cover image Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

Andrea Wulf. Knopf, $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-525-65711-8

Historian Wulf (The Invention of Nature) delivers an engrossing group biography of the late-18th-century German intellectuals whose “obsession with the free self” initiated the Romantic movement and led to the modern conception of self-determination. The group, which came together in the German university town of Jena, included poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who promulgated the idea of the Ich, or self, as the center of free will; Friedrich Schiller, whose breakout play, The Robbers, “showed how a good person could become a criminal as a result of experiencing injustice”; and philosopher Friedrich Schelling, who promoted “being in nature” as a means to self-discovery. Known as the Young Romantics, their lives and work embodied the “wild, raw, mysterious, chaotic, and alive,” according to group member August Wilhelm Schelling. Wulf pays particular attention to the cohort’s oft-overlooked female members, including Caroline Böhmer-Schlegel-Schelling, a free-spirited intellectual with a “core of steel” whose “refus[al] to be restricted by the role that society had intended for women” landed her in prison, among other controversies. Wulf also delves into the influence of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars on the group and explains heady philosophical concepts in clear prose (“Is the tree that I’m seeing in my garden the tree-as-it-appears-to-us or the tree-in-itself?”). The result is a colorful and page-turning intellectual history. (Sept.)