The Good European

On the evening of June 7, 1914, police officers were dispatched to break up a crowd of over a thousand people assembled outside the Comedy Theatre on West 41st Street in Manhattan. Hoping for a last-minute ticket, they had been turned away at the doors and were now blocking traffic on Sixth Avenue. Inside the theater, every seat and every inch of standing room was occupied by people eagerly waiting for the evening’s program to begin. What had they come to see? Not a performance by Enrico Caruso, the Italian tenor then at the peak of his fame; nor a ragtime revue by Irving Berlin, or a play by George Bernard Shaw. Strange as it sounds to contemporary ears, the many hundreds in attendance had come to be lectured on Shakespeare by the Danish literary critic Georg Brandes, then in his early seventies. As an article in The New York Times put it the following day, it was “one of the most remarkable welcomes ever extended to a foreign lecturer.”   It ought to have been a crowning moment for a writer once described by Thomas Mann as “the northern Sainte-Beuve” and by Stefan Zweig as “the international master of the history of literature,” who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature by Anatole France and hailed as “a good European” by Nietzsche, a writer whose lectures on European literature in Copenhagen introduced Scandinavian readers to realism and naturalism, whose books had been translated into German, English, French, Russian, Polish, Yiddish, and Japanese, and whose biographical study of Shakespeare in 1896 achieved worldwide recognition and was admired by Joyce and Freud. Yet there was a huge cloud over the event in New York.   Brandes’ American lecture tour was darkened by concern for the fate of the European continent.

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