Werner Sollors is one of the first scholars of American literature to focus on African American literature before it was thought to constitute a canon in the academy. Unlike many other scholars who shared his focus, he completed his education in postwar Germany. The title of his doctoral dissertation on LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), completed at the Free University of Berlin in 1975, has a still-contemporary ring: “The Quest for a ‘Populist Modernism.’” He taught at Columbia University, received a Guggenheim fellowship, and spent the bulk of his career in the United States. In this interview he discusses his intellectual formation and offers reflections on the development of his field, the evolving institutional culture of the university, and 1970s-era multiculturalism.
My interest in talking to Werner Sollors grew from a casual conversation while we were both teaching at NYU Abu Dhabi in the fall of 2018. Over lunch, I was fascinated to hear him speak about wartime multiculturalism and how, as a student in postwar Germany, he was exposed to the United States through its films and music, and of course through its military presence, black and white alike. America was everywhere in Europe, but it was not a fashionable topic of study at the university. Those drawn to it dressed more casually, however, and seemed more interesting, Sollors remarked. Knowing something of the affinity between Americanization and anti-Americanism (see, e.g., Nolan 2005), especially among the educated classes in Europe, I became curious about his intellectual trajectory. Specifically, I wanted to try to understand the relationship between area studies and humanistic inquiry as it evolved in Sollors’s work, which focused on a politically negated subject in the land of the free, while he negotiated his own emigration and resettlement within the West.
Three main themes emerged in our conversation. First, his intellectual formation in postwar Germany, which reflects what could be called “Cold War humanism,” shaped not by an avoidance of politics so much as an immersion in questions of language, culture, and history (see Rajagopal, 2020). From a European perspective, American literature was redeemed by African American writing, and of course it posed an intellectual problem, since, in Sollors’s account, American society’s most marginalized segment produced its finest work, which was more readily appreciated in Europe than at home. The political aspect was subsequent to questions of aesthetic interest, in a sense.
Navigating African American studies was another matter. There Sollors was confronted by the fairly comprehensive exclusion of qualified African American faculty from all but segregated Southern colleges, while the relevant literary canons evolved in apparent seclusion. Sollors offers reflections across the divisions, of literary scholars historicizing early ideas of American identity and showing the contingent character of development, while researchers on African American literature had necessarily to find ways to tackle its marginalization. Faculty in the mainstream academy played a part, decentering and deessentializing conceptions of race and ethnicity, and refining their analyses of the literary works at stake. Sollors’s vision bridges disciplines and puts the university in focus as but one site for intellectual labor. The political value of this labor thus depends on awareness of a larger context.
Crosscutting these themes is a third, the everyday life of the university, which Sollors speaks to through a series of anecdotes and reflections on student life, classroom teaching, faculty interaction, and intellectual arguments of the time, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the process providing a welcome perspective on debates that often get worn smooth through extensive circulation. To encounter ideas embedded in the contradictory consciousness within which they are conceived is to gain access to the social history of the university, a subject that we don’t discuss nearly enough and that provides the richest material.
Growing up in Postwar Frankfurt
Arvind Rajagopal (AR): I’ll begin with conventional questions about birth and origins and intellectual formations, in any order you like.
Werner Sollors (WS): Well, birth and origins are quite complicated, because I was born in Silesia, a part of Germany that’s now Poland. My mother was a refugee with me when my father was in American captivity as a German soldier in Italy, and my parents didn’t know where the other one was for a good year after the end of the war. So I grew up, and my first instinct is that the Frankfurt area was my home, that you can put me out anywhere at night or blindfolded, and I would be able to topographically take you to places. But it was not my birthplace and my parents constantly reminded me of that also by their inability to read the Frankfurt topography the way I learned to read it, or to speak in Hessian dialect when they knew Silesian dialect. So there was a very quick rupture there.
My father managed to reunite most of his relatives, not all but most of them, in the Frankfurt area, so there were weddings and funerals and other get-togethers, birthday parties, where there was a lot of conversation about places and buildings and everything that was over there, that the younger generation hadn’t seen, and that the older ones would never see again in their lifetime. So a little bit like a Partition-type story, of there you were and it’s, You’re gone and everyone you knew is gone, but the town where you lived continues to exist. You’re prohibited from going there, and there’s a new population living there now. That’s the general constellation.
