• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

The media’s first moral panic

When cultural commentators lament the decline of the habit of reading books, it is difficult to imagine that back in the 18th century many prominent voices were concerned about the threat posed by people reading too much. A dangerous disease appeared to afflict the young, which some diagnosed as reading addiction and others as reading rage, reading fever, reading mania or reading lust. Throughout Europe reports circulated about the outbreak of what was described as an epidemic of reading. The behaviours associated with this supposedly insidious contagion were sensation-seeking and morally dissolute and promiscuous behaviour. Even acts of self-destruction were associated with this new craze for the reading of novels.

What some described as a craze was actually a rise in the 18th century of an ideal: the ‘love of reading’. The emergence of this new phenomenon was largely due to the growing popularity of a new literary genre: the novel. The emergence of commercial publishing in the 18th century and the growth of an ever-widening constituency of readers was not welcomed by everyone. Many cultural commentators were apprehensive about the impact of this new medium on individual behaviour and on society’s moral order.

With the growing popularity of novel reading, the age of the mass media had arrived. Novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761) became literary sensations that gripped the imagination of their European readers. What was described as ‘Pamela-fever’ indicated the powerful influence novels could exercise on the imagination of the reading public. Public deliberation on these ‘fevers’ focused on what was a potentially dangerous development, which was the forging of an intense and intimate interaction between the reader and literary characters. The consensus that emerged was that unrestrained exposure to fiction led readers to lose touch with reality and identify with the novel’s romantic characters to the point of adopting their behaviour. The passionate enthusiasm with which European youth responded to the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) appeared to confirm this consensus.

Letters of love

The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel, which recounts the tortured love of a young man, Werther. His letters reveal an intense passion for Lotte, who is already betrothed to another man. Werther cannot reconcile himself to his predicament and concludes that he has no choice but to take his life. His refusal to compromise and willingness to die for love resonated with the idealistic and romantic imagination of the novel’s young readers.

The publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther turned into an almost instant media event. It became the first documented literary sensation of modern Europe. The novel was translated into French (1775), English (1779), Italian (1781) and Russian (1788) and was repeatedly republished in different editions. There were more than 20 pirated editions published within 12 years of its appearance in Germany. It also enjoyed remarkable success in the United States. It was one of the biggest-selling novels before the War of 1812 and, according to reports, had a powerful influence on the early American literary public.

By all accounts a generation of young people adopted Werther as their hero. Many of them memorised excerpts from his letters and imitated the affectations associated with their tragic idol. It was widely reported that young men and women wept for days, even weeks, over his tragic demise. Followers of Werther also copied the fashion of their tragic hero. Groups of young men took to wearing yellow trousers in combination with a blue tailcoat and high boots in imitation of Werther’s appearance.

The novel spawned a cottage industry devoted to the merchandising of Werther-related souvenirs. What was frequently described as ‘Werther Fever’ was reflected through the mass marketing of drawings, engravings and everyday objects decorated with scenes from the novel. This commercialisation of ‘fan products’ included cups and plates by the manufacturer of Meissen china. One entrepreneur came up with the brand, ‘Eau de Werther’ to market his perfume. Nor was the impact of this Werther mania an overnight phenomenon. The appeal of Werther lasted until the early 1800s. Decades after its publication, Napoleon declared his admiration for the novel and asserted that he had read it seven times.

The scale of the reaction to Werther perturbed authorities throughout Europe. Many officials and critics perceived the vivid and sympathetic manner with which Goethe described Werther’s descent into self-destruction as legitimating the act of suicide. They condemned the novel as a danger to the public, particularly to impressionable young readers.The novel was blamed for the unleashing of an epidemic of copycat suicides throughout Europe among young, emotionally disturbed and broken-hearted readers. The numerous initiatives to ban the novel indicated that the authorities took these claims very seriously. In 1775 the theological faculty of the University of Leipzig petitioned officials to ban Werther on the grounds that its circulation would lead to the promotion of suicide. The city council of Leipzig agreed and cited the increased frequency of suicides as justification for banning both the novel and the wearing of Werther’s costume. The ban, which was introduced in 1775, was not lifted until 1825. The novel was also banned in Italy and Denmark.

The calls for bans were justified on the grounds of preventing the damage that a book like Werther could cause to its young readers. The Hamburg Protestant Pastor Johann Goeze denounced the novel as a ‘heinous book’. ‘Consider for God’s sake how many of our youth could end in circumstances similar to those of Werther’, he asked in his call to ban the book in order protect public morals. The bishop of Milan, a catholic, shared the apprehensions of his German protestant colleague. It was reported that he was so disturbed by the peril that Werther represented to public morality that he bought up all available copies of the novel to protect Milanese readers from its influence. Unease with the effect of Werther on its readers was not confined to theologians and public moralists. During the course of a debate on the novel in Sweden, the poet Johan Kellgren (1751-95) indicated that he was worried that the ‘Werther suicide might become contagious by suggestion and warned of literature where emotions played a dominating role’.

