Rabindranath’s German Publisher Kurt Wolff (Tagore Centre UK)

In: Rabindranath Tagore: A Timeless Mind. The Tagore Centre UK / Indian Council for Cultural Relations, London / New Delhi 2011, S. 179-189.

Lecture held at the Tagore Centre UK, London 7th May 2011


Rabindranath’s German Publisher Kurt Wolff

Martin Kämpchen


Being a publisher is not a [job] but a passion and obsession.

Kurt Wolff to Boris Pasternak[1]


This line from a letter could well have been the motto of Kurt Wolff’s life. He was one of the most extraordinary personalities of German publishing in the 20th century. Wolff’s career spanned fifty years of publishing experience and brought together within his person the classical ethos of the 19th century as well as the dynamic, feverish search for new areas of experience characteristic of the last century. At the dawn of his career, Wolff was the first publisher to bring out the writing of Franz Kafka; while towards the dusk of his life he discovered and published Günter Grass and printed his Tin Drum. He was one of the personalities who gave shape to cultural life between the two World Wars.


Kurt Wolff’s Life and Work


Kurt Wolff was born on 3 March 1887 in Bonn. Kurt Wolff’s father was a professor of musicology and a musician; his mother, a descendant of an old, traditional Jewish family, died prematurely when Wolff was only seventeen years old. Classical music and classical German literature were very much part of the family tradition. Kurt completed his schooling (Abitur) at Marburg and joined military service for a year at Darmstadt. This is where he made his first literary contacts: he met Friedrich Gundolf who, impressed by the tall, elegant, aristocratically reserved young man, took him to meet Stefan George, a leading German poet. Kurt Wolff began university studies in German literature at Marburg and continued at Leipzig, but he did not obtain a degree.

Nonetheless, he distinguished himself academically when, at the age of twenty-two, he brought out a two-volume edition of the writings of Johann Heinrich Merck, a poet and friend of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the same year (1909), Wolff married Elisabeth Merck, a descendent of Johann Heinrich Merck. Her family owned the well-known pharmaceutical concern bearing their name, a firm which exists to this day. Wolff’s mother-in-law, Clara Merck, a formidable, cultured woman of high society, was to be his mentor and guide for many years.

From his mother’s as well as from his wife’s family, Kurt Wolff was comfortably well off. The young couple lived a status-conscious social life, quite untypical of the bohemian style current in student circles. After all, Kurt Wolff was still a student. At the University he made the acquaintance of Walter Hasenclever, a budding writer, who would be his lifelong adviser and friend. Further, he met Kurt Pinthus, another young writer, and Ernst Rowohlt, who had, with his very limited means, founded a publishing firm, the Ernst Rowohlt Verlag, in 1908. He was able to arouse Wolff’s interest in his venture, and Wolff entered into partnership with Rowohlt in 1910.

Rowohlt was badly in need of Kurt Wolff because the latter contributed a considerable share of the funds needed to run the company. From the beginning Wolff actively participated in the affairs of publishing. The personalities of Rowohlt and Wolff were disparate. Ernst Rowohlt was extrovert, boisterous and given to wild alcoholic bouts with his companions in the wine taverns and beer cellars of Leipzig. In fact, he had a favourite pub where he and his colleagues as well as his authors met daily. By contrast, Kurt Wolff was basically an aesthete; reserved, distinguished and aristocratic in demeanour. This partnership lasted only a little over two years. Rowohlt and Wolff separated in November 1912. For a few months, Wolff continued to run the publishing firm under its old name, but in February 1913, he changed it to Kurt Wolff Verlag. Dedicating himself to his work with characteristic intensity, Wolff expanded his production with an astonishing rapidity. His principal colleagues were Arthur Seiffhart who stayed with Wolff for two decades as his director of production, and his editors (Lektoren) Kurt Pinthus, Walter Hasenclever, Franz Werfel and Willy Haas. Pinthus and Hasenclever had the longest association with Wolff, while Werfel and Haas were with him only in the early stages.