That said, Frankfurt was a very good ’50s mini-metropolis. There were still the ruins from the war that I played in quite a bit. We lived in the newly reconstructed part of the city center that was surrounded in all directions by ruins, where you could see prostitutes going into basements and other exciting things for ten-year-old kids. Frankfurt was just an absolute haven for bookstores, now mostly gone, but you had everything: a French bookstore, a British bookstore, and also very, very good German bookstores, at least half a dozen of them. The owners and the people who worked there were living encyclopedias and loved to help. And then there were many used bookstores where you could find wonderful things. So I was always rummaging for books as a kid and one day I found the old Rothschild library that had become the city library. And I borrowed books and once took them with me to my high school, [as] secondary literature on a book we were reading in class. And the teacher said, “What are you doing?” I loved this sort of thing. Of course, I had no idea of what was reliable scholarship.
AR: Were there books at home?
WS: Yes, there were books at home, but of course, everything had been lost at the end of the war. So my parents always bemoaned the loss of their original library. But they joined a book club, and so they regularly bought books, classics as well as contemporary works. And my parents also loved to talk about books. I remember them arguing about the Brothers Karamazov — “Who’s the better brother?” — and so forth. Yet neither of them had gone to a German Gymnasium. My mother’s father died when she was eleven, she was malnutritioned after World War I, and was sent as a servant girl to Denmark, so she would pick up some calories. She learned Danish and had an extended Danish pseudo-family, with whom she kept up a correspondence for her entire life. When she returned to Breslau from her year in Denmark, the family had lost its money in the hyperinflation, and she had to start working in a textile shop. As a result, she learned everything about fabrics and patterns, could do anything you could imagine: sewing, crocheting, knitting, designing and tailoring clothes. I still have tablecloths that she embroidered with intricate floral patterns in an amazingly short time, yet you would think looking at it that it must have been a one-year job.
My father’s father also died early, when my father was only six. He finished middle school, then went to a teacher’s seminary — a grade-school-teacher training seminary — but then didn’t find a job as a teacher. He was very musical; he played the piano wonderfully. A professor at the Breslau conservatory said he had a great musical career ahead of him. But going to the conservatory would have cost a fortune and the family couldn’t afford it. Instead he finally found work as a clerk in the law courts. This prepared him to do the bureaucratic work of residence requests and tax declarations for the extended family. He was the go-to man when there was a problem: when somebody had received a notice from the police, was involved in a lawsuit, all that stuff. It was he who also managed to get his siblings and their families together in the Frankfurt area after the war, which was rather difficult with the dramatic housing shortage, at a time when expellees and refugees were usually assigned to some emergency shelter somewhere. Yet he managed to get his siblings together.
My parents slowly rebuilt a library, and also, we went out a few times to political discussions. There was a Volkshochschule [adult education center] in Frank-furt, and they had a seminar for politics. I went several times alone, but I went at least half a dozen times with my parents. There were serious discussions about World War II, about whether Faust was the book that had doomed Germany. There were all kinds of deep, serious conversations going on there.
AR: Trying to identify the causes of defeat?
WS: Well, no, more what was exceptional about the German Sonderweg.1 Why hadn’t Germany had a French Revolution? Why did the nation come about so late? That was the backdrop, for conversations about Faustian striving and idealistic ideas of the nation, instead of conversations about brass tacks, like how to put things into place.
AR: What kind of career had your parents in mind for you, do you think?
WS: They were amazingly open in letting me figure it out. My father had different wishes; he certainly was sad when I left law school, because he thought, since he had worked as a clerk, that law was a good and useful profession to be in. And then once I went into liberal arts, he thought I should be a historian. He thought, that’s at least a serious thing, but he was very mild. He was generous and never threatened to withdraw financial support for my studies, which for them was hard. My father didn’t make much money.
The Frankfurt setting, then, was really important, because of the school that I went to, and that’s probably another direct answer to your question. After my parents managed to get in touch with each other again after the war, we lived in a little village outside of Frankfurt in the first years after the war, where my father got a job at a school. After the war he had started to specialize in working with handicapped children, in “special ed,” as it’s now called, Hilfsschulen [auxiliary training] was the German term then, not very euphemistic. So he got a new job, and we would have to move to Frankfurt soon. My mother said, well, it’s probably better if you start going to the high school there before we move, because you’re of the age to go to high school. And so she went with me to Frankfurt’s Goethe-Gymnasium — she said it had to be the best, because of the name alone. So we went to the Goethe-Gymnasium and she charmed the vice principal there and said, “Here’s my son and I want him to go to your school.” He replied, “I really wish I could accept him — everything you say sounds so good, but the classroom only has forty-eight seats and there are already forty-eight children in it. I can’t put a forty-ninth child in there.” So my mother was really sad, and at that moment — it was really like one of those fairy tales — a woman came in and said, “My husband was relocated. I’ll now have to move, too, and have to take my son out of your school.” And so the vice principal just smiled at my mother and said, “There is the spot for your son!”
