Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family as Metaphor for Our Times?

“The complacency of fools destroys them.” — Prov. 1:32

Despite the accessibility of so many resources by means of the Internet, libraries remain an invaluable treasure. For many years it has been my habit to mine certain sections and take out piles of books, gleaning from all, always reading a few.

One of the sections I mined for a while was the literary criticism section, somewhere in the 800s, if I remember correctly. One of these volume was a book devoted to the three highest peaks in the mountain range of literary figures in the first half of the twentieth century. These three authors were Andre Gide, James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

Joyce I had been familiar with because the fellow across the hall from me during my sophomore year in college had a whole shelf of books about Ulysses, including 20 various versions of the original (if my memory is accurate.) I set about to become familiar with Gide and Mann by reading their works and their journals. I wanted to get inside these writer’s minds, and it was a rewarding experience.

The novel that put Mann on the map and contributed to his receiving the Nobel Prize for literature was Buddenbrooks, a story that outlines the decline of a great family over four generations. Here is a description of the book as presented at Goodreads.

Buddenbrooks, first published in Germany in 1901, when Mann was only twenty-six, has become a classic of modern literature.

It is the story of four generations of a wealthy bourgeois family in northern Germany facing the advent of modernity; in an uncertain new world, the family’s bonds and traditions begin to disintegrate. As Mann charts the Buddenbrooks’ decline from prosperity to bankruptcy, from moral and psychic soundness to sickly piety, artistic decadence, and madness, he ushers the reader into a world of stunning vitality, pieced together from births and funerals, weddings and divorces, recipes, gossip, and earthy humor.

In its immensity of scope, richness of detail, and fullness of humanity, Buddenbrooks surpasses all other modern family chronicles. With remarkable fidelity to the original German text, this superb translation emphasizes the magnificent scale of Mann’s achievement in this riveting, tragic novel.

This novel came to mind as I’ve been reading three other books about the decline not of a family but of a society. Are declines inevitable?

Historically, since all great societies rise and fall, we must ask ourselves, “Why not America?” While reading Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, the statistical facts seem nearly indisputable. The strange thing to me is that despite his findings he does not have a pessimistic view of the future.

A second book I’m reading is called The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, by Niall Ferguson. The cover photo shows an abandoned house with the roof partially caved in. It’s the price of complacency. I’m not far enough along to see if he’s optimistic at the end, but the case is well made that there’s much to be concerned about.

Then there’s Joseph Stiglitz’s The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. Stiglitz notes that the global economic meltdown that cost us trillions of dollars and from which we had not yet fully recovered (2013) will repeat itself because the causes have never been addressed. In fact, the one-per-centers were rewarded in the end.

The review for this book includes this: Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz exposes the efforts of well-heeled interests to compound their wealth in ways that have stifled true, dynamic capitalism. Along the way he examines the effect of inequality on our economy, our democracy, and our system of justice.

The decline feels inevitable from where I sit, an attitude that leaves one dangerously complacent about it all. In the end such complacency will destroy us, for it solves nothing. Perhaps that’s why so many seem to be on the track of “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

What’s your take? Is America’s decline inevitable?

Originally published at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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