For many readers, [Benjamin's]…scrupulous attention to detail, this sense that everything can be made to speak, explains [his] force as a writer. His hermeneutic skill is nowhere more evident than in his essay on Goethe's Elective Affinities, the most important previously untranslated article included here. He confronts the novel from several perspectives, using it to illuminate the institution of marriage, the morality of love, and the project of artistic creation. At the same time, the essay offers a powerful—and frankly mystical—image of criticism itself… Esoteric much of the work is, but its originality inspires. If cultural studies is headed back to basics, Benjamin's luminous musings are a rewarding place to start. (James Surowiecki Lingua Franca)
To encounter Benjamin's piece ['The Life of Students'] is like overhearing the opening notes of one of the most intellectually compelling friendships of our century. It is greatly to the credit of Harvard University Press to have made the text finally available to English-speaking readers. In general, the editors of this volume have made an exemplary choice of what to include, and when their projected multi-volume section is complete, it will constitute the most important compilation of Benjamin's writings outside the mammoth German Collected Works. (Michael André Bernstein New Republic)
[A] splendid new edition of Benjamin's own Selected Writings. (Times Higher Education Supplement)
[T]he publication of an ambitious new edition of Benjamin's selected writings [is] a genuinely exciting event. In place of a limited selection of Benjamin's more immediately accessible pieces, American readers now have the chance to wander the full range of his work, and to gain a real sense of the often contradictory but always provocative combination of philosophy, criticism, and cultural history that it offers. (James Surowiecki Boston Phoenix)
Benjamin has gradually emerged as a major presence in 20th-century letters. This reputation rests on his extraordinary and highly idiosyncratic gift for original and far-reaching insights. It was his ambition to become Germany's leading literary critic, a status that many no doubt would be inclined to award him posthumously… Benjamin is sometimes misunderstood, since only certain parts of his overall output have come into view here. The 65 pieces collected in this excellent first volume of the new Harvard Benjamin should help clarify the larger picture as well as deepen and enliven the discussion. (Steve Dowden Washington Times)
A glance at the Table of Contents of Selected Writings—he writes on language, time, colors, children's books, love, violence, messianism—shows us at once Benjamin's provocativeness and his infinite variety. The two longest pieces, both from the early twenties and neither translated till now, are his doctoral thesis, 'The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism,' and his long essay on Goethe's late novel, Elective Affinities… [The latter] is an exemplary piece of lit crit, brilliantly analyzing the book's layers, motifs, symbols and subtexts…Benjamin's reverent feeling for tradition gives weight to his radical readings of tradition. Both essays could be an inspiration to people doing cultural studies today. (Marshall Berman The Nation)
[Walter Benjamin] is no less than a major enrichment and revision of the image of Walter Benjamin's criticism in the English-speaking world. (Tyrus Miller American Book Review)
Today, the presence of Walter Benjamin is invoked in aesthetics, in political philosophy, in the theory of literature and of film, in linguistics and theology… [T]his [is a] sumptuous first volume of [his] Selected Writings… [T]here is more to this feast of a book than demanding gravity. The look at 'Old Forgotten Children's Books' is an arch delight. The sketch of 'Naples' (1925) anticipates the vital part the Mediterranean was to play in Benjamin's search for inexpensive nirvanas. The brief entry on 'Love and Related Matters' of 1920 speculates on the coming sexual revolution… Throughout Walter Benjamin, the prodigality of suggestion haunts one. (George Steiner The Observer)
Selected Writings, Volume I increases our understanding of this most important of writers exponentially. There is nothing like Benjamin, and I can hardly imagine a more rewarding book being published this year. (David Wheatley The Irish Times)
The appeal of Benjamin's writing, according to Terry Eagleton, lies in the way it 'manages marvellously to combine…[Marxist] 'aesthetics' with the entrancing esotericism of the Kabbala.'… Benjamin is admired not in spite of but because of his arcane syntax, murky vocabulary, and buried meanings… You have to seek the truth in Benjamin's writings, if you have the patience, and not treat them as conveying knowledge. There is an awful lot of husk to burn in the process, but the theory of truth, if true, explains the obscurity. (Arthur C. Danto Artforum)
Bullock and Jennings's Selected Writings series offers and opportunity to reevaluate Benjamin within the context of rhetoric, from a wider body of documents than previously available… This first volume of the Selected Writings gives scholars of rhetoric a critical mass of text (from notebook jottings, to student writings and early published works, to Benjamin's dissertation) from which to evaluate Benjamin's work. From this new vantage point, we might identify his potential contribution to rhetorical theory through his writing on communication, the philosophy of language, aesthetics and the political. In some cases, Bullock and Jennings's new edition resonates with and reiterates themes found in the canonical anthologies. In other cases, we are exposed to a Benjamin not previously seen in English… There are key insights here, especially in these times when the Critical Theory project which has driven the study of mass communication comes into rhetorical studies… Benjamin reminds us that to embrace and preserve the true fragment exceeds the condemnation of the system, of the whole. (David Beard Quarterly Journal of Speech)
A cause for excitement among literary essayists and critics: Walter Benjamin's scattered works are at last being translated and collected in a carefully edited edition… Most of his writings—including some of his most extraordinary accomplishments—have never been translated. The loss for American readers is substantial. At long last…a three-volume, chronologically organized edition of the essays, memoirs, reviews, aphorisms, fragments, and other short forms is being issued… The overall quality of the translations is high… And in Benjamin's case, this is no mean accomplishment… His peculiar gift was…for lightning flashes of sudden, precise, and idiosyncratic illumination. The translators have supplied useful (though relatively sparing) explanatory notes, and the editors have appended a narrative chronology of Benjamin's life through 1926… This new Benjamin set will be the standard work. (Kirkus Reviews)
Readers new to Benjamin will find this a welcome introduction to a challenging but rewarding writer. Those already familiar with his work will be grateful to be reminded, once again, of the wisdom of his maxim, 'all the decisive blows are struck left-handed.' (Graham McCann Financial Times)
[W]ith the advent of this volume…Benjamin's bold and invigorating philosophy of literature will reach a broader audience and truly make its power felt. Here are Benjamin's earliest writings, the youthful efforts of an emerging aesthetic theorist already in command of a vast wealth of material and unafraid to voice strong and controversial opinions about everything from children's books to Goethe, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire, and such concepts as perception, the philosophy of history, and theories of knowledge and the imagination. (Booklist)
Harvard's systematic presentation of the work of German cultural critic Benjamin has proved a revelation. (Publishers Weekly)
Wherever [Benjamin] turned his incisive gaze…the clarity of morning's first light shines forth. (Haim Chertok Jerusalem Post)
About the Author
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was the author of many works of literary and cultural analysis.
Marcus Bullock is Professor of German, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Michael W. Jennings is Class of 1900 Professor of Modern Languages at Princeton University.