So I was admitted to a realgymnasium, not a classical Greek-and-Latin high school, although we did study Latin. But our school emphasized modern languages; it had an art and music track, and it also required science training. So it was an interesting combination of fields. The Goethe-Gymnasium traced its origins to the Middle Ages, but was really established in the nineteenth century and had become in the 1920s a liberal school, with a notable number of Jewish alumni. Leo Löwenthal was an alum of that school. And then it was, of course, next door to the university, so one could, every now and then, go there. I heard a [Max] Horkheimer lecture when I was still in high school. I was also part of a youth club, getting discussions going, and I read [Theodor] Adorno. And at one of the first ban-the-bomb rallies in front of city hall I heard [Jürgen] Habermas speak. Once I became a student in Berlin, I went back to Frankfurt several times and attended some classes, especially classes that Adorno taught. So it had a very particular feeling, that Frankfurt environment.
Close to the school was the annual book fair, which was a very big deal for me. You could see, smell the books from all different countries. You would talk to the people at the stand from China, and Poland, anywhere in the world, really, Cold War or not, and I was so excited to be there, to hear writers reading, to see books that had not yet been published. Later on, in the last year of high school and then in college, I worked at the book fair as [a] translator and stand assistant every year. I summoned all my friends. I had one admission ticket and I would pass it through the fence to my friends, and they would all come in. When it was cold, they would put their overcoats down at the stand, and run around and get books and pamphlets and so forth. You always got a lot of freebies. You got journals like Der Monat [The Month], art calendar samples, and the Magnum photographer group had a stand at which I got copies of the photo journal Magnum with a stamp that said Probeexemplar [sample copy]. Free copies of — it was wonderful — of books that were not yet completely printed, sometimes, Blindbände [dummies]. I used one such linen-bound book as a diary for [a] couple of years; the front page said, “Letters of Vincent van Gogh,” but only the first twelve pages were printed and the rest was empty. What an exciting diary that made! So that pretty much describes my Frankfurt.
About high school friends, one of whom is Wolfgang Schivelbusch, whom you know. . . . We were very close, long after high school, when he was writing The Railway Journey. He always wanted to do an American book inspired by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project and he hit upon the history of the experience of trains. We saw together the Cecil B. DeMille film, I think it was Union Pacific, where the train tracks were being built connecting the East and the West Coast. There’s a scene where they have the laborers who have to put the tracks down and there is no ground. So they put it on the snow, on the mountains, because it doesn’t matter, because [the only thing that] matters is who gets there first. And Wolfgang was laughing — at this kind of haste to create a country by imagining an infrastructure. In Europe, it was a different story: the infrastructure was there and the new trains could follow the rivers and the existing roads. In Europe, train designs echoed those of the coach, so there were compartments in which one would sit across from each other and imagine that there was a coachman upstairs, but in America the steamship was the model, so people sat in rows and they had the open space, rather than the individual compartments. That’s what Schivelbusch argued in The Railway Journey.
AR: Now, since you mentioned lectures by Adorno and Horkheimer, I’m just curious about the nature of the political climate and discussions, given the other remark you made about puzzling over the fate of Germany. How did those two things come together (if they did)?
WS: Well, when it comes to high school, there was the general myth (it probably is true; I never really found out empirically) that most German high schools avoided the subject of World War II — that they ended history usually before World War I, at least before the Versailles treaty. The motto was “And then it got too tricky.” If that was the rule, we had exactly the opposite. We had a social science teacher, Dr. Franz Hebel, who later became a professor at Darmstadt and who retired in a retirement home where Christians and Jews retired together. So he had a very, very specific charge to his life. He sent us out to go to secondhand bookstores to see what you could find about the Nazi period. I found a degenerate art catalog that I brought along. There was no textbook yet (on National Socialism and so forth), so he made us buy a scholarly sourcebook that included the book burning, had a whole section on the Holocaust, with really gruesome testimony. I still remember there was one dialogue in Hessian dialect, where someone talked about the long line of naked people going to the gas chambers, and one says to the other one, “That’s really impossible, to be outside in this cold, die können sich doch den Tod holen” (they can catch death). And the other one says, “That’s what they’re here for.” This kind of cold-hearted dialogue I remember still today. So Dr. Hebel did an entire year of just National Socialism: consequences, trials, and what happened afterwards. I think this was the first time I heard the name Fritz Bauer, the Frankfurt judge who delivered Eichmann to the Mossad.
