von Kleist was born into the Prussian officer class, one of seven children of the two marriages of his father, who died in 1788. von Kleist was soon sent away to Berlin to be raised by a Lutheran pastor, Samuel Heinrich Catel, where he was unhappy. Aged only 14, he enlisted in the Prussian army in 1792 but in 1793 his mother died, leaving him an orphan at 15.
His lack of a proper Prussian devotion to discipline, order and "correctness," and his aimless lifestyle after leaving the army in 1799, estranged him from almost his entire family. He also had a speech impediment.
He became a literary magazine editor/publisher in Berlin and the author of a relatively small but very important body of plays, short stories, novellas, essays and poems.
Deeply depressed by life and by his study of Kant's philosophy, he shot himself and a friend, Henrietta Vogel, in a murder/suicide pact.
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