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Kleist Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von
Kleist was born October 18, 1777 into a family of stalwart Prussian soldiers that had little history of, or tolerance with, the intellectual, creative and melancholic temperament characteristic of Heinrich. The only example in Kleist's family was a melancholic former soldier who became poet and, foreshadowing Kleist's own life, later committed suicide. In his youth, Kleist was reportedly a fairly normal child, but experienced tragedy early in his life. His father, Joachim Friedrich von Kleist, died in 1788 and 10 year old Heinrich was sent to Berlin to finish his education. Though his temperament was typically easy going, he harbored a death wish from an early age that led him into a suicide pact with a school young friend (a characteristic gesture of intimacy Kleist would make with several close friends throughout his life). In 1793, Kleist began his own military career with the King's Guard Regiment based at Potsdam and apparently had little trouble adjusting to military life. Unfortunately, with the loss of his mother Juliane the same year, Kleist felt alone in the world. In the military, Kleist met a pair of friends who shared his literary interests and the trio began studying the enlightenment ideas of the age. Kleist first experienced combat while still in his teens when he battled Napoleon's forces at the Rhine. In 1799, Kleist shrugged off his family's expectations and successfully petitioned the Prussian king to leave the army. He immediately embarked on an ill-defined life plan to better himself. He returned home to Frankfurt and spent a year at the university devouring contemporary scientific theory, literature and philosophy that trumpeted the powers of reason. At the same time, Kleist also began giving lessons, in a strict manner, to several high born girls of his acquaintance. In 1800, Heinrich became engaged to one of his students, Wilhelmine von Zenge, by proposing in a letter that accompanied one of her corrected writing assignment. Wilhemine was a normal girl with simple bourgeois aspirations, something the erratic Kleist more or less knew he was incapable of fulfilling. To assuage her family, Kleist left for Berlin to seek employment with the Prussian government. In late summer, he set off on a secret mission to 'secure their happiness;' the nature of the mission or whether he succeeded remains unknown. Kleist's personal belief in reason suffered a devastating blow when he encountered the works of Kant, who contends that man, unable to know the true nature of things even with the power of reason, is left to rely only on appearances in the world. Kleist, his faith and personal worldview shattered, felt a desperate need to reevaluate his life and aims. He also saw that a bureaucratic career would never fit his temperament so, in 1801 Heinrich traveled with his sister Ulrike to Dresden and Paris, hoping to discover some other sort of life. While in Paris, he developed his literary ambitions and told his finance that he could not return to Prussia until he achieved literary fame. He planned to settle in rural Switzerland where he would farm and write, following the Rosseuaean dictum of 'back to nature.’ This turned out to be too much for Wilhemine. She broke the engagement and Heinrich vowed never to marry. Kleist moved to an island in Lake Thun near Bern, Switzerland in 1802 where he began composing his first plays with the encouragement of a small group of young literary friends. Illness forced Kleist to move off the island and return to Bern after three months. Hearing of her brother's illness and dire straits, Ulrike came to Bern and convinced him to return to Prussia. In 1802, Kleist, Ulrike and Ludwig Wieland, a friend in trouble with the city government, set off to visit Ludwig's famous father, the writer Christopher Wieland. Kleist stayed with the elder Wieland while working on Robert Guiskard, an unfinished play that many of contemporaries considered a masterpiece in the making. Kleist left for Leipzig in 1803 after Wieland's daughter developed a crush on Kleist. Heinrich settled in Dresden where he met up with a friend from his military days, Ernst von Pfuel, who encouraged Kleist to try comedy and offered to travel with the author to alleviate the despair and frustration that was consuming Kleist. The pair traveled to Switzerland and then to Paris, where Kleist broke with his friend and suffered a breakdown. In a fit of suicidal despair, he decided to join Napoleon's invasion of England, but eventually returned to Paris where Prussian authorities ordered him back to Berlin. On this way back to the capital, the ill Kleist hid out near Mainz under the care of a physician. Kleist finally returned to Berlin 1804 where he was reprimanded for his attempt to join Napoleon's forces. Happily, his first completed play, The Feud of the Schroffensteins, was published the year before and earned him a place in the lively literary salons of the city. With the help of family and friends, Kleist was offered a civil servant position in