Within less than a year, Kurt Wolff s publishing house employed a staff of fifteen people. He and his editors discovered and first published many of the finest writers of that time, writers who now have a secure place in literary history. Among the best known are Franz Kafka whose mentor, Max Brod, introduced him to Wolff in 1912, Georg Trakl, Georg Heym, Karl Kraus and Heinrich Mann. In 1919, Kurt Wolff moved his rapidly expanding establishment to Munich, taking with him sixty employees. Wolff’s publishing house suffered its first setback with the post-war inflation which began to have an impact from 1921. Gradually, production and sales dwindled and picked up only from 1924 with the revaluation of German currency. A second crisis was caused by the worldwide economic breakdown in 1929, a crisis which Wolff and his company did not survive. Wolff sold off his publishing rights and his stock of books and liquidated his firm in 1930.

Kurt Wolff’s admission of defeat had, however, not merely economic reasons. He had expanded his publishing work at such a frenzied pace that it left him exhausted and drained. He was a spent force. His marriage broke down and was dissolved in 1930. For a decade, he waited and tried to launch a new company. During those years of uncertainty, he travelled restlessly throughout Europe. In March 1933, he left Germany. Shortly afterwards, he remarried and made several abortive attempts to settle down first in Italy, then in Paris. He was arrested and kept in several French internment camps until he succeeded in getting a visa for the USA where he, his wife and newborn child arrived in March 1941.

The Wolff family spent almost twenty years in American exile. By 1942, he was able to establish a new publishing company, Pantheon Books, in New York. During the war years, he began to build bridges between America and Europe by printing classical European literature and popular scholarly works on Europe in English or in bilingual editions. As before, each book was individually crafted and illustrated. He published several German writers living in American exile. His most important success was the English translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

After the war, Kurt Wolff renewed his contacts with the German publishing world, but it was not until 1959 that he handed over his publishing business in America and moved to Switzerland where he established a branch of Pantheon Books. Kurt Wolff and his wife settled down at Locarno from where the couple set out for repeated trips to Germany, France, England and again the USA. In Germany, Kurt Wolff was highly honoured as the grand-seigneur of publishing, and many went to Locarno to meet the charming old man. In fact, he once again and for the last time started a small publishing company. In the years 1961 to 1963 Kurt Wolff also reviewed his life and evaluated his work in a series of radio essays. One of these talks was dedicated to his association with Rabindranath Tagore. Towards the end of 1963, Kurt Wolff died in a tragic car accident near Stuttgart.[2]


The Kurt Wolff Verlag and Rabindranath


Kurt Wolff was in publishing for less than three years, when he began bringing out Rabindranath Tagore’s works. Wolff was a mere 25 years old when he separated from Ernst Rowohlt and established a company under his own name. Only nine months later, in November 1913, Tagore was awarded the Nobel Prize and Wolff, accepting Gitanjali for publication shortly before or after this event, published Tagore’s slim volume of prose poetry in early 1914.

After Kurt Wolff started his own company, he discovered and published almost all the young poets and prose writers who were later known as expressionists. As a consequence, Kurt Wolff later derived his fame from the fact that he was the publisher and mentor of German Expressionism. Wolff himself, however, resisted his name being identified with Expressionism. He insisted that the group of young writers he promoted were too diverse to merit one common term.[3] In the first two years, 1913 and 1914, Wolff brought out prose by Franz Kafkaand Else Lasker-Schüler, poetry by Georg Trakl, Franz Werfel, Max Dauthendey and Walter Hasenclever, essays by Robert Walser and Franz Werfel, as well as plays by Oskar Kokoschka (better known as an expressionist painter). According to Wolfram Göbel’s monograph on the Kurt Wolff Verlag, Wolff produced altogether 41 books in the ten months between March and December 1913.[4] In 1914, Wolff added prose volumes by Karl Kraus and Carl Sternheim, published a play by Walter Hasenclever and two prose volumes by Robert Walser, thus bringing out an additional 29 titles.[5]

The above list reveals the context in which Rabindranath Tagore’s first three volumes of German translation were presented to the public. All these authors, whose works are still mentioned in literary history, represented a general awakening expressed by a group of sensitive young poets and writers before the outbreak of the First World War. They polemicized against the excesses of Western civilization, especially its big cities and industries, and yearned to return to a state of living in unity with nature. At a deeper level, they expressed a metaphysical fear (Angst) evoked by a sense of loss of God and Transcendence. Their poetry often resembled outbursts of despair. Their style was harsh, often brutally realistic, brushing aside sentimentalism and romantic ideas.

