Any discussion of Johann Peter Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe ends up focusing, inevitably, on Goethe. The poet commands our fascination; we are grateful the record-keeper put in the work but eager to get past him and meet the celebrity. Yet Eckermann, in an age before audio and video recording, had a central role in creating the Goethe we encounter. Eckermann’s book is not a photograph but a portrait, as Ritchie Robertson makes clear in his introduction to Allan Blunden’s new Penguin Classics translation. Eckermann himself offers that image of his role in the first pages.

The grown man would “harvest” the ideas that Goethe let fall in his last decade.

An...

 

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