The boy who wrote these essays passed away not long after he left school. I had some difficulty convincing his mother, a dear and honorable lady, to allow me to publish them. She was understandably very attached to these pages, which must have been a bittersweet reminder of her son. Only after I promised to have the essays published unchanged, just as her little Fritz had written them, did she finally agree. The essays may seem unboyish in many places, and all too boyish in others. But please keep in mind that my hand has not altered them anywhere. A boy can speak words of great wisdom and words of great stupidity at practically the same moment: that is how these essays are, too. I bade farewell to the boy’s mother as politely and gratefully as I could. She told me all sorts of qualities in the little fellow’s life that nicely overlap with the qualities of the schoolwork presented here. He was destined to die young, the jolly, serious laugher. It was not granted to his surely large and sparkling eyes to see anything of the wider world he so longed to reach. On the other hand, he was able to see clearly, in his way, as the reader will surely agree when he reads these essays. Farewell, my little friend! Farewell, reader!
Man is a sensitive creature. He has only two legs, but one heart, where an army of thoughts and feelings frolics. Man could be compared to a well-laid-out pleasure garden, if our teacher permitted such innuendos. Now and then Man writes poetry, and when he is in this highest and noblest condition he is called a Poet. If we were all the way we should be, namely the way God has told us to be, we would be infinitely happy. Alas we abandon ourselves to useless passions that undermine our well-being only too soon and put an end to our happiness. Man should stand above his fellow creature, the animal, in all things. But even a foolish schoolboy can see people acting like irrational animals every day. Drunkenness is as hideous as a picture: Why do people indulge in it? It must be because from time to time they feel the need to drown their reason in the dreams that swim in every kind of alcohol. Such cowardice is fitting for a thing as imperfect as Man. We are imperfect in everything. Our inadequacy extends to every task we undertake and which would be so splendid if it didn’t proceed from mere greed. Why must we be this way? I drank a glass of beer once, but I will never drink another one again. Where will it lead? To noble endeavors? Certainly not. I promise loud and clear: I want to be a steady, upright person. Let all great and beautiful things find in me as ardent an imitator as fierce a protector. Secretly, I love art. But it’s not a secret anymore, not since right now, because now I’ve been careless and blabbed it. Let me be punished for that and made an example of. What makes a noble way of thinking not want to freely admit itself? Nothing less than a whipping in view, that’s for sure. What is a whipping? A scarecrow to frighten slaves and dogs! Only one specter scares me: baseness. Oh, I want to climb as high as is granted to any man. I want to be famous. I want to meet beautiful women and love them and be loved and petted by them. Even so, I will not give up any of my elemental power (creative power), instead I want to and I will get stronger, freer, nobler, richer, more famous, braver, and more reckless every day. I’m sure I’ll get an F for writing like this. But I say this is the best essay I’ve ever written. Every word comes from the heart. How beautiful it is, after all, to have a quaking, sensitive, choosy heart. That is the best thing about a person. A person who does not know how to preserve his heart is unwise, because he is robbing himself of an endless source of sweet inexhaustible strength, a wealth in which he exceeds all the creatures on earth, a fullness, a warmth that, if he wants to remain human, he will never be able to do without. A person with a heart is not only the best person but also the most intelligent person, since he has something that no mere bustling cleverness can give him. I repeat once again: I never want to get drunk; I don’t want to look forward to meals, since that’s beastly; I want to pray and, even more, work, since it seems to me that work is already a prayer; I want to be industrious and obey whoever deserves to be obeyed. Parents and teachers deserve it automatically. That’s my essay.