Rabindranath Tagore’s lyrical prose did not quite fit in with this awakening. The yearning for a harmonious life closer to nature and union with God certainly found resonance with the young generation, but Tagore’s style as well as his certainty of Transcendence and celebration of the Divine were at odds with the general intellectual climate. Yet, in this early critical stage of establishing his company, Kurt Wolff was grateful for the publicity which the success of Tagore’s books gave to his publishing house. Tagore helped to establish the Kurt Wolff Verlag in the public mind. And more so, it helped Kurt Wolff to attract other good and commercially successful authors. In an essay Wolff wrote towards the end of his life, he mentioned Gustav Meyrink, Heinrich Mann and Rabindranath Tagore as those who had a beneficial effect on his nascent publishing company.[6]

It is, however, a mistake to assume that Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali was welcomed with open arms by the German press. The initial reaction after the Nobel Prize was announced was surprise and bewilderment. Per Hallstrøm, a member of the Swedish Academy, issued a statement on Rabindranath Tagore which consisted of a life-sketch heavily laced with myth and legend. This statement was quoted by a number of German newspapers. The rest was surmise and fantasy. When Gitanjali was published in early 1914, the reaction was also mixed. Reverential praise alternated with sarcasm or pithy criticism. On the whole, a lack of accurate information persisted, and reviewers were insecure about the standards by which to judge the poet.

Until the mid-1920s, every book that Tagore’s British publisher, Macmillan, brought out, was published immediately in German translation. In 1914, three volumes came out, viz. apart from Gitanjali also Der Gärtner (The Gardener) and Chitra. In 1915, it was Der zunehmende Mond (The Crescent Moon).

Tagore’s books were coupled with those of Franz Werfel to form a series. Georg Heinrich Meyer who had designed it, hoped that Tagore’s selling power would rub off on Werfel and others. During the war years, Meyer advertised Tagore and Werfel together projecting their humanity and pacifism. The image he created of Tagore, however, still lacked the messianic aura which he was to receive during his visit to Germany in 1921. Before Christmas 1915, Meyer mushily idealized Tagore as the ‘poet of peace in the noblest sense of the word’. With the wording of his advertisement for the new Tagore tide, The Crescent Moon, a collection of poems around the parents-child relationship, Meyer evoked (appropriately for Christmas) a veneration for Mary, the mother of Jesus.[7]

During the war years of 1916 and 1917, no new books of Tagore appeared. But 1918 saw four new Tagore books being published by Wolff, 1919 three, 1920 three, and in 1921 no less than seven new books appeared and in addition to the eight-volume Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works) which also contain two newly translated texts.[8] This coincided with Tagore’s first visit to Germany which was the climax of the Indian poet’s popularity in that country.

However, around the same time, in August 1921,[9] inflation started to set in, and it culminated in a catastrophe. Until the beginning of 1923, books continued to be bought in sufficient numbers. In fact, Georg Heinrich Meyer wrote that: ‘never before have books been purchased in such large numbers,’ but instead of being read, they were used as capital investment.[10] In this way, the sales of Rabindranath Tagore’s books helped keep the Kurt Wolff Verlag afloat during the inflation years.[11] Kurt Wolff’s own estimate was that the Kurt Wolff Verlag had sold ‘more than one million’ copies of Tagore s books ‘by the end of 1923.’[12]

At the height of inflation, though, in 1923, Wolff published hardly any new books because of the astronomical cost of paper, printing and binding. Tagore’s royalties which Wolff had paid into a German bank, depreciated to the extent of becoming valueless. On 17th October 1923, the Kurt Wolff Verlag lamented to Tagore: ‘Meanwhile as the consequence of political and economical breakdown we witnessed an inflation of the German standard so heavy that the German Mark was rendered next to worthless. As a matter of course this financial catastrophe is of the most disastrous consequence also for the German publishing firms.’[13]

