Bekker, Immanuel, 1785-1871

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1785-05-21
Death 1871-06-07
Germans
German

Biographical notes:

German classicist and philologist.

From the description of Correspondence, 1806-1853 (inclusive). (University of Chicago Library). WorldCat record id: 52247534

August Emanuel Bekker (he chose "Immanuel" as his nom de plume on publication of his first scholarly papers) was born in Berlin in 1785, the son of a locksmith. He attended a local Gymnasium against the wish of his stern father who eventually withheld all support from his son. Bekker was subsequently taken into the household of the school principal, as an unpaid domestic servant. While this arrangement enabled Bekker to finish the Gymnasium, the experience may have brought about the bitterness and taciturnity that characterized him for the rest of his life (Schleiermacher once quipped that Bekker "could remain silent in seven languages").

In 1803 Bekker went to the University of Halle to study the new science of philology under Friedrich August Wolf (1759-1824). He soon won the recognition and esteem of this famous scholar who assisted him greatly. After he had received his doctorate, in 1806, Bekker was appointed Inspector of the Philological Seminary. He supplemented his income by writing reviews for the Jenaer Litteraturzeitung, which made his name known in scholarly circles.

At Halle, Bekker came under the influence of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, the great theologian and philosopher, who became his mentor and fatherly friend. At regular social gatherings arranged by Nanny, Schleiermacher's half-sister, Bekker met several fellow-students who became his intimate friends: Karl von Raumer, later professor of natural history and mineralogy at the University of Erlangen; Alexander von der Marwitz, a young Prussian nobleman and fervent patriot who fell in 1814 at the battle of Montmirail; R. von Przystanowsky, a Polish mineralogist; and Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, diplomat and soldier, whose wife Rahel was to preside over the most famous literary salon in Berlin.

When Napoleon closed the University of Halle in 1806 Schleiermacher obtained for Bekker a position as tutor in classical languages to the children of Herr von Wulcknitz, a rich landowner at Lanke in the province of Brandenburg. There, in rural seclusion, Bekker pursued his studies and wrote his famous recension of Wolf's edition of Homer, which states the scholarly principles upon which he later acted.

In April, 1810, on Wolf's recommendation, Bekker was appointed to a chair at the newly founded University of Berlin. He did not assume his new position at once, however, but, with Wolf's support, he urgently appealed to Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussian minister of public instruction, to be granted a sabbatical leave and a stipend that would enable him to travel to Paris.

In the wake of the victorious Napoleonic armies eager French scholars had removed all manuscripts worth taking from the libraries and archives of the conquered territories and sent them to Paris. There, in the Bibliotheque Impériale, lay a very large number of invaluable source materials. Bekker sensed the uniqueness of such anopportunity for examining manuscripts formerly dispersed all over continental Europe, especially at a time when travel was still a hardship, correspondence took a long time, and the owners of manuscripts were not always co-operative.

Although there was "no precedence of a stipend being granted to a 'traveling philologist'" (v. Humboldt's letter of November 3, 1809) Bekker eventually had his way and arrived in the French capital in May of 1810. What he found there far surpassed his expectations. For three and a half years he spent up to twelve hours daily copying and collating Greek manuscripts. Bekker also established contacts with French colleagues, most notably Nicolas-Maximilien-Sidoine Séguier, who became one of his close friends.

In 1815 Bekker was elected to the Berlin Academy on whose recommendation he returned to Paris with a special mission. His duties were described to him by Barthold Georg Niebuhr, the historian, who was then a functionary at the headquarters of the allied sovereigns (letter of July 25, 1815). Bekker was to supervise the return of all manuscripts purloined from German libraries and archives and of all art objects removed from their previous locations. His stay in Paris was short this time. While the French were condescendingly helpful to the conquered on his first visit, they now resented the conquerors, especially their official representatives, and the friends at home were concerned for Bekker's safety. Schleiermacher, in his letter of October 20, 1815, exhorts him "to return home not later than the last Prussian troops, lest the wrath of the French be directed against one of the few remaining Germans."

When the Berlin Academy decided to publish a large, annotated edition of Aristotle and his scholiasts, Bekker was selected to visit the most important libraries of Europe to examine and copy source materials. His first station was Rome, where Niebuhr had been Prussian ambassador to the Papal Court since 1816. For the first time Bekker lived at Niebuhr's residence, where he probably became acquainted with Christian Karl Josias Bunsen, the ambassador's personal secretary and a distinguished scholar himself. While in Rome Bekker was introduced to Dorothea von Schlegel and met Henriette Herz, a previous acquaintance, who kept the other important salon in the Prussian capital. She was then the widow of Marcus Herz, a disciple and former student of Kant, who lectured in philosophy and natural sciences at the University of Berlin. Because of their frequent association for a year and a half in Italy and the growing intimacy between them, Bekker was moved to make her a proposal of marriage before they took leave in June, 1819, but was turned down because of their difference in age. They continued to be close friends.

In the fall of 1819 Bekker visited Paris the third time and subsequently carried on his research in the libraries of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, London, Leyden, and Heidelberg. All this time Schleiermacher, as one of the secretaries of the Berlin Academy, kept in touch with Bekker and encouraged him in his work.

In 1825 Bekker married and founded his own household; the preceding years he had lived in the house of his publisher Georg Andreas Reimer. Schleiermacher had also lived in the publisher's house for some of that time.

Since his student days Bekker's favorite project had been the compilation of a large Greek lexicon. He soon had to realize, however, that without an adequate number of reliable texts such an undertaking would be impossible. In recognition of this urgent need, he devoted himself-temporarily as he thought-to the task of editing Greek authors. But the manuscript collations he had accumulated in the course of many years provided him with such an abundance of material that he never found time to return, as planned, to his work on the lexicon. Instead Bekker became one of the most prolific editors of ancient texts, not only Greek and Latin, but later also Provencal, Old-French, and Italian.

Bekker's importance lies in the fact that he was first to publish reliable editions of the classics in substantial numbers. It was his work in particular that put the study of Greek grammar and lexicography on a firm foundation.

Details on Bekker are to be found in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, and in an article written by his son, Ernst Immanuel, after his death in 1871 and published in the magazine Presussische Jahrbücher ("Zur Erinnerung an meinen Vater," Vol. XXIX, pp. 553-585 and 641-668). Several of the letters in this collection are quoted there.

All the German correspondents represented here, with the exception of Klein and Wülcknitz, are treated extensively in the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, Séguier will be found in any French biographical dictionary.

Many were habitues of Henriette Herz' salon. On Bekker's role in this society, and especially on his relationship with Henriette Herz, useful information is to be found in Max J. Putzel's Letters of Henriette Herz to Immanuel Bekker, a doctoral dissertation (University of Chicago, 1965) based on part of this collection.

From the guide to the Bekker, Immanuel. Papers, 1806-1853, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)

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