When autumn comes, the leaves fall off of the trees onto the ground. Actually, I should say it like this: When the leaves fall, autumn is here. I have to work on improving my style. Last time the teacher wrote: Style, wretched. It’s upsetting but there’s nothing I can do about it. I like autumn. The air is fresher, the things on the earth look different all of a sudden, the mornings sparkle and are very beautiful and the nights are so wonderfully chilly. And still we take walks until very late. The mountain above the city is beautifully colored and it makes you sad when you think that these colors signal the general colorlessness to come. Soon the snow will be flying. I love snow, too, even if it’s not so nice to wade around in it too long with cold wet feet. But why else are there warm felt slippers and heated rooms for later? Only the poor children tug at my heartstrings—I know they have no warm rooms in their houses. How horrible it must be to sit around and freeze. I wouldn’t do any homework, I would die, yes, stubbornly die out of spite, if I were poor. How the trees look now! Their branches pierce the gray air like thin, sharply pointed daggers; you can see the ravens you never see at any other time. You don’t hear any birds singing anymore. Nature really is great. The way it shifts colors, changes robes, puts on masks and takes them off again! It’s very beautiful. If I was a painter, and it’s not out of the question that I’ll become one someday, since after all no one knows what their destiny may be, I would be most fervently an autumn painter. I’m only afraid that my colors wouldn’t be up to it. Maybe I still don’t understand it enough. And anyway, why should I worry at all about something that hasn’t even happened yet? Only the present moment should and must concern me deeply. Where did I hear that? I must have heard it somewhere, maybe from my older brother, who is in college. It will be winter soon, the snow will swirl, oh how I’m looking forward to that! When everything outside is so white, everything in class is so right. Colors fill up your mind too much with all sorts of muddled stuff. Colors are too sweet a muddle, nothing more. I love things in one color, monotonous things. Snow is such a monotonous song. Why shouldn’t a color be able to make the same impression as singing? White is like a murmuring, whispering, praying. Fiery colors, like for instance autumn colors, are a shriek. Green in midsummer is a many-voiced song with all the highest notes. Is that true? I don’t know if that’s right. Well, the teacher will surely be so kind as to correct it.— How everything in the world keeps going! Now it’s almost Christmas, then it’s just a short step to New Year’s, only a few more to spring, and everything keeps moving forward step-by-step like that. You’d have to be crazy to try to count all the steps. I don’t like math. I’m bad at it even though my grades are pretty good. I will never go into business, I can feel that. I only hope my parents don’t try to apprentice me to a businessman! I would run away, and then what would they have? But have I said enough here about autumn? I went on a lot about snow. That’ll get me a good grade on my report card this quarter. Grades are a stupid invention. In singing I get an A and I don’t make a single sound. How does that happen? It would be better if they gave us apples instead of grades. But then it’s true they would have to hand out way too many apples. Oh!
A lonely wanderer strides across the pitch-black field. The stars shining above him are his only companions. He walks sunk in thought, suddenly he notices overhead a dark red in the sky. He stops and stays still, thinks a moment, and turns back toward the city on the path he has just walked: he knows that a fire has broken out. He walks faster but is too far away from the city to get there one two three. We will leave him scurrying along and look to see how the inhabitants of the city are reacting to the fire that has so terrifyingly broken out in their midst. A man is hurrying through the quiet streets and waking up all the sleepers with numerous blows on his horn. Everyone recognizes the unique, ghastly sound of the fire horn. Everyone who is able to jump up jumps up, throws some clothes on, rubs his eyes, pulls himself together, takes to his feet, and rushes through the streets, which by now are full of people, to the site of the fire. It is to be found on the main street and is one of the most important buildings in the community. The fire is spreading wildly. It is as though it had a hundred slippery, volatile arms reaching out in all directions. The fire department has not yet arrived. Fire departments are slow everywhere, but especially in our city. But now it would really be better if it came, the situation is getting scary. This fire, which, like all savage elements, has no rational mind, is acting totally crazy. Why are the human hands to rein it in not yet near? Must people be at their laziest on just such a terrible night as this? There are a lot of people standing on the square. It’s true, I’m there and the teacher is there and everyone in our class. Everyone gawks in amazement.