With the consolidation of the economy and the revaluation of the Mark in 1924, Wolff and his associates realized with amazement that all of a sudden Tagore was no longer a favourite with the German public. The firm failed to sell off a huge stock of Tagore books.[14] In retrospect, Wolff and Seiffhart interpreted this as a major shift of interest and literary taste – away from mystical poetry, away from ‘the East’ and towards more sober writing with a pragmatic relation to reality and towards constructive Western values.[15] This coincided with a political re-orientation in Germany. The country made an attempt to overcome its spiritual and cultural crisis, which was inflicted on a people humiliated by a lost war.

In 1923, two more new books, and in 1925, one final volume, Tagore’s masterly novel Gora, saw the light of day. No new publication was presented for Tagore’s second and third visits to Germany in 1926 and 1930. In fact, as early as in 1923/1924 Helene Meyer-Franck complained that two volumes (the translation of Glimpses of Bengal and Creative Unity) which she had already finished translating, were left unpublished.[16] Kurt Wolff did however, as was his wont, print several different editions of each book – cheap and luxury editions, in large and small format, for collectors and for the general reader – to suit every taste and pocket.

In December 1929, Macmillan inquired with Kurt Wolff Verlag about the situation concerning its Tagore books. The polite reply was that due to the economic ‘depression’ it was ‘safer […] to restrain the publication of fiction.’ This was probably meant to convey to Macmillan that no new books would be taken up for publication, nor old ones reprinted. The publisher confirmed that excepting one book, all others were ‘still available’.[17]

When Rabindranath Tagore visited Germany a third time in 1930, the Kurt Wolff Verlag was in the process of dissolution. No new translations or editions of Tagore’s works are known to have been published by the legal heirs until after the Second World War.


The Publisher and His Author: Dissimilar Temperaments


Kurt Wolff was steeped in the German cultural tradition of the well-to-do middle class (Großbürgertum) by his upbringing, his studies, his marriage and his inclinations. As an aesthetically sensitive person, he appreciated art and classical music. Living in style, he savoured the finer things of life; though one wonders whether the haste and intensity with which he worked did not deny to him a full appreciation and enjoyment of literature and the arts. Leisure and contemplation were not for him. The style of his letters, which rarely deviate from their business focus, did not allow him the time for a personal remark. These are all witnesses to Wolff’s driven nature.

The brand of spirituality which Rabindranath Tagore embodied and continuously propagated must have appeared mysteriously strange and inaccessible to Kurt Wolff. After Tagore, he did not publish any other book of Indian spiritual writing except for the Sermons of the Buddha. Wolff had no taste for what must have appeared to him an airy transcendentalism and a pompous and exotic demeanour. Generally, Wolff wished things to be clear-cut and pragmatic.

Wolff obviously did not rate Tagore very highly. This comes through in almost all pronouncements Wolff made or which are attributed to him. For example, remembering when the Gitanjali manuscript was first rejected and then accepted by his publishing house after the Nobel Prize was declared,[18] Wolff spoke his mind unequivocally: ‘A few pages were read, and the editor who had turned it down, was applauded. It was indeed a rather weak affair.’[19] In later life, Kurt Wolff became uncharacteristically direct once again, when he confessed in a letter to Boris Pasternak, another Nobel laureate author he published: ‘At the beginning of my work as publisher, an author of the Kurt Wolff publishing house received the Nobel Prize. Above all, at the time, it pleased me from a selfish point of view, as a great boost for a young publishing business. I certainly did not begrudge the dear old Indian ascetic his Prize, but it was not of much significance: one could as well have chosen another author.’[20]

In his radio essay of 1962, Kurt Wolff spoke in a more ‘official’ tone and in a guarded manner about Tagore. Even here, one has reason to question whether Wolff was quite comfortable with admitting to Tagore’s literary qualities. With some embarrassment he rose to the defence of Tagore. Wolff listed all the European and American men of letters who recognized ‘the Indian’s great poetic genius’,[21] as if to disprove those German intellectuals who ‘denigrated his work’[22] at a time when his popularity and the sale of his books increased. Wolff bemoaned the fact that there was ‘a long-standing tendency among German intellectuals to look down on authors who were very successful’.[23]

