Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life

Howard Eiland, Author, Michael W Jennings, Author
Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Harvard Univ./Belknap, $39.95 (744p) ISBN 978-0-674-05186-7
Reviewed on: 11/11/2013
Release date: 12/16/2013
In this ambitious biography, Benjamin scholars (and editors) Eiland and Jennings chart the protean, prolific—albeit short—life of the German-Jewish critic and philosopher with masterly aplomb. As a literary critic, a dodger of both World Wars, flâneur, and eventual victim of Hitler’s reign, Benjamin (1892–1940) lived with a funny gait, “an impenetrable façade” of courtesy, and severe depression; fearing capture and deportation to Germany, he committed suicide in a Spanish hotel. Born to an affluent Berlin family, Benjamin advocated for the radical youth culture movement and education reform in Germany before he pursued a tenured professor of philosophy post in academia, which he never achieved. With intense wanderlust, Benjamin turned to an itinerant existence as he penned thousands of essays, reviews, and books. Shaping avant-garde realism and arguably inventing pop culture, he wrote that he hoped to be “the foremost critic of German literature.” Leaving Germany for good in 1933, Benjamin spent his last dark decade in exile, where most of his writings contributed to his never completed masterpiece The Arcades Project—“his cultural history of the emergence of urban commodity capitalism in mid-nineteenth-century France.” The authors, in impressive and accessible fashion, reveal Benjamin as an eyewitness to Europe’s changing modernity. 36 halftones. (Jan.)