Gundolf, who was the son of a mathematician, studied art history and German language and literature at the universities of Munich, Berlin and Heidelberg. He received his doctorate in 1903 and completed his Habilitation (attainment of professor's status) eight years later. His habilitation work about "Shakespeare and the German spirit" (Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist, 1911), marked a turning point in German language and literature studies.
He also was an important member of the Georgekreis, which he joined in 1899. He published first poems in Stefan George's "Blätter für die Kunst". During 1910 and 1911, he edited the "Jahrbuch für geistige Bewegung" (Yearbook for mental movement), which preached the cultural political opinions of the Georgekreis. He and Stefan George stayed on good terms for more than twenty years, but later, George broke completely with him, on the occasion of his marriage in 1926.
In his works in literary studies, Gundolf took a new, historically-oriented view on literature, which centered on the philosophically determined registration of the poet. To him, the great writers (such as Shakespeare or Goethe) were symbolic figures of their time and during his academic research, he sought to present not only the artist, but also the effects of his works.
From 1916 to the late 1920s, Friedrich Gundolf was professor at Heidelberg university. In 1921, one of his students was Joseph Goebbels, later famous as the Nazi propaganda minister, who at that time admired the famous literary scholar and his colleague Max Freiherr von Waldberg. Von Waldberg also became his advisor, when Goebbels wrote his doctoral dissertation. Gundolf also befriended economist and fellow Heidelberg professor Arthur Salz.
From 1927, Gundolf suffered from cancer, and died of it four years later. Gundolf's works were banned by the Nazis in 1933.
His most famous publication is "Goethe" (13th edition in 1930) in which he radicalized the principles of his view on figures. In 1964, the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung founded the Friedrich-Gundolf-Preis for the intermediation of German culture in foreign countries, which is conferred every year.
- "Gundolf, Friedrich" The Oxford Companion to German Literature (3 ed.)