Merchant Culture in Germany and the United States
In 1900, Thomas Mann completed Buddenbrooks, his first novel. This minutely imagined chronicle of life among the nineteenth-century Hanseatic merchant class was so uncomfortably realistic that its publication caused a social earthquake in Mann’s hometown of Lubeck. The twentyfive-year-old author depicted a mercantile elite that was often shallow, relatively unappreciative of high culture, obsessed with reputation and status, grasping and frequently deceitful yet constantly mouthing Christian platitudes. Mann painted the rest of Germany in broad strokes. Prussians were stoic and slightly dim, honest but easily duped. Rhinelanders were awkward provincials with bad tempers and no social graces. The Bavarians were a lovable collection of absurdities: perpetually inebriated, slothful, unambitious, inarticulate, yet playful and warm-hearted. Throughout the novel, Mann leaves little doubt that the Hanseatic merchant families considered themselves a breed apart from all other Germans. By virtue of their money, accumulated through two generations of buying and selling, the Buddenbrooks and their rival families moved through society like minor royalty, trailed by a fleet of servants and sycophants, convinced that their worldly calling was divinely sanctioned and superior to all others.