So I would say, a good number of my fellow students became critical intellectuals. The class size whittled down from the initial forty-eight in the nine years of high school, but quite a few shared the feeling that there’s something in the recent past, in the back of us, just behind our shoulders, that we really have to understand. You can’t just run away from it and look in the other direction. When Americans started talking about exceptionalism after September 11, saying, “Why do they hate us?” I remember joking that German exceptionalism’s slogan would be “Why don’t they hate us?” You traveled everywhere in Europe, and people were generally open and nice. I hitchhiked and was in youth hostels, and I never had a sense where I would be personally considered implicated in anything. But you still had that feeling there was something that you had to take care of, and [that] you had to somehow come to terms with intellectually, in your own mind. And there were real surprises. The first time I went to Israel, there was so much warmth at Hebrew University, professors reminiscing about Weimar. There was a professor who was reciting Schiller and other German poetry that he had memorized in high school in Prague. So this kind of sense of real openness when you’d expect that there would be much more resentment.
AR: Is there something that would be relevant about your gymnasium experience that you wanted to talk about a bit?
WS: I mean we were always going back and forth in thinking, Were the teachers firm? Were they strict? Were they authoritarian? Were they perhaps too authoritarian? Did they have a Nazi past? Looking up a few of the teachers now I found that they had an amazingly liberal profile. One had emigrated to China in the early Nazi years. He was the art teacher — it was the first time I had seen anyone with purple socks — who was very outspoken. A pro-modernist to the nth degree, who took the entire class to one of the first documenta shows, in Kassel, and who taught us fantastic techniques, like you had to take a toothbrush and a sieve, and then you pick a stencil and you create snowstorm images. All kinds of funny things, sort of Chinese-looking art actually, coming to think of it. I have already mentioned the social science teacher. Our English teacher made us read 1984 and Brave New World and accompanied students to a month-long exchange with a school near Liverpool. A geography teacher, who had been on the Eastern Front in the war, was also, it turned out, arrested once during the Nazi period. I remember him showing us, with a stump of his finger, on the map of Russia the place where he lost the remainder of his finger. The past was always there, I think, but we sometimes wanted to have a more sinister interpretation, because it was easy for us to believe that everyone who was older was more implicated than we could possibly be. That, I think, was more the conversation than actually asking a teacher, “What were you doing during that time?” — that would almost have been unthinkable then. The fact that so many of our teachers held PhDs and had published work (our Russian teacher wrote a book about the historical novel), that some teachers would move on to become university professors when more positions were opening up again, went by unnoticed by students during our school years.
I went to Berlin because going to Berlin meant that I didn’t have to serve in the army. This is another shared theme. Most of my friends were either conscientious objectors or they found a way out. One volunteered for the medical corps and then, on the last night, canceled his volunteer arrangement, which he could do legally. But then it took them a year, the bureaucracy. By that time he was out of the generation to be drafted and he escaped military service completely. I think only one from that whole high school set was actually drafted. At that time you had to serve a year and a half, and we were pacifists and also thought, so quickly after the war, Germany probably shouldn’t really have an army. Anyway, so I went to Berlin. Berlin had a special status, and it was so special that if you lived in West Berlin, the army couldn’t even send you any communications, so they were prohibited from sending summonses to a pre draft health checkup or anything like that. My father was very good about that, too, because of course they wrote to him and he just wrote back, “My son is in Berlin.” That was the end of it. And I think they even wrote back, “But doesn’t he come back for Christmas?” or something like that. And my father didn’t answer that letter. Schivelbusch also went to Berlin.
AR: He chose to study something else.
WS: Well, Schivelbusch did a Volontariat [internship] at the Wiesbadener Kurier newspaper first, because he always thought he might want to be a journalist, as well as a professor. That was a notion he had. I had never dreamed that I would become a professor. I thought I would aim, like my father, to become a teacher — maybe a high school teacher. I thought I could study and get a degree, which I did. My first degree was a teacher’s degree. There was one class in Frankfurt, to which Jürgen Trabant, another close high school friend, who is now a retired professor in Berlin, took me along. At the end, the professor said, “Are there any questions?” So my friend raised his hand and said, “How do you become a professor?” The professor looked at him fiercely and said, “That’s a question you must never ask! It’s fate, it’s destiny!”
AR: Right, there was no method.
WS: No method, exactly! That’s pretty much how I felt, that there was no way that you could aspire to that. Back to my law school experience. I remember one class in legal medicine. So that got to be a little hairy. The professor came in with a coconut and he dropped it on the ground and said, “You see how the coconut cracks; that’s exactly how the skull cracks when it falls down. So when you deal with the dead body and look at the crack, you can measure the altitude from which — ” and I thought, agh!
And the first time I encountered really right-wing thinking (because the high school was so liberal), there was one professor who said, “Today, something I want to do is have five minutes of a pause for all the poor babies who get killed every year. Abortion is such a violent crime! It is against the law, paragraph 218 of the German penal code, but the state does not interfere nor act. We know who these nurses are,” and so forth. There was a “Riverboat Shuffle” with that guy, too, with his students, where he was also sort of what now would be called a #MeToo case, on top of everything else. So that was not particularly pleasant. My favorite classes were legal philosophy and history of law.
