Biography of E.T.A. Hoffman

E. T. A. Hoffmann, born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, was a German Romantic author of fantasy and horror as well as a jurist and composer.

Hoffman's family on both maternal and paternal sides were involved in law; his father, Christoph Ludwig Hoffmann, was a barrister in Prussia who married his cousin, Lovisa Albertina Doerffer, in 1767. Ernst was born the youngest of three children, though the second child died in infancy and the eldest, Johann Ludwig Hoffmann, went to live with his father in Insterburg when their parents separated in 1778. Hoffman and his mother stayed in Königsberg with her brother and two sisters, who collectively raised him.

Hoffman was educated in law and became a Prussian law officer in the Polish provinces in 1800, where he served until the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806. He then held several jobs in the music field as a conductor, critic, and theatrical musical director. He composed the ballet Arlequin in 1811 and the opera Undine in 1816, and in 1813 he changed his third baptismal name, Wilhelm, to Amadeus in homage to the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  

In 1814-15, Hoffman published Phantasiestücke in Callots Manier, four volumes of stories that established him as a popular German writer. Hoffman went on to write two novels and more than 50 short stories in the rest of his life, while supporting himself with a job in a legal office in Berlin. His stories, especially his later collections, were popular in England, the United States, and France. Hoffman died from progressive paralysis from syphilis in 1822, at the age of 46. 

Hoffmann's most famous stories are The Sandman and The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, on which the famous ballet The Nutcracker was based.  


Study Guides on Works by E.T.A. Hoffman

The Sandman, written in in 1817, is one of Hoffmann's most well known stories.

Sigmund Freud gave an interpretation of the story in his essay "The Uncanny," written almost 100 years later in 1919. The essay uses the story to help define a literary...