— Now, finally, the firemen, looking half asleep, arrive and start performing their duties. These consist for the time being of running back and forth and shouting back and forth in a totally useless way. Why all that screaming? A firm command and silent obedience—that would really be much better. The fire has turned into a raging fire. Why did they have to give it enough time to become a raging fire? It devours, it tears, it hisses, it rages, it is like a glowing red-colored drunkard smashing and destroying everything it can get its hands on. The house is ruined in any case. All the beautiful valuable things lying piled up inside it burn: just as long as no people perish. But it almost looks like the most terrible thing has come to pass. A girl’s voice cries out from the smoke and fiery blaze. You poor girl! Her mother, down in the street, faints. A traveling salesman catches her. Oh, if only I were big and strong! How I’d like to defy the flames and leap as a heroic savior to the aid of the girl! Are there no heroes anywhere in sight? Now would be the chance to reveal what a brave and courageous person you are. But wait, what’s that? A thin young man in shabby clothing has already mounted the rungs of a tall ladder and is climbing ever higher, into the smoke, into the blaze, now he’s terrifyingly visible again for a moment and now he disappears again and then he turns—oh, the sight!—with the girl in one arm and he comes back down the ladder carefully holding on with the other arm and he gives the mother, who has meanwhile recovered somewhat, back her daughter, who is practically smothered with hugs and kisses. What a moment! Oh, if only I could have been that good brave man! Oh, to be such a man, to become such a man! The house burns down to the ground. On the street, mother and daughter hold each other in their arms, and the man who saved her has vanished without a trace.
“On the Value and Necessity of School” says the topic on the blackboard. I would argue that school is useful. It holds me between its iron or wooden claws (school benches) six to eight hours a day and keeps my mind from degenerating into slovenliness. I have to study, that is excellent. It prepares me for the public life that stands before me: that is even better. It exists, and I love and honor facts. I am happy to go to school and happy to leave it. That’s the best variety a useless rascal could ask for. In school, a measuring stick is laid alongside everyone’s knowledge. Now everyone is in the same boat. The poorest kid has the right to be richest in knowledge and ability. No one, not even the teacher, can prevent him from standing out. Everyone has respect for him when he shines; everyone is ashamed of himself when he doesn’t know something. In my opinion that is a nice arrangement, to spur ambition and let you court the admiration of your classmates. I am terribly ambitious. Nothing delights my soul as much as the feeling I get when I surprise my teacher with a clever answer. I know that I’m one of the best students but I constantly tremble at the thought that someone even smarter could catch up to me or surpass me. This thought is as hot and exciting as Hell. That is the most useful thing about school: it tires you out, upsets you, gets you going, it nourishes the imagination, it is the anteroom, the waiting room, as it were, of life. Nothing that exists is useless. School the least of all. Only lazy students, who are often punished as a result, could come up with that idea. In fact I’m surprised we were even given this as a topic at all. Schoolboys cannot actually talk about the value of school and need for school when they’re still stuck in it themselves. Older people should write about things like that. The teacher himself, for instance, or my father, who I think is a wise man. The present time, surrounding you, singing and making noise, cannot be put down in writing in any satisfactory way. You can blabber all kinds of nonsense, but it’s a real question whether the mishmash you write (I allow myself the bad manners of describing my work in this way) actually says and means anything. I like school. Anything forced on me, whose necessity has been mutely insisted upon from every side, I try to approach obligingly, and like it. School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelry indeed. What a burden we would be to our parents, workers, passersby, shop owners if we didn’t have to go to school! What would we spend our time doing, if not homework! Playing tricks ends up being pretty exhausting after all. It’s impossible to go for a walk without taking the opportunity to play a trick somewhere or another. Yes, really, school is a nice arrangement. I do not in any way regret going to school, instead I celebrate it from the bottom of my heart. Every smart and truth-loving schoolboy would have to say the same thing, or something along the same lines. It’s pointless to talk about the value of something necessary, everything necessary is valuable automatically.