I already told you the story of when I went to Paris. I sat in a park with a clochard woman, drinking Algerian wine, having a baguette and some cheese. I shared everything with her and she had very few teeth. And she asked, what did I do? And I said loi [law]. And so she just laughed, “Allemand et loi? Loi?!” [“German and law? Law?!”] I felt it was so surrealistic that she actually had sensed my internal hesitation. I must have articulated poorly, with a slight tone of embarrassment, so she, by her laughter, caught that exactly. Sometimes you meet people who are really uncanny in what they detect in you. And so when I went back to Berlin, I was still enrolled in law school, but I took more courses in literature and then I switched and ultimately ended up in comp lit and German and American studies. Even in high school, we had read a lot of literature from non-German backgrounds, although the teachers always said, “Watch out, you’re reading in translation! You should really be reading the original.” It was only Latin and English and later on, Russian, that we could read in the original in school. At the university I participated in Peter Szondi’s seminar on hermetic poetry, where we read Paul Celan, and we read Stéphane Mallarmé, and we read T. S. Eliot, and tried to make sense of poetry that is constructed in such a way as to make it difficult for the reader. And you know, how does one make sense of that in different languages? Peter Szondi was charismatic and very important for me. I always thought he was a Swiss professor of a distant Hungarian background. He was a son of Léopold Szondi, who devised the famous Szondi test. But I recently found out that his family got to Switzerland from Hungary only in 1944, and through Bergen-Belsen. So Peter Szondi, as a fifteen-year-old boy, spent several months in the most horrifying condition, because, near the end of the war, Bergen-Belsen was the concentration camp where many of the death marches were headed, and where the prison population had grown tremendously. This was something he never spoke about, and it was only when his papers were deposited in Marbach, in the Literaturarchiv, that there was a documentation of it. Anyway, Peter Szondi was the most important professor in comp lit. In American studies, what was interesting to me was the interdisciplinary side, history-focused courses, with Ursula Brumm on the Puritans, for example, as well as literature courses. And the first professor with whom I took English-language lectures on American literature was Charles Nichols, an African American.
Europe Was Hospitable to Black Studies . .
AR: What was that story again [of studying with professor Charles Nichols], and what was his background?
WS: His family was originally of West Indian background. He grew up in Brooklyn and went to Brown University. There were only two dissertations before 1960 on the slave narrative, and he wrote one of those two, in 1948. Very, very early at that time. Brown PhD, and you would think it was a very interesting topic, yet he couldn’t land a job except at Southern, segregated colleges, since what he was doing was then considered neither history nor literature. So, he taught at Hampton Institute for one or two years and his wife asked, why doesn’t he become a prison warden in Brooklyn? They would have a freer life there than in this segregated environment. The college in itself was regimented very strictly; then being surrounded by this Southern, segregated atmosphere was not something he liked. He applied for a Fulbright in Denmark and taught in Copenhagen. And while he was in Copenhagen, there was an ad for [an opening for the job of] the director of the America Institute. It was in the Henry Ford Building of the Free University, which itself had been created and endowed by the Americans at a time when the East Berlin Humboldt University had started to force faculty and students to adhere to a Stalinist line. Nichols applied, he did get the position and kept it until — at the peak of the black studies movement — he had, all of a sudden, a dozen offers from universities who wanted him to direct black studies departments or programs. He was very amused by that, as well.
In Berlin he never taught a separate course on black literature, but he did put the black experience into everything he taught. When teaching Faulkner, he would highlight Absalom, Absalom! With Mark Twain, we would read Pudd’nhead Wilson. I took a seminar with him on modern American poetry — it was just at about the same time I was in Szondi’s seminar — we read not only T. S. Eliot, but also Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes. Not only that, but there was, in the department, a record player, so we all went to this sort of common room, and we listened to Sterling Brown reading, “Swing dat hammer — hunh — ” I still remember just going, “This is really! . . .” It’s so striking, this spoken poetry.
I don’t want to be a snob, but — when you grow up with a lot of German ide alist literature, novels and poems by Goethe and Novalis, plays by Schiller and Büchner — American literature does have high points like Melville, James, Gertrude Stein, Toomer, Faulkner, Hemingway, Richard Wright, or Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, but also a lot of dull stuff. It’s true! For example, I never liked to read James Fenimore Cooper. You know, it’s work to get through the novels, and it shouldn’t be. So there’s also really something about the writing that holds you back. Cooper may be interesting to talk about, but I couldn’t find anything in him that was actually delightful or eye-opening to read.
