A Goethe Novel Created A Fan Fiction Craze In 1774

“In art the best is good enough.” —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey

In A Nutshell

In 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, of later Faust fame, published his young adult hit, The Sorrows of Young Werther. It was soon translated into every European language and “Werther fever” swept the continent. Many fans wrote poems and short fiction continuing the story. Even stranger, Werther’s visage could be found on everything from jewelry to bread-boxes (what was likely one of the earliest examples of tie-in advertising). The rush to cash in was on.

The Whole Bushel

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary tale of a young artist (Werther) who rejects his urbane existence in favor of the German countryside. Werther meets a beautiful peasant woman who spurns his love. The rejection overwhelms Werther (with sorrow), and in dramatic fashion, he commits suicide with pistols borrowed from his beloved’s new husband.

The Sorrows of Young Werther struck a chord with young readers of the 18th century. Werther’s youthful angst appealed to young male and female readers like only a few works since. Werther impacted the European continent the way Rebel Without a Cause grabbed American viewers. And like Jim Stark’s red windbreaker and white T-shirt in Rebel, Werther came with a uniform of its own. After Werther’s publication, young European men donned en masse the iconic blue jacket and yellow pants of the titular protagonist.

The term “best-seller” was created to describe Werther’s success. Not long after publication, it was pirated, plagiarized, and parodied relentlessly. The story was retold in operas, poems, plays, ballets, and musical compositions. And it still wasn’t enough to satiate the public.

Long before there was Salinger, there was Goethe, and he wasn’t in any mood to write a follow-up. The German writer did everything he could to distance himself from his hit book. So what’s a Werther-crazed public to do? How about a fan fiction and tribute explosion the likes of which are tough to imagine in an era before YouTube slideshows of Edward and Bella set to Aerosmith’s “I don’t want to miss a thing.” Thousands of fan fic sequels, stories, and plays were written continuing the story, which must have been fairly creative given Werther‘s end. The best of these even saw some success of their own. One writer, repelled by Werther’s suicide, wrote the mildly popular (and predictable) The Joys of Young Werther in response.

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But none of that compares with the tie-in merchandising. At the end of the 18th century, a European could buy Werther figurines, clothing, kitchen utensils, and even “Werther cologne.” Nearly anything that could bear an image was sold with a picture of Werther or his beloved on it.

Make no mistake, Werther was a lasting success. Werther fever was so pervasive and enduring that decades later when Napoleon went to Egypt, he took three books with him, one of which was The Sorrows of Young Werther, which he read seven times. Werther was still on the public mind even later during the 19th century, when William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair), wrote his poem “Sorrows of Werther.”

Show Me The Proof

The Social Impact of the Novel, by Claudia Durst Johnson, Vernon Elso Johnson
Maverick Autobiographies, by Cathryn Halverson
Carrying the Torch, Steven Payne
The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Marcelle Clements
The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Volume 21, William Makepeace Thackeray

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