1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Forster, Johann Georg Adam
FORSTER, JOHANN GEORG ADAM (1754–1794), German traveller and author, was born at Nassenhuben, a small village near Danzig, on the 27th of November 1754. His father, Johann Reinhold Forster, a man of great scientific attainments but an intractable temper, was at that time pastor of the place; the family are said to have been of Scottish extraction. In 1765 the elder Forster was commissioned by the empress Catherine to inspect the Russian colonies in the province of Saratov, which gave his son an opportunity of acquiring the Russian language and the elements of a scientific education. After a few years the father quarrelled with the Russian government, and went to England, where he obtained a professorship of natural history and the modern languages at the famous non-conformist academy at Warrington. His violent temper soon compelled him to resign this appointment, and for two years he and his son earned a precarious livelihood by translations in London—a practical education, however, exceedingly useful to the younger Forster, who became a thorough master of English, and acquired many of the ideas which chiefly influenced his subsequent life. At length the turning point in his career came in the shape of an invitation for him and his father to accompany Captain Cook in his third voyage round the world. Such an expedition was admirably calculated to call forth Forster’s peculiar powers. His account of Cook’s voyage (A Voyage round the World, London, 1777; in German, Berlin, 1778–1780), is almost the first example of the glowing yet faithful description of natural phenomena which has since made a knowledge of them the common property of the educated world. The publication of this work was, however, impeded for some time by differences with the admiralty, during which Forster proceeded to the continent to obtain an appointment for his father as professor at Cassel, and found to his surprise that it was conferred upon himself. The elder Forster, however, was soon provided for elsewhere, being appointed professor of natural history at Halle. At Cassel Forster formed an intimate friendship with the great anatomist Sömmerring, and about the same time made the acquaintance of Jacobi, who gave him a leaning towards mysticism from which he emancipated himself. The want of books and scientific apparatus at Cassel induced him to resort frequently to Göttingen, where he became betrothed to Therese Heyne, the daughter of the illustrious philologist, a clever and cultivated woman, but ill-suited to be Forster’s wife. To be able to marry he accepted (1784) a professorship at the university of Wilna, which he did not find to his taste. The penury and barbarism of Polish circumstances are graphically described in his and his wife’s letters of this period. After a few years’ residence at Wilna he resigned his appointment to participate in a scientific expedition projected by the Russian government, and upon the relinquishment of this undertaking became librarian to the elector of Mainz. He actively promoted the incorporation of the left bank of the Rhine with France and in 1793 went to Paris to carry on the negotiations. Meanwhile, however, the Germans seized Mainz, and Forster—already disheartened by the turn of events in France—was cut off from all return. Domestic sorrows were added to his political troubles and he died suddenly at Paris on the 10th of January 1794.
Forster’s masterpiece is his Ansichten vom Niederrhein, von Brabant, Flandern, Holland, England und Frankreich (1791-1794), one of the ablest books of travel of the 18th century. His style is clear and vivid; his method of describing what he sees extraordinarily plastic; above all, he has the art of presenting objects to us from their most interesting and attractive side. The same qualities are also more or less conspicuous in his minor writings. By his translation (from the English) of the Sakuntala of Kalidasa (1791), he first awakened German interest in Indian literature.
Forster’s Sämtliche Werke appeared at Leipzig in 9 vols. in 1843. The Ansichten vom Rhein, &c., has been frequently reprinted (best edition by A. Leitzmann, Halle, 1893); Leitzmann has also published (Stuttgart, 1894) a selection of Forster’s Kleine Schriften, which originally appeared in 6 vols. (1789-1797). His correspondence was published by his wife (2 vols., Leipzig, 1829); his Briefwechsel mit Sömmerring by H. Hettner (Brunswick, 1877). See J. Moleschott, G. Forster, der Naturforscher des Volks (1854; 3rd ed., 1874); K. Klein, G. Forster in Mainz (Gotha, 1863); A. Leitzmann, G. Forster (Vorlesung) (Halle, 1893).