In the shouty Valhalla of pointlessly destructive literary feuds, a place of honor must go to the verbal duel between the poets Heinrich Heine and August von Platen, which amused and disgusted the German literary world in 1829. Two outsiders—a Jew and a homosexual—resorted to crude stereotypes as they attempted to eject each other from an establishment that might rather have dispensed with both of them. More remarkably, this intersectional trainwreck took place long before homosexuality emerged as a coherent identity. George Prochnik, in the vibrant new biography “Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution,” delivers a rollicking account of the episode, calling it “a game of blind-man’s buff played in explosive suits,” with Heine providing the climactic detonation.
In brief, the circumstances were these: Heine, a master of caustic wit and raw heartbreak, was in his early thirties and had found fame with his “Buch der Lieder” (“Book of Songs”), a collection of outwardly Romantic lyric poems with an ironic undertow that often escaped early readers. Platen bore a noble name—Count Platen-Hallermünde—but had grown up without financial advantages, serving in the military before turning to literature. He had won notice for finespun odes, sonnets, and adaptations of the Persian ghazal. Karl Immermann, a friend of Heine’s, had made cracks about pretentious poets who “vomit Ghaselen”; Heine quoted Immermann’s lines in one of his volumes of “Reisebilder” (“Travel Pictures”) that detoured into politics and literature. Platen, irrationally incensed by this run-of-the-mill literary sniping, struck back in a pseudo-Aristophanic comedy titled “The Romantic Oedipus,” deploying anti-Semitic epithets against Heine. The latter, in his next travelogue, “The Baths of Lucca,” unleashed a homophobic evisceration of Platen—which was widely viewed as overkill and caused considerable damage to Heine’s career. Platen, who already felt alienated from Germany and was based in Italy, said no more. He died of cholera six years later, in Syracuse, Sicily.