Finally, Kurt Wolff took refuge in Tagore’s personality. It was not the poet and writer Wolff appreciated in Tagore, but it was his charismatic personality. Wolff was so deeply impressed by the person when they met in 1921, that he concluded that inevitably Tagore’s works could not be inferior: ‘Once I became convinced that the creator was utterly pure and genuine, I could not possibly doubt that his creations were the same.’[24]Wolff backed out immediately, half-withdrawing his appreciation: ‘Naturally my recollections here are those of a publisher; I would not presume to express an opinion as a critic or literary historian.’[25]

Kurt Wolff maintained a correspondence with Rabindranath Tagore and his son Rathindranath.[26] Only three letters exist of the early phase of their relationship (1914),[27] as all business aspects of publishing Tagore in German were discussed with the English publisher Macmillan.[28] The remaining letters were written before and after Tagore’s first visit to Germany in mid-1921. The correspondence is business-like in tone and content from both sides. Questions of copyright and accounts, of translation, publishing new books and their sale were discussed. It contains numerous financial balance sheets.

In 1921, the correspondence revolved around Tagore’s visit to Germany. Rabindranath and his son desired to purchase or receive as gifts a rather large number of German books for the budding Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan. They requested Kurt Wolff and Heinrich Meyer-Benfey (the husband of Rabindranath’s German translator, Helene Meyer-Franck) to make suitable arrangements. On several occasions Kurt Wolff reminded the poet and his son that his company held the exclusive rights to Tagore’s books in the German language. Thus, attempts by German-speaking Bengalis to translate the poet directly from the original, and attempts to bring out editions by other German publishing houses, were foiled. Helene Meyer-Franck, especially, was a victim of this policy. The haste with which Wolff pursued his enterprise of publishing Tagore was much in evidence throughout.

In 1921, Kurt Wolff brought out a collection of stray thoughts which Tagore had written or compiled especially for a German edition, Flüstern der Seele (later published in English under the title Thought Relics). The correspondence mentions a number of times that the royalties of this book were to be made over to the Deutsche Kinderhilfe (Help the Children Fund) in Berlin and Vienna. This was the poet’s contribution to ameliorate the suffering of children in war-ravaged Germany and Austria.

There were two persons who, so to speak, ‘stage-managed’ Rabindranath Tagore’s tour through Germany in May/June 1921. They were the Baltic philosopher Count Hermann Keyserling, then based in Darmstadt, and Kurt Wolff. Both had a ‘business interest’ in winning over Tagore’s visible loyalty and vocal presence. Keyserling organized the ‘Tagore Week’ to which people flocked from far and near. This established Keyserling’s recently founded School of Wisdom in the public mind. Keyserling wanted to keep Tagore’s entire German tour within his grasp, but Tagore, feeling oppressed, refused. Kurt Wolff obviously saw Tagore’s presence in Germany as an excellent way of promoting the sale of his books. So he offered to ‘work out a favourable schedule of lectures’[29] throughout Germany. While in Munich (5th to 8th June), Tagore was in the care of his publisher who also saw to it that Thomas Mann[30] and Stefan Zweig[31] met Tagore.


Rabindranath’s Meetings with Kurt Wolff


On 5 June, arriving from Berlin, Rabindranath Tagore and his companions were received by Kurt Wolff in Munich. They had lunch with him and were taken on a drive through the city in the afternoon. This was followed by a dinner with Wolff.[32] 6 June was also dedicated to sightseeing and social visits. On 7 June, Rathindranath noted in his diary: ‘Business talk at office of Kurt Wolff. Lunch with him […] Father’s lecture ‘Message of Forest’ at University 8 p.m.’ On 8 June, he noted: ‘Readings at K. Wolff’s. Select audience.’[33] Tagore lectured at Kurt Wolff’s palatial publishing house in front of a distinguished gathering which included Thomas Mann. While being his host, Kurt Wolff had an opportunity to observe this exotic author at close quarters. He praised the ‘great dignity’ of the poet and his ‘most impressive figure’. He related that his daughter thought that ‘God was paying us a visit’. Wolff felt that Tagore’s ‘way of moving and speaking was simple and direct’, that ‘the conversation was natural and relaxed, but not trivial’. Similar impressions can be found in almost every article or memoir describing encounters with Tagore. Wolff remarked that: ‘what interested him [Tagore] most was Germany’, that is, the fate of a nation which had lost a major war, and which as a consequence was impoverished and demoralized.

