‘Studying Goethe has become a way of life for me’

Goethe Society to present field-defining scholar David Wellbery with its highest honor

A University of Chicago scholar who is one of the world’s foremost experts in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has been honored with an award named for the renowned German intellectual.

Prof. David E. Wellbery will receive the Golden Goethe Medal, in recognition of his role in transforming scholarly understanding of a pivotal cultural period in early 19th-century Europe. Known for his interdisciplinary approach to analyzing Goethe’s work, Wellbery will receive the medal from the Goethe Society on June 13 in Weimar, Germany.

“Studying Goethe has become a way of life for me and has led me into the vast network of literary and artistic traditions that constitute our cultural memory,” said Wellbery, who compares the importance of Goethe in the history of German culture to that of Shakespeare in England and Dante in Italy.

“Goethe’s work is central to the self-understanding of modernity, and my task in scholarship and teaching is to ensure that this immense intellectual resource remains alive in our intellectual lives,” added Wellbery, the LeRoy T. and Margaret Deffenbaugh Carlson University Professor in Germanic Studies and the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought.

Since 1910, the Goethe Society has given this award as its highest honor for individuals who have devoted their careers to advancing knowledge and research about Goethe. Past recipients include lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskrau, writer and humanist Lew Kopelew and Princeton scholar Walter Hinderer.

“During the last decades, David Wellbery’s scholarship has transformed our understanding of Goethe’s work in fundamental ways,” said Provost Daniel Diermeier. “The Golden Goethe Medal is a wonderful recognition of his seminal contribution.”

Collaborative intellectual network

When he joined the University of Chicago faculty in 2001, Wellbery discovered a unique culture of cooperation across fields.

“It’s part of the DNA at UChicago,” said Wellbery, who chairs the Department of Germanic Studies. “The interdisciplinary collaboration here has contributed immensely to the advancement of my scholarship.”

While Wellbery has worked closely with many colleagues, he highlighted his collaborations with philosophers Robert B. Pippin and James Conant and his exchanges with the “world-status” scholars in the Committee on Social Thought. That cooperative intellectual network, Wellbery said, “has enabled us to achieve national and international leadership in Germanic Studies broadly conceived.”

Pippin, the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in Social Thought and Philosophy, has co-taught with Wellbery more than a dozen times, and described those experiences as “among the most memorable and helpful exchanges I have had in almost 30 years at the University.”

“By wide international consensus, David Wellbery is the foremost interpreter of Goethe’s work writing today,” Pippin said, “and he is one of the most influential scholars of that entire period, which is rivaled only by Athens in the classical age.”

Wellbery is also held in high international regard, having been honored by memberships in the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, the German Academy of Sciences and the German Academy for Language and Literature. In 2012, Wellbery held the Leibniz Professorship in Philosophy at the University of Leipzig. Two years prior, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Konstanz.

Fluent in English and German, Wellbery has written books on Goethe in both languages. His most significant scholarship on Goethe includes the books The Specular Moment: Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginnings of Romanticism (1996) and Goethe’s Faust I: Reflections on the tragic form (2016). He also authored the German essay collection Seiltänzer des Paradoxalen: Aufsätze zur Ästhetischen Wissenschaft and was editor-in-chief the critical anthology A New History of German Literature.

“David’s contributions to our understanding of Goethe’s work and of German literature more broadly are simply unparalleled,” said Anne Walters Robertson, dean of the Division of the Humanities. “His achievement in winning the Golden Goethe Medal ranks among the monumental scholarly accomplishments of our time.”

—Adapted from a story that first appeared on the Division of the Humanities website.