But in Sterling Brown, I did find eye-opening writing, both formally intricate and with a political edge. It was something that had an American tone to it and resonated with music I had come to know. Frankfurt had a big jazz scene. Right in my high school years, there was a jazz club, the Domicile du Jazz, where you could go after hours and it would have famous groups that had performed. They would come afterwards to jam sessions until too late for my parents to accept my being out, but you were in a world where jazz was a constant thing. There was also a place called Armand Gordon’s Maison du Jazz, though they had no live music. They just played new jazz records and they only served milk and tomato juice.
AR: No liquor license?
WS: No, no, it was probably just an affectation. Tomato juice with some pepper, and then listening to Miles Davis. So I found thrilling that poets would work together with blues and jazz forms.
AR: And there were others with you — you were not alone in your attention to the African American literature . . . ?
WS: Oh yeah, well, I think I was pretty alone at the beginning. There weren’t many who were doing it in Germany then. But it became a very big thing. I remember the first time I gave a talk at the German Association for American Studies, in 1970, and I talked about what I still think is one of the best American books of the twentieth century, Jean Toomer’s Cane. And one professor got up and said, if this African American book were really as good as I said it was, then he would have heard about it before. He later on became an environmentalist and very radical, but at the time he was just a stuffy guy.
I organized a conference in Berlin when I started teaching, and there were only three or four professors who came. I invited Janheinz Jahn — have you ever heard of him? He wrote a book called Muntu that became a big bible of black nationalists, a sort of a Pan-African vision of what makes the African spirit different from the European spirit.2 He came to Berlin, he called me and said, “Can we meet at a sauna?” So he had sort of a hedonistic approach. Then there was Imanuel Geiss, a functionary in the Social Democratic Party who had written a classic book on Pan-Africanism.3 None of the professors in Berlin attended because the topic of African American studies seemed so marginal. That it was so unrecognized in the academy only drew me more to it, and I think I told you the story, too, of when I went to America for the first time, [how] I took a Greyhound trip, “99 days for $99,” and lasted for about ninety days.
AR: This was while you were still studying in Berlin.
WS: While I was still studying in Berlin — and I ended up in the Watts riots during my trip. Hitchhiking in Ireland, I had met in Dublin a Mexican American girl who shared my then-strong interest in Joyce, and so we went to pubs where Joyce could have had a beer. And she said, if ever you come to Los Angeles, look me up and stay with my folks. So when the bus stopped in Los Angeles I wanted to get off to see her, but they had to pick me up at another stop because they lived in the Mexican part of Watts, right next to where the riots had started. Then we were watching television, also every now and then venturing out. And then, one evening — I think it was the second or third night of the riots — there was a panel discussion on television about the roots of violence. That’s the first time I saw or even heard of LeRoi Jones [not yet Amiri Baraka], who broke the consensus of the panel by saying, this is the only thing that America ever listens to and there would be more unrest like this before things would change. Then there was a commercial break. And after the break, he was gone. So this was interesting, that he could break the ritual to such an extent that they would escort him off the panel during the commercial.
After that and seeing the production of two of his one-act plays, I decided that it might be interesting to look at this LeRoi Jones, at what he had written, and I did it in the Germanic manner. I got every little piece of evidence that was to be gotten, and I interviewed him and I tried to really understand his whole gestalt and [I] came up with a thesis of bohemianism and radicalism and the tension between aesthetic and political avantgardism. Is it possible to be political and a bohemian? What were the constituencies that he was serving, what were his literary roots, but also what were the style changes that he underwent?
AR: So this was a dissertation that you completed in Berlin? And then one thing led to another and you came to New York, to Columbia.
WS: I came first on an exchange with a faculty member from Columbia. Then I had a fellowship at Harvard for a year, and I went back to Berlin for another semester.
AR: Did you have any connection with Sacvan Bercovitch at the time?
WS: I met Bercovitch when I was teaching on that exchange at Columbia.4 In fact, I had Edward Said’s office that year while he was on leave, working on The Question of Palestine. I went with him for the vernissage of that book at the Village Gate; it was really a great moment. He always said, “Werner, you have to just give up doing this minority stuff. Translate Simmel into English, do something big that you can do.” Anyway, I met Bercovitch. He was actually on leave at Yale at the Humanities Institute there, and Daniel Aaron was there as well, and they were sharing an apartment.5 I knew Aaron well, and I went to see him and met Bercovitch, and then we also became, very quickly, very good friends. See, he really overwhelmed me when I met him; I had even prepared for the occasion — The Puritan Origins of the American Self had come out. Reading it, I looked up all the words I didn’t know, and I was really anxious and prepared. I was so impressed by his work. And then he just talked very animatedly about movies, The Stepford Wives. We had a long discussion about movies, and one could imagine going on twenty-hour train rides with him and never having a dull moment. And bit by bit we became very close friends. After being friends and neighbors in New York for several years, we both accepted offers to Harvard, and our friendship continued there.