It is hard to write about Nature, especially for someone in Grade A-2. Writing about people is easy: they have fixed characteristics. But Nature is so blurry, so delicate, so intangible, so infinite. Still I’ll try. I like wrestling with difficult things. It makes your blood surge around in your veins and arteries and excites the senses. Nothing is impossible, I have heard it said somewhere or another. That may be a slightly superficial way to put it, but a streak of truth and fact runs through these words. I went for a walk in the mountains with my brother, the college student. It was in winter, two weeks before Christmas. The mountain is as broad as an athlete’s shoulders. It was lightly covered with snow, as if a sensitive, careful hand had strewn it. Delicate little spikes of grass poked out, which was a very pretty sight. The air was full of mist and sun. The blue sky was lightly transparent everywhere—softly, lightly. We daydreamed while we walked. At the top, we sat down on a bench and enjoyed the view. A view like that is the most splendid and liberating thing in the world. Our gaze went down into the valleys and out into the farthest distance, only to tarry in the closest nearness the next moment. You look calmly at the fields, meadows, and mountainsides stretched out at your feet, as though lifeless or asleep. Mist steals through the narrow valleys and the wide valleys, the forests dream, the roofs of the city sparkle blurrily, everything is a soft, pleasant, big, silent dream. Now it looks like the rolling waves of the ocean, now like a cute little toy, now like something infinitely clear again, something that has suddenly become clear. I can’t think of the words for it. Neither of us wanted to interrupt the beautiful Sunday mountain silence. The bells tolled richly from the depths. It seemed to me that they were ringing very close to me, right next to my ears, and then a moment later it seemed to me that they had fallen silent and I could no longer perceive them with my weak hearing. We spoke softly, when we eventually spoke. About art. My brother said that it was a lot harder to play Karl in The Robbers than the villain, Franz, and I had to agree with him when he told me his reasons for saying so. My brother is an excellent painter, poet, singer, piano player, and gymnast. He is very, very talented. I love him, and not only because he is my brother. He is my friend. He wants to be a choirmaster, but really he would rather not be a choirmaster, he would rather be something that brings together all the arts in the world. One thing for sure, he wants to make something of himself.— We went home when the time came when you have to go home, as it always does. The snow gleamed as it fell off the early fir trees. We said that the firs looked marvelously beautiful, like noble, aristocratic women. Here I can see a smile floating over my teacher’s lips. The memory of that Sunday morning walk still floats over me—of the white, dreamy, light blue view from the bench, of the conversation about art, and of . . . There’s the bell.
The usefulness of a fair is great, and the pleasure it gives perhaps even greater. The farmers bring their cattle to market, the merchants their goods, the performers their curiosities, and the artists their works. Everyone wants to buy and sell. One person sells what he’s bought for a higher price and buys something else with the profit; someone else buys back the sold item from the buyer at a loss so that he can sell it somewhere else for more. Then maybe he slaps himself on the forehead and calls himself a fool. All anyone does is trade, bustle, shout, run around, look, and buy and sell. We impartial bystanders drift around in the crowded fair with our schoolboy intentions. There are plenty of grand things to see. The lady there with her tight-fitting red dress, feathered hat, and high little boots is a snake charmer. I can watch her for hours with the greatest pleasure. She stands supremely still. Her face is pale, her eyes are big and lackluster, and the expression of her mouth is filled with contempt. I don’t mind letting her despise me: she is so sad. She must bear some kind of indelible sorrow.— Here are the shooting galleries. This is where young patriots practice their bull’s-eyes. The distance from the barrel of the gun to the target is admittedly not very great, but a lot of people still miss. Shots cost five cents each. An incredibly beautiful girl lures everyone in the mood to try shooting to her booth, and even people who aren’t in the mood. Her colleagues give her the evil eye. She is as beautiful as a princess and friendly like no one else but her—. There are carousels everywhere, steam powered and not. The music is not very uplifting and still you wouldn’t want to do without it. I let myself be carried up and down, and down and up. You ride in the most beautiful sleighs of silver and gold, the stars in the sky dance around you, the world revolves with you. It’s worth the money.