijä on Petri Liukkonen on lisensoitu Creative Commons Nimeä-Epäkaupallinen-Ei muutettuja teoksia 1.0 Suomi (Finland) lisenssillä.
May be used for non-commercial purposes. The author must be mentioned. The text may not be altered in any way (e.g. by translation). Click on the logo above for information.