“Columbia Was . . . Very Congenial for Someone with a Frankfurt Background”
AR: I’d be interested in your sense of the American intellectual environment as you came in with your German education. What did you perceive, and how did you make your way around in this environment?
WS: Columbia was actually very congenial to someone with a Frankfurt background, with my schooling. A Columbia seminar then meant meeting people ready to argue. Sixty-eight had happened; there were big issues in the air. When I started teaching there it was seven years later, but the ripples from ’68 were there. The tone of the faculty was much more liberal than even in Berlin. Berlin students had been radicalized but the faculty was, on the whole, still rather conservative. Many were Christian Democrats and also very status-conscious. In New York, professors were dressed casually, they regularly held colloquia with visitors in their apartments, and the intellectual atmosphere was intense. I liked the ideal of liberal openness that still prevailed. For example, Edward Said would sharply criticize the Columbia Core, the idea of a Literature Humanities requirement (Lit Hum) with a set canon of Great Books from Homer to Dostoyevsky, but he would teach in it anyway and write up and circulate some of his points of criticism and make them part of teaching the course. One of the points he made was the reminder that students were asked to read all foreign texts in English translation only — something that resonated with what my high school teachers had also maintained about reading foreign literatures only in German translation. Yet Said did come to the weekly faculty discussions about the assigned books. One high point at Columbia for me was Edward Said receiving the Lionel Trilling Award, with Diana Trilling giving the laudatio — a speech that was more or less a pointed critique of Edward’s work, but very elegantly presented — and Edward thanking her profusely, with a few question marks about the limits of pure liberalism. And I loved this, that it was possible to be in a civilized room and have this kind of contretemps while this award was being given. Everybody could feel the tension, but it wasn’t an explosive tension — you know, in Germany then, people might have stomped out; it would have immediately become a thing, an action. But there, at Columbia then, the liberal consensus still held. They didn’t want to break that. I was really impressed by that. It was one of the better evenings.
AR: Had there not been a time [you saw] a certain amount of anti-Americanism, question[ing] about the rigor of [American] intellectual training? Maybe Columbia would be an exception, but can you offer any general ideas about it, and any specific experiences that bear on the question?
WS: Yes, some German scholars and fellow students, too, could be dismissive toward American culture or find American scholarship mired in positivism and untheoretical — though American universities were equipped with great libraries and research tools. At the same time, the German student movement was immersed in American films and music, embraced American styles, sit-ins, teach-ins, and direct actions (a SNCC6 pamphlet was circulating in German translation then), and Berlin students were wearing blue jeans and singing “We Shall Overcome” when confronting the more traditionally German-looking Berlin police. So there was anti-Americanism and there was fascination with America, or, in short, there was ambivalence. I once thought then of writing an essay on Americanization by anti-Americanism and was happy, years later, when I came across Georges Devereux’s term, antagonistic acculturation (Devereux and Loeb 1943: 133).
At Columbia there was just as much ambivalence toward the course of American politics. Older liberal intellectuals there also shared the Frankfurt School’s worry about popular or “mass” culture, whereas many students on both sides of the Atlantic were fascinatedly absorbing it and some would later make their careers writing about film, popular music, or advertisements. Some professors still believed that it was impossible for the same person to appreciate Joyce and Picasso on the one hand and a TV series on the other. Yet George Stade, a younger professor at Columbia, taught a course on “bad literature” and once gave a lecture at the New York Psychoanalytical Society at which he, tongue in cheek, interpreted the Tom and Jerry cartoon in terms of Freud’s Superego, Ego, and Id.
The core of the Frankfurt School, the Institute for Social Research, had, of course, been housed at Columbia during the war years, and the older Columbia liberals certainly knew Adorno, many having read The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The Americanist Quentin Anderson, who was a close friend of Lionel Trilling (whom I met when I arrived in Columbia) told me that he (Anderson) had always seen affinities between Trilling’s attempt to steer a moderate course for an open society with an intellectual program that would draw on Freud and Marx, on the one hand, and Adorno’s project that culminated in his Negative Dialectics, on the other.7 There were also affinities between Trilling’s “Sincerity and Authen ticity” and Adorno’s “Jargon der Eigentlichkeit.” Adorno and Trilling shared an opposition to fascism as well as to Stalinism, while drawing on Marx in opposing Stalinism, and always having a Freudian dimension to their approaches as well. So for me readings in Freud and Marx had been like your lifeblood in Berlin, a lingua franca. Hence I liked that the Columbia Core had as an undergraduate requirement not just the Great Books course but also one in Contemporary Civilization (CC) that included reading Freud and Marx. An undergraduate once told me with a smirk of irony that also seemed familiar to me from Berlin, “At Columbia, when you come out after four years, you are able to function as a crude Marxist and a vulgar Freudian!” Or maybe it was “a crude Freudian and a vulgar Marxist.” You may have just read a snippet of Totem and Taboo, or of The German Ideology, but you have a sense of looking at the world through Freud’s and Marx’s eyes. I think that was not at all a bad program for undergraduates.
