Yale Conference and Exhibit Celebrate 250th Birthday of Goethe

An international conference and an exhibit of rare documents are among the events that will take place at Yale this October in celebration of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the “Shakespeare” of the German language.

The Whitney Humanities Center will set the stage for “Goethe and Modern Culture,” a colloquium of scholars from the United States and Europe, while the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library will feature a special exhibit, “Goethe the Scientist.”

Although the 18th- century writer is best known for his literary works–most notably “Faust,” “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” “Wilhelm Meister” and countless poems–he was also a scientist.

“Goethe did scientific experiments throughout his life,” said Christa Sammons, curator of the collection of German literature at the Beinecke Library, who assembled the exhibit. Only a small part of Goethe’s scientific writing was published during his lifetime.

The selection of prints, letters, and illustrated books by Goethe and by many of his contemporaries will be exhibited at the Beinecke from October to December 22, 1999.

“It gives an interesting perspective on the ways Goethe’s scientific thinking was similar to and different from what was going on contemporaneously in Europe,” Sammons says of the exhibition.

Many of the books, illustrations, charts and treatises on display came to Yale through William A. Speck, a passionate collector of anything associated with Goethe. By 1913, the year Speck came to Yale as curator of its growing German collection, he had amassed the largest private Goethe library outside of Germany. By 1928, the year of his death, the Speck Collection had grown threefold.

According to Sammons, the exhibition will highlight his five areas of scientific research:” comparative osteology, the study of bones of different species; botany; optics; geology; and meteorology. Few of Goethe’s theories ever entered into mainstream scientific thought, the one exception being his discovery of the intermaxillary bone of the upper jaw in humans, which, Goethe surmised, demonstrated man’s kinship to other animal species.

Goethe’s scientific theories and observations contributed to his literary work. Names and images inspired by his studies of botany and geology abound throughout Goethe’s plays and poems. The exhibit at the Beinecke affords a glimpse not only into the mind of a towering literary figure but also into the nascent world of scientific discovery that began in the Enlightenment of Europe.

The three-day conference will feature a variety of events, starting with an opening address on Friday, October 8, by internationally acclaimed pianist, author and critic Charles Rosen. His lecture will be given at 5:15 p.m. at Morse Recital Hall, Sprague Memorial Hall, 470 College Street. The talk will be followed by a reception at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library marking the opening of the exhibition “Goethe the Scientist.”

Two colloquia will make up morning and afternoon sessions on Saturday, October 9. These will be opened with an address, “Accelerated Time: A Few Remarks on the Modernity of Goethe,” by Dr. Manfred Osten. Osten is the Secretary General of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which promotes scholarly cooperation between Germany and the United States. The opening talk will be given at 9 a.m. in the Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall Street.

In both colloquia on Saturday, scholars from Yale, the University of Glasgow and Humboldt University of Berlin, among other institutions, will discuss the enduring influence of Goethe on our culture and the meaning of his literary work today.

An ensemble reading of Goethe’s play, “Iphigenia in Tauris,” will be the main event on Saturday evening. This English translation by David Luke, possibly performed for the first time, will be directed by Jean Randich, and will be read by four professional actors. The performance will be repeated on Sunday at 2 p.m.

On Sunday the conference will end with a roundtable discussion, “Current Issues and Further Challenges in the Study of Goethe,” by a group of American Goethe scholars. That discussion will take place on Sunday, 9:30 a.m.P1 p.m.

All events are free and open to the public.

For more information about the Goethe celebration, call 432-0781 or E-mail: german@yale.edu

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Media Contact

Dorie Baker: dorie.baker@yale.edu, 203-432-1345