Wilhelm Busch is one of Germany’s great poets alongside with Goethe and Schiller. He is known as a pioneer of the comic strip, due to his caricature drawings that accompanied his verse. Among his most popular works are Max and Moritz, a children’s classic that recount the mischievous pranks of the aforesaid boys, a ballad that is often read and dramatized in German schools.
Wilhelm’s Bush rise to popularity was at first arduous. Busch was the first of seven children born to Henriette Dorothee Charlotte Kleine and Friedrich Wilhelm Busch in a village near Hannover, Lower Saxony called Wiedensahl. His ties to his immediate family were cut when at the age of nine , he was sent to live with his uncle in Ebergötzen bei Göttingen for a better education. Some of his biographers suggest that perhaps his eccentricities are due to the lack of his mother’s influence during his childhood.
At his uncle’s and father’s request, Busch began his studies in mechanical engineering in 1847 , which he pursued for nearly four years. A few months before graduating, Busch confronted his parents about his desire to pursue the arts instead. Reluctantly they agreed and in the summer of 1851, Busch enrolled at Die Königliche Akademie der schönen Künste in Antwerpen. Much to his chagrin however, the school only accepted him into the preparatory program and not to the advanced classes as Busch had hoped.
Dissatisfied with the school, Busch pursued his education in Munich but without much success either. A bout with typhus, his failings as a librettist, the disillusioned Busch seriously considered emigrating to Brazil to raise a bee farm.
But Busch persisted and finally in 1863, he got his break when Max and Moritz was published in Munich. Ironically, this work was originally intended for another publisher, who refused it. At first, Max and Moritz’ popularity was moderate but by Busch’s death, nearly half a million copies had been sold in several languages.
Most of Busch’s works are a satirical spin on practically everything in society! His works were often a parody of double standards. He poked fun at the ignorance of the poor, the snobbery of the rich, and in particular, the pomposity of clergymen. Busch was anti-Catholic and some of his works greatly reflected this . Scenes such as in Die fromme Helene, where it is hinted that the married Helene had an affair with a clergy man or the scene in Der Heilige Antonius von Padua where the catholic Saint Antonius is being seduced by the devil clad in ballet attire made these works by Busch both popular and offensive. Due to such and similar scenes, the book Der Heilige Antonius von Padua was banned from Austria until 1902.
Die Haarbeutel is another work by Busch with a unique touch. This collection of verse depicts different people and even an animal in a state of drunkenness, often with a morbid ending. It is known that Busch struggled with alcohol his whole life.
Busch died a confirmed old bachelor, secluded in his home in Mechtshausen. Though he loved living in isolation, he was known world-wide at the time of his death. He left behind much unpublished work and paintings that he considered not good enough to display. Many mementos in the form of stamps, coins have been created in the past decades to honor him. Musicals, plays, films based on his work have been produced as well, most recently an operatic version of Die fromme Helene by Rushton in 2007. There is also the Wilhelm-Busch-Preis, a prize awarded every two years to an outstanding satirical and humoristic work of literature. More details about Wilhelm Busch’s life and work can be found on the website of the Wilhelm-Busch museum, which is currently celebrating its 75th anniversary.
Most popular works by Wilhelm Busch are:
Max und Moritz, Die fromme Helene, Plisch und Plum, Hans Huckebein, der Unglücksrabbe.
Read more about German authors.