Gustav Freytag, scholar, poet, novelist, critic, playwright, editor, soldier, publicist, was born in Kreuzburg, Silesia, in 1816. Still living in quiet retirement in Wiesbaden, he is one of the best known of modern German writers. His preliminary education was acquired at the Gymnasium of Oels, which he entered in 1829, at the age of thirteen. In 1835, he began the study of German philology under Hoffmann, at the University of Breslau. Later he continued this line of study with Lachmann, at the University of Berlin, where, in 1838-9, he was given the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, on the presentation of a thesis on De initiis scenicæ poeseos apud Germanos. Between this time and 1846, he was connected with the University of Breslau, as an instructor in the German language and literature. Having gained some notice, as the author of a comedy, The Bridal Journey (1844), and a volume of short popular poems, In Breslau (1845), he now (1847), in connection with Julian Schmidt, undertook the management of the political and literary newspaper, Die Grenzboten, in Leipzig. He continued his literary work, and entered in earnest upon what has proved the long and honorable career of a man of letters.
In 1847, Valentine appeared, followed the next year by Count Waldemir, both society plays, evincing the author’s dramatic power, and with his inclination toward the spirit, the dialectics, and the sketchy manner of the younger writers, showing his delicate feeling for clearness and purity of style, his skill in the conduct of the action, in dialogue, and his genial fresh humor. His next play, The Scholar, is rather a psychological study in a single act, than a drama. In 1854, his greatest piece, The Journalists, was first acted; and it is still one of the most popular modern society dramas represented on the German stage. Perfectly natural and healthful in tone, it abounds in striking situations, depicts with fidelity many important types of German character, amusingly exhibits social rivalries and political machinations, and affords abundant opportunity for the author's effective satire. Another play, The Fabii, appeared in 1859.
Freytag’s first great novel, Soll und Haben (1858), translated into English under the title of Debit and Credit (1859), has become a classic. In this, his view of human life is broader and his insight into the springs of human action deeper than in his plays. Its purpose is to show the value and dignity of a life of labor. It attempts to show that the active, vigorous life of a great German merchant is purer, nobler, more beneficent than the life of a haughty aristocrat, relying only on the traditional merits of his family; and, in this attempt, the author weaves a web of glory about the life of the ordinary citizen. A second novel, The Lost Manuscript (1864), in like manner shows the superiority of the scholar over the nobleman.
The Technique of the Drama was written in 1863, and dedicated to the author’s friend — Wolf, Count of Baudissin. The book has passed through six editions, and attained the rank of a first-class authority on the matters of which it treats, though now for the first time translated into English.
In 1862, Freytag began his famous series of connected historic tales, in New Pictures from the Life of the German People, continued the next year in Pictures from the German Past, and still further in 1876 and later, in The Ancestors, including Ingo and Ingraban; The Nest of the Hedge-sparrows; The Brothers of the German House; Marcus King; The Brothers and Sisters; From a Little City, etc. These are all descriptions of German life, based on accurate research, and including periods from the fourth to the nineteenth century. Devoted to the glory of the German people, this, the author’s most extensive work, makes an entertaining exposition of some of the noblest traits of German character. In 1870, he published a striking biography of his intimate friend, entitled Karl Mathy; Story of His Life.
Freytag continued to edit Die Grenzboten for twenty-three years, when he went over to a new journal called Im Neuen Reich. His political writings having introduced him to public life, he became in 1867, a representative of the Liberal party in the North-German Parliament. On the breaking out of the Franco- Prussian war in 1870, he entered the imperial army as an officer on the staff of the Crown Prince, remaining in military service till after the Battle of Sedan. He gave up public life in 1879.