Wolff then proceeded to relate an unusual episode in great detail. In the afternoon Tagore wanted to take rest. He refused the offer of a bedroom or a chaise longue. Instead, he preferred to remain in the dining-room, but alone. Everyone withdrew. After some time, though, Wolff returned on tiptoe to fetch a notebook he needed urgently. He continues:


I saw – although I could not believe what I was seeing – that Tagore had remained in the same position in which he had conversed for hours, with his large, beautiful eyes wide open. I saw him, but he did not see me, even though I was less than ten yards away. I gazed at him for a long time and grasped the fact that his open eyes were seeing nothing […] I realized that he was resting by withdrawing […] from his outer existence into an inner one. I could not grasp what I was seeing and made no attempt to find a rational explanation for it; I knew only that I was experiencing a marvel and that this sublime man from the East had an existence on two levels […] Here was a man […] who could draw energy from mysterious sources inaccessible to Westerners.[34]


This significant episode left a deep impression on Kurt Wolff. Quite obviously, he did not understand experiences of a psychic or spiritual nature. As a result, he fully attributed Tagore’s trance-like state to the Mysterious East. It left Wolff ‘convinced that this man was completely and utterly uncorrupted and genuine’,[35] and his facile conclusion was (as we have seen) that Tagore must be a great poet.

Tagore left the same evening (8 June) for Frankfurt and Darmstadt where Hermann Keyserling was arranging the ‘Tagore Week’. Wolff apparently followed Tagore to Darmstadt and was a witness of the ‘Tagore Week’.[36]

Rathindranath records yet another meeting between poet and publisher, namely on 15 June. Rabindranath had taken the night train from Darmstadt to Munich on 14 June. He and his companions spent a few hours there with Kurt Wolff and lunched with him before proceeding to Vienna.[37]


When Tagore returned to Germany in 1926, the ‘Tagore-Rummel’ (Tagore mania) had subsided. Before entering Germany, however, Kurt Wolff briefly met Tagore in Zürich.[38] From there, Tagore proceeded to Vienna where he gave a lecture organized by Wolff.[39] He travelled on to Paris via Munich where he spent a night. Since Wolff was abroad on that day, the poet was received by a frightened Arthur Seiffhart, the company’s director of production, who with his scant knowledge of English had to explain why the sales of Tagore’s books had dramatically slumped.[40] Finally, after staying in France, England and Scandinavia, Tagore returned to Munich and stayed in Kurt Wolff’s care (15 to 18 September). On 16 and 17 September the programme included lunch at Wolff’s residence, a gathering of intellectuals and an excursion to the lakes outside Munich.[41]

They never met again. Wolff was already out of business when Tagore visited Germany in 1930. This was the end of a relationship between a publisher and his author which from the beginning was symbiotic – centred around the business of getting books published. Not one private remark is known by Rabindranath or his son Rathindranath about Kurt Wolff as a person.

Rabindranath was, as we know, characteristically ‘difficult’ with his British publisher; he easily suspected that not enough was done to promote his books or that royalties due to him were withheld. The reason was a lack of understanding of the business practices in Western countries, particularly the commercialization of book publishing which, compared to India, was and is more pronounced there. As for his German publisher, Rabindranath and his son demonstrated a firm interest in profiting as much as they could from the success Rabindranath’s German translations enjoyed. After all, it was in Germany where Tagore, as an author, was most successful in Europe. Yet Germany was too far removed and communication too difficult for the Tagores to intervene very much.

