the age of 30, Brandes formulated 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 by many authors, among them the
Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen. Georg
Brandes is widely understood to have inspired the intellectual
leftist movement of the inter-war period known as Cultural Leftism.
was born in Copenhagen in a non-orthodox Jewish middle-class family
and became a student at the University of Copenhagen in 1859 where
he first studied jurisprudence. From this, however, his interests
soon turned to philosophy and aesthetics. In 1862 he won the gold
medal of the university for an essay on The Idea of Nemesis among
the Ancients. Before this, indeed since 1858, he had shown a remarkable
gift for verse-writing, the results of which, however, were not
abundant enough to justify separate publication. Brandes did not
collect his poems until as late as 1898. At the university, which
he left in 1864, Brandes was influenced by the writings of Heiberg
in criticism and Søren Kierkegaard in philosophy, influences
which continued to leave traces on his work.
1866 he took part in the controversy raised by the works of Rasmus
Nielsen in a treatise on "Dualism in our Recent Philosophy."
From 1865 to 1871 he travelled much in Europe, acquainting himself
with the condition of literature in the principal centres of learning.
His first important contribution to letters was his Aesthetic
Studies (1868), where his maturer method is already foreshadowed
in several brief monographs on Danish poets. In 1870 he published
several important volumes, The French Aesthetics of the Present
Day, dealing chiefly with Taine, Criticisms and Portraits, and
a translation of The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill,
whom he had met that year during a visit to England.
now took his place as the leading northern European critic, applying
to local conditions and habits of thought the methods of Taine.
He became docent or reader in Belles Lettres at the university
of Copenhagen, where his lectures were the sensational for the
time. His famous opening lecture November 3rd 1871 is often considered
the gateway of modern Danish literature. On the professorship
of Aesthetics becoming vacant in 1872, it was taken as a matter
of course that Brandes would be appointed. But the young critic
had offended many susceptibilities by his ardent advocacy of modern
ideas; he was known to be a Jew, his convictions were Radical,
he was suspected of being an atheist. The authorities refused
to elect him, but his fitness for the post was so obvious that
the chair of Aesthetics remained vacant, no one else daring to
place himself in comparison with Brandes.
the midst of these polemics the critic began to issue the most
ambitious of his works, Main Currents in the Literature of the
Nineteenth Century, of which four volumes appeared between 1872
and 1875 (English translation, 1901-1905). The brilliant novelty
of this criticism of the literature of major European countries
at the beginning of the 19th century, and his description of the
general revolt against the pseudo-classicism of the 18th century,
at once attracted attention outside Denmark. The tumult which
gathered round the person of the critic increased the success
of the work, and the reputation of Brandes grew apace, especially
in Germany and Russia. Among his later writings must be mentioned
the monographs on Søren Kierkegaard (1877), on Esaias Tegnér
(1878), on Benjamin Disraeli (1878), Ferdinand Lassalle (in German,
1877), Ludvig Holberg (1884), on Henrik Ibsen (1899) and on Anatole
France (1905). Brandes wrote with great depth on the main contemporary
poets and novelists of his own country and of Norway, and he and
his disciples were for a long time the arbiters of literary fame
in the north.
Danish Poets (1877), containing studies of Carsten Hauch, Ludvig
Bødtcher, Christian Winther, and Paludan-Müller, his
Men of the Modern Transition (1883), and his Essays (1889), are
volumes essential to the proper study of modern Scandinavian literature.
He wrote an excellent book on Poland (1888; English translation,
1903), and was one of the editors of the German version of Ibsen.
1877 Brandes left Copenhagen and settled in Berlin, taking a considerable
part in the aesthetic life of that city. His political views,
however, made Prussia uncomfortable for him, and he returned in
1883 to Copenhagen, where he found a whole new school of writers
and thinkers eager to receive him as their leader. The most important
of his recent works has been his study of Shakespeare (1897-1898),
which was translated into English by William Archer, and was highly
acclaimed. It was, perhaps, the most authoritative work on Shakespeare,
not principally intended for an English-speaking audience, which
had been published in any country.
was afterwards engaged on a history of modern Scandinavian literature.
In his critical work, which extends over a wider field than that
of any other living writer, Brandes was aided by a singularly
charming style, lucid and reasonable, enthusiastic without extravagance,
brilliant and coloured without affectation. His influence on the
Scandinavian writers of the 1880s was very great, but a reaction,
headed by Holger Drachmann, against his "realistic"
doctrines, began in 1885. In 1900 he collected his works for the
first time in a complete and popular edition, and began to work
on a German edition, completed in 1902.
1890 the disappointed Brandes partly turned away from the direct
fight, concentrating around "great personalities" who
enlightened the life of their mediocre contemporaries. In this
period, he "detected" Friedrich Nietzsche whom he introduced
to Scandinavian culture. Brandes, in a 1888 letter, wrote to Nietzsche
asking him to read the works of Kierkegaard. He described Nietzsche's
philosophy as "aristocratic radicalism", a description
which delighted Nietzsche, and the idea of "aristocratic
radicalism" influenced most of the later works of Brandes
and resulted in voluminous biographies Wolfgang Goethe (1914-15),
Francois de Voltaire (1916-17), Gaius Julius Cæsar 1918
and Michelangelo (1921). These books must be considered less original
or valid though often written with a dazzling stylistic mastery.
influence of Brandes faded somewhat after 1900 but he was still
considered a leading figure of Danish literary life and his international
reputation was growing. In many ways he became a modern Scandinavian
Voltaire with a great moral authority, condemning the maltreatment
of national minorities, the persecution of Dreyfus etc. During
World War I he condemned the national aggression and imperialism
on both sides and his last years were dedicated to anti-religious
polemic. In this late period he made new connections to intellectuals
like Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland and E. D. Morel.
Brandes still stands as one of the most influential inspirations
of Danish literature, an equal of Holberg and Grundtvig. This
has not prevented him from being criticized. The right wing has
condemned him as an unnational and subversive blasphemer and fornicator.
On the left wing socialists have criticized his elitist attitudes,
while the feminist movement has often regarded his positive attitude
of sexual equality as being inconsequential. Nonetheless his influence
in Danish cultural history is still far-ranging.
brother Edvard Brandes (1847-1931), also a well-known critic,
was the author of a number of plays, and of two psychological
novels: A Politician (1889), and Young Blood (1899). He became
an outstanding political figure of the Radical party.