finance, but escaped this drudgery by traveling to Konisberg in 1805 to study economics with a prominent economist. It was not long before Kleist neglected his studies to write, telling friends of his determination to earn his living only through his dramatic work. To this end, he traveled to Berlin to be closer to a center of literary activity, but was imprisoned by the French troops who occupied the city because of his previous military career. Heinrich was released from prison in the summer of 1807 and traveled to Dresden where his friend Rühle von Lilienstern lived, only to discover that his second play Amphitryon, an adaptation of a Moliere play based on Greek mythology, had been published to great critical success. Kleist soon garnered the favor of many of Germany's literary lights, including Wieland, Schiller, Tieck, Muller and most importantly, Goethe, who, though not entirely sympathetic to Kleist's view of life, recognized his talent and staged The Broken Jug in Weimar. Kleist's dreams of literary famed and living off his pen alone seemed to be at hand, but the failure of his literary journal Phobus and his play in Weimar crushed his spirit again. Kleist broke with Goethe, blaming him for the failure of the play, and began writing short stories in addition to his work for the stage. After his next play, Penthesilea, and his stories received mixed reviews, Kleist wrote Kate of Heilbronn, a tender love story better suited to Viennese tastes. When Austria went to war with France in 1809 Kleist traveled to Prague and started a patriotic journal Germania. After wandering around Germany for several months, Kleist returned to Berlin in 1810 where he befriended several influential writers and publishers who helped him publish several of his plays and stories over the next few years. Kleist was obstinate, irritable, fame hungry and very ambitious, which led him to hurt, anger or simply confuse those who were most fond of him. His sister Ulrike, who was in many ways as obstinate and independent as her brother, traveled to see him often and financially supported him much of his life. Unfortunately, the Kleist family soon turned her against Heinrich and their resulting estrangement hurt him deeply. Lacking the financial support of his family and unwilling to depend on the production of his plays or publication of his stories for financial stability, Kleist started a daily newspaper, the Berliner Abendblätter, in 1810. The newspaper, which Kleist edited by himself and contributed up to seventy five percent of the stories, printed commentaries, short fiction, epigrams and a variety of odd news stories, and had the benefit of being the only daily in Berlin at the time. Initially, the newspaper was fantastically successful, but Kleist soon made enemies and faced censorship, which led to a change of publishers and, ultimately, the newspaper's demise in 1811. He had alienated many people with mocking epigrams and made no headway with his justifiable claims against government censorship. Another publisher successfully replicated the newspaper without Kleist, who was financially ruined after his own newspaper's failure. Turning back to the theater, Kleist found no one willing to produce his plays. Collections of his short stories were published in 1810 and 1811, but they did little to stabilize his faltering finances. In a last ditch effort to make money, he filed a petition to join the military, but it went unanswered. In utter despair, Heinrich holed up in a room and stayed in bed for days, while continuing to write. Kleist lost even his will to write after a final falling out with Ulrike in September 1811. Kleist finally found a willing partner in his suicide pact, Henriette Vogel, a young married society woman suffering from terminal ovarian cancer. He burned the remainder of his works (including an autobiographical 'novel' The Story of My Soul, which supposedly astonished those few who read it) and set out on his final trip. The couple, after writing their good-byes, checked into a hotel and appeared to be as serene and giddy as couple on honeymoon. On November 21, 1811, Heinrich and Henriette went over a hill and had tea. Kleist then shot his companion in the chest and himself in the mouth. The Kleist family was scandalized, his friends bewildered and saddened. His literary works gained attention and favor throughout Europe, due in part to the scandalous nature of his death. He had at last achieved the fame he so craved. Kleist was rediscovered with the rise of Naturalism in literature in the 1880's and was considered a major figure in German literature by the early 20th century.
Stamps about von Kleist are here.
Berlin, 1961, Henrich von Kleist
DDR, 1953, Henrich von Kleist
DDR, 1977, Henrich von Kleist
German Federal Republic, 1961, Henrich von Kleist
German Federal Republic, 2002, Henrich von Kleist
Rumania, 1961, Henrich von Kleist
DDR, 1977.10.18, Berlin. Henrich von Kleist
German Federal Republic, 2002.10.10, Bonn. Henrich von Kleist
German Federal Republic, 2002, Words of Heinrich von Kleist
Rumania, 1961, Henrich von Kleist
Rumania, 1961, Henrich von Kleist