When this relationship had long faded into memory, two decades after Tagore’s death and towards the end of Wolff’s life, his publisher did reflect on Tagore’s possible significance for Germany’s cultural and spiritual life. This happened in the radio essay from which I have already quoted several times. Wolff’s rather commonplace explanation for Tagore’s popularity was: ‘Eastern themes are something of a tradition in German literature.’[42] Wolff proceeded to place Tagore in the tradition of the German orientalist preoccupation with India. He mentioned the ‘breakdown of the ideas and ideals of Western civilization’[43] after the First World War which lured the German bourgeoisie to seek ‘the light’ from the East.

In his final paragraph, Kurt Wolff waxed eloquent evoking archetypal orientalist feelings:


The reading material available to still this hunger for Eastern philosophy and poetry was all from the distant past until, in the years just after the war, a contemporary figure suddenly emerged: a poet, a cosmopolitan, a religious man who nonetheless sought no converts, a moral authority who did not moralize. He came bringing poems and verses which offered themselves freely, demanding nothing in return; possessed of a new innocence, they remained outside the sphere of ideology, vessels of human wisdom that introduced a fresh breath of Eastern beauty. As people read, they felt in the presence of something magical and beyond reason. Touched by waves of a secret, mysterious force, they could sense that the author of these poems was of that so rare phenomenon, a case in which creator and creation are one, parts of a single whole. There is something miraculous about this, which gives the figure of the poet an almost messianic significance.[44]


Here we have a thick mix of orientalist clichés which sound even more unconvincing when coming from Kurt Wolff’s pen. More adequate, because altogether practical and backed up by experience, is his statement immediately following the above extensive quotation: ‘Certainly one factor which contributed to Tagore’s success in Germany was the relative ease with which his works could be translated […]’[45]

This is the origin of the Tagore success created by Kurt Wolff. We remember that precisely this factor clinched for Wolff the issue of whether to accept Gitanjali for publication: ‘Everyone agreed that there would be no translation problems, since the poems involved neither rhymes nor complicated meters.’[46]



Notes and References


The archival material has been mainly culled from the Rabindra-Bhavan archives (Santiniketan/India), the Deutsche Literaturarchiv (Marbach/ Germany), the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University Library (New Haven/USA) and the Library of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Stuttgart/Germany). I am grateful to Wolfram Göbel, the author of a comprehensive monograph on the Kurt Wolff Verlag, for his assistance. – The content of this essay is based on my larger study Rabindranath Tagore in Germany: Four Responses to a Cultural Icon. Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla 1999.


[1] Kurt Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers 1911 -1963, ed. by Bernhard Zeller and Ellen Otten (Frankfurt: Verlag Heinrich Scheffler, 1966), p. ix. (Originally in English.)

[2] This life sketch is based on the following material: Wolfram Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930 (Frankfurt: Buchhändler-Vereinigung, 1977), Bernhard Zeller’s foreword to: Kurt Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers 1911-1963, pp. vii-lvi. – Karl H. Salzmann, ‘Kurt Wolff, der Verleger’, Börsenblatt für den deutschen Buchhandel 14 (22nd December 1958), pp. 1729-1749.

[3] Kurt Wolff, ‘Vom Verlegen im allgemeinen und von der Frage: wie kommen Verleger und Autoren zusammen’, in Expressionismus. Aufzeichnungen und Erinnerungen der Zeitgenossen, ed. by Paul Raabe (Olten/Freiburg im Brsg.: Walter Verlag, 1965), p.292.

[4] Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930. columns 1316-1321.

[5] Göbel, columns 1321-1324.

[6] Kurt Wolff, ‘Vom Verlegen im allgemeinen und von der Frage: wie kommen Verleger und Autoren zusammen’, in Expressionismus. Aufzeichnungen und Erinnerungen der Zeitgenossen, ed. by Paul Raabe (Olten/Freiburg im Brsg. Walter Verlag, 1965), p.288.

[7] Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930, columns 713 and 724.

[8] Martin Kämpchen, Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Bibliography, (Santiniketan, Rabindra-Bhavana, Visva-Bharati, 1997), nos. 15 to 23.