Even one of the most prominent representatives of the German Enlightenment, the writer and philosopher G.E. Lessing (1751-91), was uncomfortable about the influence of Werther on its readers. Lessing acknowledged that he enjoyed reading the book but nevertheless he wrote to a friend that the ‘novel could cause more harm than good’. Lessing was unsettled by its sympathetic treatment of the protagonist and of the manner of his demise and feared that ‘a young man of similar disposition’ might adopt such a course of action in imitation. Although Lessing possessed an intellectual and moral outlook that was very different to the religious critics of Werther, they all shared an instinctive mistrust of their readers’ ability to resist the influence of Goethe’s apparent condoning of romantic suicide.

An Epidemic of Suicides

In November 1784, five years after the publication of the English translation of Werther, the Gentleman’s Magazine published the following notice under its obituary:

Suddenly at the Chaceside, Southgate, Miss Glover, daughter of the late Mr.G., formerly an eminent dancing master. The Sorrows of Werther were found under her pillow; a circumstance which deserves to be known in order, if possible to defeat the evil tendency of that pernicious work.

The condemnation of this ‘pernicious’ work and the assertion that it bore responsibility for the demise of Miss Glover provided the foundation for the construction of a legend about the novel’s destructive influence on its English readers. In informing the public about a ‘circumstance which deserves to be known’, the author of this notice helped construct a story that would be integral to the folklore of suicide.

The notice of Miss Glover’s demise immediately roused a correspondent, ‘Theophilius’, to write a letter denouncing ‘the gloomy and violent passions that agitate and torment the mind of a Werther’. In the decades to come rumours of suicides committed by readers of Werther circulated on both sides of the Atlantic. Typically, newspapers went to great lengths to report the careful staging of suicide by individuals who drew attention to their tragic demise by clutching a copy of Werther in their dying moments.

Stories of suicides staged to highlight the ‘Sorrows’ of the anguished reader acquired the status of a compelling cultural myth. Time and again allusions to the staged version of a Werther-induced suicide were accompanied by the repetition of an alleged remark made by the French woman of letters, Madame de Staël (1766-1817) to the effect that Werther ‘had caused more suicides than the most beautiful woman in the world’. Did Byron really state that Werther was ‘responsible for more deaths than Napoleon himself’? In a sense it does not matter, because like so many of the allegations made about the effects of this novel they were effortlessly integrated into the urban legend surrounding it.

In the United States the campaign of moral outrage against Werther gained momentum in the 1790s. During the last decade of the 18th century American publications regularly reported on the devastating effects of the novel on its readership. In 1798 one contributor to the Philadelphia-based Weekly Magazine sought to convince booksellers ‘to remove the book from their shelves, by alleging that it had already proved “the bane of more than one family” in the state’. Yet as the novel continued to be a best-seller well into to the 1800s, its critics became more and more hysterical in their attacks on its author. Goethe was charged with producing a novel that sought to romanticise suicide. It was as if America’s moral anxieties were sublimated through its reaction to this novel.

As late as 1865 the German author J. W. Appel outlined two cases of suicide by readers of the novel. In one instance he cited the example of a young man who killed himself by jumping off a tall building with a copy of Werther in his possession. The other case provides an account of a mother whose son committed suicide after reading it. The mother was reported to say ‘you too, my son’ had ‘underlined several parts in Werther’. This was taken as further conclusive evidence of a causal link between reading the work and a young man’s suicide.

Where is the evidence?

What our exploration of the narrative of Werther fever suggests is that it acquired a life of its own to the point that it mutated into a taken-for-granted rhetorical idiom, which accounted for the moral problems facing society. Warnings about an epidemic of suicide said more about the anxieties of their authors than the behaviour of the readers of the novels. An inspection of the literature circulating these warnings indicates a striking absence of empirical evidence. The constant allusion to Miss. G., to nameless victims and to similarly framed death scenes suggests that these reports had little factual content to draw on. Stories about an epidemic of suicide were as fictional as the demise of Werther in Goethe’s novel.

It is, however, likely that readers of Werther were influenced by the controversy surrounding the novel. Goethe himself was affected by it and in his autobiography lamented that so many of his readers felt called upon to ‘re-enact the novel, and possibly shoot themselves’. Yet, despite the sanctimonious scaremongering, it continued to attract a large readership. While there is no evidence that Werther was responsible for the promotion of a wave of copycat suicides, it evidently succeeded in inspiring a generation of young readers. The emergence of what today would be described as a cult of fans with some of the trappings of a youth subculture is testimony to the novel’s powerful appeal.

The association of the novel with the disorganisation of the moral order represented an early example of a media panic. The formidable, sensational and often improbable effects attributed to the consequences of reading in the 18th century provided the cultural resources on which subsequent reactions to the cinema, television or the Internet would draw on. In that sense Werther fever anticipated the media panics of the future.

Curiously, the passage of time has not entirely undermined the association of Werther fever with an epidemic of suicide. In 1974 the American sociologist Dave Phillips coined the term, the ‘Werther Effect’ to describe mediastimulated imitation of suicidal behaviour. But the durability of the Werther myth notwithstanding, contemporary media panics are rarely focused on novels. In the 21st century the simplistic cause and effect model of the ‘Werther Effect is more likely to be expressed through moral anxieties about the danger of cybersuicide, copycat online suicide.

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