What is the background on Stefan Zweig’s biography of Eddy in Mental Healers?
Today the noted Austrian writer Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) is perhaps known best for his short fiction. But he was a prolific author of nonfiction as well—especially biography. And one of his subjects was Mary Baker Eddy.
Zweig’s short profile of Eddy is a part of a series of biographical trilogies written in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was one of the world’s most highly regarded and popular writers. In addition to Eddy, his 1931 book Die Heilung durch den Geist (translated into English as Mental Healers) contains sketches of Franz Anton Mesmer and Sigmund Freud. It was the fourth and final installment in his “Die Baumeister der Welt” (translated as “Master Builders: An Attempt at the Typology of the Spirit”)—a series going back to 1919. Like many of Zweig’s works, Die Heilung durch den Geist was translated; in fact, by 1932 it was available in German, English, French, and Spanish.1
Die Heilung durch den Geist consists of three essays, one each on Mesmer, Eddy, and Freud. They are not all biographical sketches. The essay on Freud contains very little such information and is focused on describing psychoanalysis and its liberating effects on modern medicine and society. (Zweig knew Freud and admired his work.) On the other hand, the sketches on Mesmer and Eddy delve into the lives of both individuals. And, while Mesmer is lauded as one of the fathers of modern psychology, a benevolent and highly professional man of medicine born a century too soon, Eddy is portrayed as a genius with an insatiable desire for money, a woman who essentially repackaged Mesmer’s ideas and marketed them as a religion.
Describing Zweig’s output, author Eryck de Rubercy noted, “It can be said that the most frequent criticism of Zweig is that he writes psychological or psychoanalytical biography, rather than a narrow analysis of his subject.”2 Zweig’s portraits can be read as pieces of literature, and here we can appreciate the value of his works. But should they be read to gain historical knowledge?
Norman A. Brittin, a contemporary of Zweig who expressed admiration for his writings, was also aware that, while fascinating, Zweig’s psychological approach weakened their value as historical narratives. He felt Zweig was “unusual among biographers, for he identifies his own dramatic purposes with the laws of life,” but went on to say this:
This purposive doctrine may be dangerous to a historian, for if he frequently superimposes it upon his material, his work may become over-generalized and therefore oversimplified. But Zweig’s biographies are not products of a historian. Considered as history, they contain an overplus of interpretation which clogs the narrative. They are products of an essayist and critic who uses the psychological method. Zweig is intent upon classifying his subjects into types and upon solving intimate problems of personality, upon discovering the psychological formulae which will make his subjects credible as human beings under the stress of special circumstances….”3
Also problematic are the sources Zweig used for his sketch of Eddy. He was not one to engage in deep historical research, and in his introduction he wrote of the challenge he faced writing on Eddy in his day—a lack of unbiased sources. He described Sybil Wilbur’s highly sympathetic account of Eddy’s life as “rose-coloured biography” and referred to the “black” biographies of Georgine Milmine and Edwin Franden Dakin, which paint a vivid picture of a woman wracked by hysteria and motivated by greed and a lust for power.4
Indeed, a balanced portrait of Eddy would be hard to assemble from these contrasting accounts. And perhaps even Zweig himself suspected as much, noting this:
… the interesting thing about Milmine’s biography and Wilbur’s, the black and the rose-coloured, the unorthodox and the orthodox, is that for the unprejudiced student of this psychological case they to a large extent exchange roles. Miss Milmine, whose main object is to make Mary Baker Eddy appear ridiculous, makes her interesting; whereas the rose-coloured biography, with its idolization, makes an unquestionably interesting woman seem incurably ridiculous.5
Determined to use the “black” interpretation of Eddy’s life, and writing at a time when scholarly research on her was virtually nonexistent, Zweig had little possibility for writing a credible and unbiased account of this religious leader. And perhaps he himself was aware of this. His first wife, Friderike Zweig, later recalled that “he was even afraid he had shot far beyond the mark with his severity ….”6
Zweig may have also been unaware of or unmoved by the misogynistic attitude that prevails in his sources. Fascinating discussions of the Milmine/Dakin biases—especially the claim that Eddy was a hysteric—can be found in Gillian Gill’s 1998 biography Mary Baker Eddy (see, for example, pages 28–48). Gill sums up the disparity between portraits of Eddy and the great male authors of her time:
