Study Guide

Erich Auerbach Biography

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Basic Information


Erich Auerbach


The Realist, The World's Most Daring Literary Critic, The Amazing Auerbach, The Memorizer, Fredric Jameson's First Man Crush



Home town

Berlin, Germany. It was only 1892, but things were already getting a little dodgy for Jewish people. Dad was a thriving merchant, so we rolled with big Deutsche Marks. Ka-ching!

Work & Education


My dedicated bookishness served me well as a librarian of the Prussian State Library—my first "job job" out of graduate school (and, ahem, law school). When I wasn't fulfilling librarian duties (the Dewey decimal system hadn't made it over to the Continent, so the job was much more complicated back then), I was translating important Italian scholarship and writing a book on Dante.

My contributions to the world of letters did not go unnoticed for long. I landed a plum job teaching Romance philology at the University of Marburg. My predecessor was Leo Spitzer. Leo was a prestigious scholar of stylistics, so I was stepping into some big shoes.

Then things got a little complicated. I'll be blunt here and confess that I pledged an oath to Hitler in 1934 so that I could keep my job and stay in Germany. Because no good deed goes unpunished, Hitler soon decided that Jewish people couldn't hold official positions, so I was given my walking papers, anyway.

Instead of walking, I ran... all the way to Istanbul—where I taught at Istanbul State University and wrote a little work called Mimesis. You may have heard of it…

I beat it for the United States not long after the war, turning down a sweet job offer in West Germany. (Like I'm gonna go back there?) I pretty quickly found myself all settled in at Penn State, then at Princeton, and finally at Yale, where I earned heaps of important titles and stayed until my untimely death in 1957. I wrote until the end of my days, but I was also busy overseeing the translation of Mimesis into English, Italian, Spanish, and Hebrew. Is it out in Esperanto yet?


Being from an affluent family, I naturally attended one of those upmarket schools in Germany (it was called a "gymnasium," but don't get confused), where I received a French education in classical studies. That's when I became smitten with Romance literature. (We're talking literature in Romance languages, not Harlequin novels.) It's hard to say this without bragging, but I earned a Doctor of Law degree by the age of 21. It's not like I didn't socialize—I became good pals with the German social theorist Max Weber, for instance. It's about to get awkward: after getting my degree, I realized I couldn't stand the idea of practicing law. (So glad Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac didn't exist back then.) So I did what any other excessively motivated prodigy would do and got myself a PhD in Romance philology (the study of language and literature). Please feel free to call me Dr. Dr. Auerbach. (Between degrees, I fought in World War I, but there's no time for that story right now.) With my surplus of education, I got a job pretty schnell, as they say in German.


Political views

Do I even need to say that I hate Nazis? Well, I hate Nazis. I should never have pledged my allegiance to that toothbrush-mustachioed villain way back when. But you gotta work, right?

If you ask me, I don't consider myself a political person, but according to everyone's favorite Marxist Terry Eagleton, because I discuss the everyday, I ampolitical by default. He thinks that as long as you're talking about everyday reality, you're inevitably talking about political realities, even if you don't mean to be talking about anything like that. So Terry looks at Mimesis and sees a study of the vernacular—that's the kind of language that ordinary people speak. The result, according to Terry? Mimesis is "an anti-Fascist poetics [… and] among other things its author's response to those who drove him into exile" (source.) If Terry says Mimesis is anti-Nazi, so be it. Call me political.

Religious views

Mom and Dad raised me as a secular Jew, and I pretty much stuck with that religious/non-religious identity for the rest of my life. My major, groundbreaking, chart-topping work, Mimesis pays a fair amount of attention to Judeo-Christian culture and literary production.

When you read the book, you'll see that I was really taken by the whole "binding of Isaac" thing. That's this story in the Bible about how God asks Abraham to sacrifice his (Abraham's) own to him, and Abraham does it (only the stopped by God right before he kills the kid).

I also look at medieval religious dramas—not for their Christian messages, but for what they can tell us about what daily life was like for medieval people. Hint: it wasn't all pewter plates and fire-breathing dragons. And I can never say enough about Milton's God in Paradise Lost—that's a guy I wouldn't mind golfing with!

A final note: after the Holocaust, I had a bit of a personal crisis. Even though I had lived the life of a secular Jew, I still felt the weight of being a Jewish man living at end of civilization, as I knew it.

Activities & Interests


Fredric Jameson—my favorite student ever, even though he didn't become a philologist
Turkish cuisine
Stylistic analysis
A good challenge
Giambattista Vico and Benedetto Croce
Details, details, details
The Western Canon: sorry if that makes me politically incorrect
Genre paintings
Being known as a tri-continental scholar


Absolute Standards
Anything fake
The Law—snooze
Being away from my library
Aristocrats (all the same)


Memory Games—I always win!
Reading religious works for secular messages
Hanging out with fellow German émigrés
Reading medieval romances on vacation
Lingering over a small passage for extensive periods of time
Taking on more than I can handle, and then handling it
Pointing out realism where no one else can see it


The German Émigrés
The Honorary Turks
Humanists Against Hitler (HAH)
Thinkers Under Pressure
The Memorizers
Intellectuals for the Every Man
The Danteists

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