[9] Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930, column 853.

[10] Quoted in: Göbel, column 858. (Letter dated 9th October1922).

[11] Göbel, column 860.

[12] Göbel, column 640; also the German radio-essay on Tagore which has been printed only in English translation: Kurt Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, in Kurt Wolff. A Portrait in Essays & Letters, ed. by Michael Ermarth, trans. by Deborah Lucas Schneider (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. l18. (Due to a printing error, the published English text says ‘1913’ instead, obviously, 1923.)

[13] Letter by Kurt Wolff Verlag to Rabindranath Tagore dated 17th October 1923, signed by Arthur Seiffhart and a second person whose signature is illegible. (Rabindra-Bhavan archives). (The spelling is left uncorrected.)

[14] Göbel, Der Kurt Wolff Verlag 1913-1930, column 862.

[15] Göbel, quoting from a letter by Kurt Wolff to Franz Werfel dated 23th June 1930; Arthur Seiffhart, Inter Folia Fructus. Aus den Erinnerungen eines Verlegers (Berlin: Fundament Verlag, [1948]), p. 42.

[16] Letter by Helene Meyer-Franck to Rabindranath Tagore dated 13th Oct. [1923?] (Rabindra-Bhavan archives)

[17] Letter by Kurt Wolff Verlag to Messrs. Macmillan dated 14th December 1929 (Rabindra-Bhavan archives)

[18] Martin Kämpchen, ‘Tagore’s Reception in Germany, The Story of a Rise from Rejection to World Literature Status’, Rabindranath Tagore: Reclaiming a Cultural Icon, ed. by Kathleen M. O’Connell and Joseph T. O’Connell (Visva-Bharati, Kolkata, 2009), p. 259-279 (especially pp. 259-268).

[19] Caliban [ = Willy Haas] ‘Lesehilfen für notorisch faule Leser’, Die Welt, 27th December 1971.

[20] Wolff, Briefwechsel eines Verlegers. p. 479. The letter is dated 25th October 1958 from New York City.

[21] Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, p. 124.

[22] Wolff, p. 124.

[23] Wolff, p. 123.

[24] Wolff, p. 126.

[25] Wolff, p. 126.

[26] Preserved at the Rabindra-Bhavan archives of Visva-Bharati (Santiniketan) and at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University Library (New Haven, USA).

[27] Letter by Rabindranath Tagore to Kurt Wolff dated 21st April 1914; reply by Kurt Wolff to Rabindranath Tagore dated 14th May 1914; reply by Rabindranath Tagore to Kurt Wolff dated 8th June 1914 (Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library).

[28] Letter by Kurt Wolff to Rabindranath Tagore dated 30th April 1921 (Rabindra-Bhavan archives).

[29] Letter by Kurt Wolff.

[30] Martin Kämpchen, Rabindranath Tagore and Germany: A Documentation (Calcutta: Max Mueller Bhavan, 1991), pp. 35f.

[31] Kämpchen, pp. 47-49. (Zweig met Tagore in the railway station of Salzburg.)

[32] Rathindranath Tagore’s unpublished diary (Rabindra-Bhavan archives).

[33] Rathindranath Tagore’s unpublished diary.

[34] Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, p. 120.

[35] Wolff, p. 120.

[36] Wolff, pp. 9f. (Here, Wolff relates his impressions of the ‘Tagore Week’ in some detail.)

[37] Rathindranath Tagore’s diary.

[38] Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, p. 121.

[39] Letter by Kurt Wolff to Rathindranath Tagore dated 10th July 1926.

[40] Seiffhart, Inder Folia Fructus, pp. 41f.

[41] Letter by Kurt Wolff to Professor Mahalanobis (who accompanied Tagore on his European trip in 1926) dated 16th September 1926 and addressed tot he Hotel Bayerischer Hof where Tagore and his entourage stayed (Rabindra-Bhavan archives).

[42] Wolff, ‘Rabindranath Tagore’, p. 126.

[43] Wolff, p. 127.

[44] Wolff, p. 127.

[45] Wolff, p. 128.

[46] Wolff, p. 117.

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