Whereas the serious deficiencies of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or Leo Tolstoy as husbands and fathers are considered to be irrelevant to their achievement or even seen as the sad but inevitable result of their genius, Mary Baker Eddy has consistently been held to a different standard: expected to fulfill all the tasks and roles of a “normal” wife and mother of her period as well as found a new denomination. Thus two of her most important hostile biographers, Georgine Milmine and Edwin Dakin, gleefully offer example after example of her marital, maternal, and domestic inadequacies. Loyal biographers like Sibyl Wilbur and Lyman Powell for their part merely mirror this approach by advancing counter examples of Mrs. Eddy’s exquisite neatness, her fond relations with children, and her faithful devotion to three husbands…. Found wanting in her femininity, she is also attacked or at best grudgingly admired for giving evidence of qualities traditionally associated with the male: originality, ambition, drive, ruthlessness, self-confidence, business acumen, a willingness to take risks and break new ground, single-minded devotion to a cause, choosing intimates from outside the family circle, and, above all, a prophetic belief that she was the chosen vessel for God’s purpose and the exponent of new Revelation.7
Nine decades after Zweig published his work, much has changed. Not only is well-researched scholarship available on both Eddy and Christian Science. Tens of thousands of pages of historical documents are also publicly available at The Mary Baker Eddy Library. Our collections include Eddy’s letters, correspondence she received, papers of her contemporaries, memoirs and reminiscences. The time has surely come for more research and writing on this woman, her teachings, and the church she founded.8
Addendum: Stefan Zweig wie ich ihn erlebte
Friderike Zweig’s recollections relating to Die Heilung durch den Geist provide valuable insight into Stefan Zweig’s viewpoint on Eddy and Christian Science. But this commentary is hard to locate; it can only be found in German editions of her book. Here is that passage, provided as a courtesy to our readers.
That is why in his essay about Mary Baker Eddy he employed his vehemence so forcefully. He was even afraid he had shot far beyond his mark with his severity, and was not a little touched by the special courtesy with which some adherents of Christian Science responded to him. One day, while walking along the street in London, we were attracted by one of the very respectably furnished Reading Rooms of this movement. We went in on the spur of the moment, and he was almost ashamed over the cordiality so unknowingly showered on him there. Since people with unusual fates have always held special attraction for him, it is no wonder that he was interested to such an extent in the life of Mary Baker Eddy….9
- The book has been translated into a number of languages, according to WorldCat (WorldCat.org). This global book catalog lists translations of just the Eddy portion of this book in French and Spanish, as well as translations of Zweig’s entire book in French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, Turkish, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, and Norwegian.
- Eryck de Rubercy, “Stefan Zweig, Un Maître de la Biographie,” Revue des deux Mondes (July-August 2010), 103. Original: “Ainsi la critique de Zweig est-elle avant tout, peut-on dire, un biographie psychologique, ou un portrait psychocritique, plutôt qu’une analyze stricto sensu de l’oeuvre.”)
- Norman A. Brittin, “Stefan Zweig: Biographer and Teacher,” The Sewanee Review, Vol. 48, No. 2 (April – June 1940), 254.
- See Stefan Zweig, Mental Healers: Franz Anton Mesmer, Mary Baker Eddy, Sigmund Freud, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New York: The Viking Press, 1932), 106-108.
- Zweig, Mental Healers, 108.
- Friderike Zweig, Stefan Zweig wie ich ihn erlebte (Stockholm: Neuer Verlag, 1947), 211. Original: “Er fürchtete selbst, mit seiner Heftigkeit über das Ziel hinausgeschossen zu sein ….”
- Gillian Gill, Mary Baker Eddy (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998), xxiii.
- For recent biographies of Eddy, the Christian Science Online Shop provides books for purchase in English, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese.
- Friderike Zweig, Stefan Zweig wie ich ihn erlebte, 211–212. Original: “… Deshalb hat er in dem Essay über Mary Baker-Eddy seine Vehemenz so kräftig eingesetzt. Er fürchtete selbst, mit seiner Heftigkeit über das Ziel hinausgeschossen zu sein, und war nicht wenig berührt von der besonderen Vornehmheit, mit der einige Anhänger der Christian Science ihn erwiderten. In London zog uns einmal, beim Vorübergehen, eine der so würdig ausgestatteten Lesesäle dieser Bewegung an. Spontan traten wir ein, und er war geradezu beschämt über die ihm dort ahnungslos gespendete Freundlichkeit. Der Menschen mit eigenartigen Schicksalen immer einen besonderen Anreiz auf ihm ausübten, is es nicht zu verwundern, dass er sich für Mary Baker-Eddys Leben so eingehend interessiert hat….”