— Then there’s the Kasperle puppet show. I’m glad I didn’t walk past that and not see it. I would have missed out on the best laughs. You have to laugh at every blow that the Kasperle strikes with his monstrous whip. More people die than want to die. Death leaps out unbelievably fast and strikes his victims down with marvelous accuracy. These victims include generals, doctors, governesses, soldiers, policemen, and ministers. Not one of them dies a peaceful death, as the newspapers say. They are pretty violently executed. Kasperle gets away with a light beating. At the end of the show, he politely bows to us and invites us to a brand-new, never-before-performed show. I like how his rascally face never changes.— Here you can have your photograph taken. There a panorama offers anyone who wants to look the chance to see every continent and every historical event in the world. Here you can see the three-legged horse. And just three steps farther on, you can look at the biggest ox in the world. No one has to but everyone is most politely invited to. People pay their entrance fees as they walk by. We keep walking. I take one last look at the snake lady. Truly, she deserves it. She stands there as tall and motionless as a picture. My parents gave me a franc to spend. I wonder where it went.— Beautiful snake lady!
Essays should always be written neatly and legibly. Only a bad essay-writer forgets to apply himself to the clarity of both the thoughts and the letters. You should always think first before you write. To start a sentence with an unfinished thought is sloppiness that can never be forgiven. And yet the slothful schoolboy believes that words will arise from other words. That is nothing but a vain and dangerous idea though. You get tired from walking on a country road much faster if you don’t have a goal in mind.— Periods, commas, and other punctuation are a mistake to neglect, a mistake with a further consequence: untidiness of style. Style is a sense of order. Anyone with an unclear, untidy, unsightly mind will write in a style with those same qualities. From the style, says a proverb old and clichéd but no less true for all that, you can know the man.— When writing an essay, your elbows can’t fly around too wildly back and forth. That annoys the writer next to you, who is no doubt not insensitive to disturbances since he too is a thinker and a writer. Writing is about getting quietly worked up. Anyone who can’t sit still but who always has to act loud and self-important to get his work done will never be able to write anything lively and beautiful.— It’s much prettier, and thus much quicker, and thus much more sensitive and pleasing, to write on clean, smooth paper, so always make sure you have good writing paper ready. Why else are there so many stationery stores? Writing something thoughtful is good, but wanting to stuff your work too full of thoughts is something you should avoid. An essay, like any other work for that matter, should be pleasant to read and to use. Too many thoughts and opinions make the simple framework, in other words the form on which every essay must be draped, just collapse. What, then, is an essay? A quarry, a landslide, a raging fire that may be splendid to look at but is also very sad. Someone with no thoughts doesn’t need his nose rubbed in this point, since there is no way he will overload his construction anyway.— Humor can be used in essays, but only as a subtle, delicate adornment. Anyone funny by nature needs to pay especially careful attention. Jokes that sound nice when they come out of your mouth only rarely look as good on paper. In addition, it is unrefined to make use of a gift one is richly endowed with in any but the most selective way.— Crossing out words looks messy. You should try to avoid this habit. I myself often need to remind myself of this. Self, hear and obey! Looking in the notebook of the boy next to you, to steal thoughts or ideas that you can’t think up yourself, is a rotten thing to do. No student should have so little self-respect that he prefers a stupid theft to the noble confession that his knowledge has reached its limits. It’s best not to pester the teacher with questions and sighs. Acting like that is weak and it only shows how embarrassed you are about the knowledge you are supposed to have but don’t. Teachers despise that.
—Translated from the German by Damion Searls; illustrations by Karl Walser, from Fritz Kochers Aufsätze, 1904