Portrait of Jean Paul by Heinrich Pfenninger (1798).
Jean Paul, pseudonym of Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (born March 21, 1763, Wunsiedel, Principality of Bayreuth [Germany]—died Nov. 14, 1825, Bayreuth, Bavaria), German novelist and humorist whose works were immensely popular in the first 20 years of the 19th century. His pen name, Jean Paul, reflected his admiration for the French writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Jean Paul’s writing bridged the shift in literature from the formal ideals of Weimar Classicism to the intuitive transcendentalism of early Romanticism.
Jean Paul, the son of a poor teacher and pastor, studied theology at Leipzig but soon gave up his studies for freelance writing. He published two collections of satiric essays in the style of Jonathan Swift, Grönländische Prozesse (1783; The Greenland Lawsuits) and Auswahl aus des Teufels Papieren(1789; “Selection from the Devil’s Papers”), but these were unsuccessful, and he was forced to support himself as a private tutor (1787–90) and schoolmaster (1790–94). About 1790 a personal crisis prompted him to forsake bitter satire for sentimental humour in his writings, and Laurence Sternereplaced Swift as his model. His reputation began with the sentimental novel Die unsichtbare Loge, 2 parts (1793; The Invisible Lodge), and was established by Hesperus (1795). He became a celebrity and was lionized by the critic Johann Herder and by a patron, Frau von Kalb, who brought him to Weimar. In 1801 he married Karoline Mayer and in 1804 settled in Bayreuth, his home for the rest of his life.
The second period in Jean Paul’s work is marked by his attempts to reconcile the comic satirist and the sentimental enthusiast in himself. The novels of this period include Blumen-, Frucht-, und Dornenstücke, 3 vol. (1796; Flower, Fruit and Thorn Pieces), commonly known as Siebenkäs, for its hero; Leben des Quintus Fixlein (1796; “Life of Quintus Fixlein”); Titan, 4 vol. (1800–03), which he considered his classical masterpiece; and the unfinished Flegeljahre, 4 vol. (1804–05; “Adolescence,” Eng. trans. Walt and Vult).
The novels of his third period mirror his disillusionment with both Classicism and Romanticism. But his idyllic novels, always marked by humour, treat his predicament in a comic style. The forced figurative style of his earliest books had become second nature by this time; he thought, talked, and wrote wittily. Dr. Katzenbergers Badereise, 2 vol. (1809; “Dr. Katzenberger’s Journey to the Spa”), and Des Feldpredigers Schmelzle Reise nach Flätz (1809; Army Chaplain Schmelzle’s Journey to Flätz) were the last of his extremely popular novels. In 1808 he received a pension from Prince Karl Theodore von Dalberg, later paid by the Bavarian government, which guaranteed him financial security. He continued to write novels and treatises on education and aesthetics.
Jean Paul’s novels are peculiar combinations of sentiment, irony, and humour expressed in a highly subjective and involuted prose style that is marked by rapid transitions of mood. His books are formless, lacking in action, and studded with whimsical digressions, but to some extent they are redeemed by the author’s profuse imagination and equal capacity for realistic detail and dreamlike fantasy. One favourite theme is the tragicomic clash between the soul’s infinite aspirations and the trivial restrictions of everyday life. Jean Paul greatly influenced his contemporaries by his simple piety, humanity and warmth, his religious attitude toward nature, and his beguiling mixture of sentimentality, fantasy, and humour. After the mid-19th century the unevenness and undisciplined form of his novels began to detract rather than add to his reputation, but the deep humanity of his finest works has preserved them from oblivion.