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Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life Hardcover – January 20, 2014

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 768 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press (January 20, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674051866
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674051867
  • Product Dimensions: 2.2 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #107,727 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


Presented here in what looks like a definitive version, Benjamin’s life emerges as a tragedy of incompleteness. (John Gray Literary Review 2013-12-01)

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. (Publishers Weekly (starred review) 2013-11-11)

Walter Benjamin himself often grappled with the vexed and constantly shifting relations between self and work, life (bios) and writing (graphein). Whatever faint yet abiding hyphen may connect the two, that same line also forever holds them apart. The new biography by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, two Benjamin scholars of the first rank, offers a sober, meticulous, and often moving image of Benjamin's brief life in the shadow of catastrophe. Brilliantly interweaving the conceptual threads of Benjamin's enigmatic work with his no less enigmatic existence, this impeccably informed and eminently readable account of Benjamin's life sets a new standard for his biographers and critics in any language. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is destined to stand the test of time.
(Gerhard Richter, Brown University)

Here, for the first time, is a thorough, reliable, non-tendentious, and fully developed account of Benjamin's life and the sources of his work. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is by far the best biography of Benjamin that has yet appeared. A remarkable scholarly achievement, it will prove of enduring value and will doubtless become the standard reference work for those who become intrigued by the complicated contours of Benjamin's life. (Peter Fenves, Northwestern University)

[Eiland and Jennings] have produced this massive and gripping account of Benjamin’s life and troubles, testimonial both to their own efforts in bringing his elusive writings into view, and to the circumstances in which Benjamin arrived at such scope, depth and brilliance…This is Benjamin warts and all, but in place of an impressionistic biographical sketch of a life, marked by false starts and a final mischance, what emerges is an astonishing panorama of a life and of theorizing, of research and of publishing, on the crest of that wave of disaster that was the destruction of European Jewry and of German intellectual life. (Joanna Hodge Times Higher Education 2014-01-23)

Through this fair-minded and meticulously detailed biography we can, perhaps for the first time in the extensive literature on Benjamin, see clearly the way that the arc of his life and work, culminating in the overdose of morphine taken in the Hotel de Francia in Port Bou, is an expression of, and also an epic meditation on, the political and aesthetic conditions that provided the context of his coming into maturity as both a thinker and a man. (Gregory Day Sydney Morning Herald 2014-02-08)

[Benjamin was] one of the most versatile men of letters the 20th century had known…[This is] an epic, 700-page-plus saga of his peripatetic life and his whirlwind of productivity. (Eric Banks Bookforum 2014-03-17)

In their superb new biography, Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings have given us a portrait of this elusive but paradigmatic thinker that deserves to be ranked among the few truly indispensable intellectual biographies of the modern era. I am tempted to call it a masterpiece. Nearly seven hundred pages in length, this is not only a study of Benjamin’s life, it is also a guide to the bewildering mix of themes and preoccupations that populated this most prolific and unfamiliar of minds…To write the biography of an intellectual is difficult business, since so much of what passes for an event is taking place only in the mind or on the page--but those are the events that really matter. Eiland and Jennings move with deliberation through Benjamin’s major works, expounding and explaining with uncommon lucidity even when the text in question is one of notorious difficulty. The result is not a mere chronicle of a life but also a reliable map into Benjamin’s intellectual labyrinth. (Peter E. Gordon New Republic 2014-03-24)

The most comprehensive biography we are ever likely to have of Benjamin…Both authors have spent close to a lifetime on the subject. The devotion and care evident in their account are clearly based on sympathy and admiration. Their exposition of Benjamin’s thought is exemplary, their sleuthing about his personal life breathtaking. Definitive is an archaic and much abused term that Benjamin would have abhorred; suffice it to say that it is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to tell us more about this German­-Jewish thinker or present that knowledge with greater stylistic aplomb. (Modris Eksteins Wall Street Journal 2014-03-14)

Impressive…[Eiland and Jennings] portray their subject as a kind of ragpicker in the neglected alleyways of a culture in transition--a specialist in the marginal and mundane, the fragmentary and forgotten…They succeed in offering not only the most comprehensive biography to date, but a tour de force introduction to an incomparably incandescent mind. (Benjamin Balint Books & Ideas 2014-03-20)

Despite its numerous predecessors, this biography is the first of its kind to succeed in uniting most of the previously published biographical material in one book, including translations of documents which were until now only available in German. With the still-growing interest in Benjamin’s thought, one can expect this book to become the standard English-language biography on Benjamin. In A Critical Life, the contours of Benjamin’s day-to-day life become graspable for the first time. It is fascinating to read about his whereabouts and travels, the people and places that formed the stages for his life and thought…This biography is also an intellectual biography, which puts the reader herself in a position to navigate the labyrinth-like edifice of Benjamin’s thought. For this alone, this biography proves to be a landmark achievement in the history of Benjamin scholarship. (Sami Khatib New Inquiry 2014-04-17)

Serious and imposing, it seeks to gather up and bind the threads of Benjamin’s career, unite the unpublished and the half-finished essays and book projects, weaving together a comprehensive biography both of the man and his thought. A great strength of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life is how it lays out Benjamin’s major works as part of an evolution of thought, providing not only invaluable context to each piece, but tracing each work’s central claims in a lucid and approachable manner. One need not be a PhD to approach this book, and it will intrigue anyone with a passing interest in the intellectual history of the 20th century. With key essays and books given substantive contextualization and explanation, Eiland and Jennings make Benjamin’s work accessible and networked into a larger set of themes and concerns…As omnipresent as [Benjamin’s] tragic fate is throughout the book, Eiland and Jennings also provide a host of surprising (and even delightful) details of Benjamin’s life, which round out the melancholic caricature of him in favor of a complex, conflicted individual. (Colin Dickey Los Angeles Review of Books 2014-05-14)

