He had set out in his prime with an ambitious spirit and had wrested from fate all the great and magnificent prizes of life. A prince of poets and philosophers, a historian and general, no triumph which he had won had satisfied him. All earthly glory had become to him fortuitous, uncertain and worthless, and he had kept only his iron sense of duty incessantly active. His soul had grown up and out of the dangerous habit of alternating between warm enthusiasm and sober keenness of perception. Once he had idealized with poetic caprice some individuals, and despised the masses that surrounded him. But in the struggles of his life he lost all selfishness, he lost almost everything which was personally dear to him; and at last came to set little value upon the individual, while the need of living for the whole grew stronger and stronger in him. With the most refined selfishness he had desired the greatest things for himself, and unselfishly at last he gave himself for the common good and the happiness of the humble people. He had entered upon life as an idealist, and even the most terrible experiences had not destroyed these ideals but ennobled and purified them. He had sacrificed many men for his State, but no one so completely as himself.
Such a phenomenon appeared unusual and great to his contemporaries; it seems still greater to us who can trace even today in the character of our people, in our political life, and in our art and literature, the influence of his activities.
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By WILLIAM A. COOPER, A.M.
Associate Professor of German, Leland Stanford Jr. University
Theodor Fontane was by both his parents a descendant of French Huguenots. His grandfather Fontane, while teaching the princes of Prussia the art of drawing, won the friendship of Queen Luise, who later appointed him her private secretary. Our poet’s father, Louis Fontane, served his apprenticeship as an apothecary in Berlin. In 1818 the stately Gascon married Emilie Labry, whose ancestors had come from the Cevennes, not far from the region whence the Fontanes had emigrated to Germany. The young couple moved to Neu-Ruppin, where they bought an apothecary’s shop. Here Theodor was born on the thirtieth of December, 1819.
Louis Fontane was irresponsible and fantastic, full of bonhomie, and an engaging story teller. He possessed a “stupendous” fund of anecdotes of Napoleon and his marshals, and told them with such charm that his son acquired an unusual fondness for anecdotes, which he indulges extensively in some of his writings, particularly the autobiographical works and books of travel. The problem of making both ends meet seems to have occupied the father less than the gratification of his “noble passions,” chief among which was card playing. He gambled away so much money that in eight years he was forced to sell his business and move to other parts. He purposely continued the search for a new business as long as possible, but finally bought an apothecary’s shop in Swinemuende.