I’ve been waiting for a book like this since first coming across Benjamin’s mesmerizing essays as a student. Like others who have fallen under his spell, I've had to make do with bits and pieces of biographical information over the years, not all of them reliable. Jennings and Eiland have spent almost two decades re-editing and retranslating all of Benjamin’s works and have also managed to create a map through the maze of his restless, exilic life. (Eric Bulson Times Literary Supplement 2014-06-13)

[This] is a careful synthesis of all the available sources for Benjamin’s life—letters, diaries, reminiscences of friends—with all of his major writings, to produce the comprehensive account that has been sorely lacking until now… Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life makes clear how intimately Benjamin’s biography was shaped by the history of Europe during his lifetime. (Adam Kirsch New York Review of Books 2014-07-10)

[Eiland and Jennings] argue compellingly that as a critic [Benjamin] not only reshaped our understanding of many important writers, but he recognized the potentials and hazards of technological media that revolutionized culture during his lifetime…An impressive work of exegesis…Indispensable. (Stuart Jeffries The Guardian 2014-08-09)

[Benjamin] produced some of the most memorable and generative critical writing of the last century. There is no end in sight of the need to grapple with that writing and its legacies. This magisterial biography by Eiland and Jennings sets that writing in its place and time with profane illuminations on almost every one of its many pages. Benjamin had scorn for people who produced needlessly ‘fat’ books, but I think this fairly huge one hits the sweet spot of detail. Most biographical treatments to date tend to be half the length or less and content themselves with the highlights and the fairly well known, however well articulated. If one wants more, this ‘critical’ biography is the place to look. (Ian Balfour Los Angeles Review of Books 2014-11-15)

About the Author

Howard Eiland teaches literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Michael W. Jennings is Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages at Princeton University.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Mlagace on January 14, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a compelling, well-written, and accessible biography of an uncompromising and enigmatic writer and public intellectual.

I have been seeking such a literary biography to help me get a better handle on the influences and background to Benjamin's works such as Critique of Violence and the Arcades Project. The book provides this and much more, drawing judiciously on a multitude of sources, including his decades-long, sometimes prickly correspondence with dear friends. And what reader wouldn't be fascinated by his life? Without giving anything away, I can only say this biography offers surprising details and welcome nuances to the basic outline that many readers may already know. I think I will return to this book again and again in the coming years.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Michael H. Shenkman on July 2, 2014
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I am filing a minority report. Make no mistake, this is a competent biography of a difficult person who produced work that never yields to clarity, and so this book provides a service. And I have to say, I was constantly mindful of being in the hands of the person who translated the Arcades Project into English. I felt my appreciation continually, and always was aware that the authors were people who were dedicated to Benjamin, maybe in a way that neither Adorno, Horkheimer or Scholem were. Maybe the dedication of these authors was only equaled by Benjamin's wife (forever -- despite the divorce) Dora.
My reservation stems from two sources. First, I felt a dissociation between the life events of the man and the work. Maybe this is not only unavoidable with a person such as Benjamin, and maybe it is a matter of producing a biography that is approachable by a wider audience than admiring specialists. But still, I couldn't help but feel that given the sheer power of Benjamin's work and the sheer will (to) power to write and, most of all to THINK, despite the excruciating adversities Benjamin faced there wasn't some connecting thread or theme that could have been elucidated. As a result, I felt that the accounts of the events in Benjamin's life became monotonously repetitious (even the flight from the Nazi's seemed to be just an intensification of the usual travails of poverty and homelessness), and the expositions on his works were stridently schematic.
Which brings me to the second concern: it seems to me that the theological dimension of Benjamin's life and work was strangely absent. The "theological" seems to me to be the driving locus of his thought, and the only "reserve" in which Benjamin carved out a byway (a tunnel?) to a future.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Albert M. Stark on April 22, 2014
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I picked up this 800 plus page book from the table in the book store attracted by the title, A Critical Life. As I read page after page I learned more and more about not only modernity through the eyes of Walter Benjamin, pronounced Ben ya Mean, but also history of the early and mid-twentieth century viewed through the eyes of intellectuals who had the courage to comment on the woes of society.

This book written by professors from Princeton and Harvard reads like a novel. The writing is clear and concise, a challenging task given the complexity of the subject of this autobiography, the son of a well-to-do family who could be described as a geek but who was a charismatic and courageous man.

I am richer for picking up the book from the bookstore table.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By warrren leming on March 19, 2014
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walter benjamin remains one of the 20th centurys major literary critical figures... certainly one with both credential beyond the academy, and a life ended tragically enough to insure an enduring post mortem fame. the book is a fine one, and well detailed. the benjamin who emerges is initially the bookish son of a successful businessman. the father and the son soon seperate over benjamin's inability to get a job- and benjamin, as the nazi's come to power, begins a life of nomadic penury,marked by his amazing literary output, and which will end with his suicide at port bau in spain, where he was led by the extraordinary lisa fittko, following a harrowing climb into spain from france.
warren leming
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