I remember you had to read, read, read at Columbia — in general, the program in each course was a book a week, in addition to reading and correcting student papers, theses, and dissertations. It was quite demanding to stay on top of things, but there was for me then no administrative chore to speak of. The students at Columbia also read even longer texts more eagerly than did their contemporary peers in Berlin. At Columbia we had a doctoral seminar that the whole faculty participated in. That was the hardest course, for which I generally overprepared. I had a teaching load of three-three, and the doctoral seminar was the seventh course in the year, one that met every other Wednesday evening, with a new book at each meeting. In the doctoral seminar each professor took a turn at assigning books. When it was my turn to propose the readings for a seminar session, I chose a Jewish immigrant novel, a black-authored novel about racial passing, and Walter Benjamin’s essays in [the volume containing] “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that Hannah Arendt had edited. That selection generated a very good discussion, some professors questioning the literary quality of the immigrant and minority texts I had chosen for discussion, and all engaging with Walter Benjamin, who still seemed to be somewhat of a novelty to all (whereas Benjamin belonged to Berlin’s lingua franca by then). One of the doctoral students told me decades later — he had meanwhile become a professor in Israel — that that seminar session was the first time he heard about Jewish immigrant fiction and about Walter Benjamin.
Columbia’s urban location and urbane orientation also made it possible to connect teaching with the city, with readings by writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer, walking tours with the historian James Shenton, seminars with the sociologist Herbert Gans, conversations with Karl Kroeber, and many random walks into the city with Sacvan Bercovitch.8 All of this really stimulated my growing interest in black literature, in literature of migration and ethnicity. Everybody had a migration experience in the background, or a spouse who had just arrived from somewhere. So I felt that at Columbia there was also much connectedness with global streams of thought. Probably if I had been in Idaho, the sense of a cultural clash with my Berlin experience might have really struck me more.
And the teaching! Oh my God, did we have discussions about black literature! Once, in a class on Richard Wright’s Native Son, a white student directly addressed a black student in my class and asked him, “Why does this character kill his employer’s daughter, decapitate her, and then rape his girlfriend and kill her, too?” I thought, Oh my God! And the black student, a Head Start student from the Bronx, calmly replied, “On page 98, the author says . . .” I could’ve hugged him! It was just so wonderful in this way to defuse the tension that the naive question could have provoked and to focus on the text. There were so many occasions when it became clear to me that students of different backgrounds were intensely eager to talk with each other, and I held some makeup classes in the evenings at my home, when the need for conversations was so strong that it, combined with their fear to venture out on the Upper West Side at night, prompted students on several occasions to stay all night long, talking, talking, talking with each other.
I also really liked teaching the Lit Hum course, because everyone read the same book in the same week. One night I noticed a student at the downtown CBGB who had the Penguin edition of Saint Augustine’s Confessions sticking out of his back pocket, and I knew right away that he was a Columbia student, because it was the Saint Augustine week. You would run into a colleague and ask how he or she approached teaching Dante or Montaigne that week. Once a New York dentist would not charge me for my treatment when he learned that I was teaching Lit Hum at Columbia, because that had been his favorite course. (He had taken it with Lionel Trilling, I should add.) My two-semester-long Lit Hum course met four times a week, for an hour in the morning, so that teachers and students really got to know each other. I remember one student, a good reader, who always wore the same T-shirt all year, a T-shirt that got seedier along the way, and it had the inscription, “F Khomeini.” When we were reading Sophocles, one student really asked indignantly, “That guy actually sleeps with his mother?!” Yet, provoked by the readings, students carried on deep, personally felt discussions and submitted often witty response papers, sometimes even good literary parodies. But there was that kind of rawness to it.
I sometimes think that Columbia may have been, for me, a perfect bridge between Europe and America. I still dream about Columbia sometimes, too, because it has such an insane structure — there are tunnels that connect all the buildings, and then there’s a second set of tunnels under those tunnels that made different connections. In those days, you could still enter these tunnels and many did when it rained. Now they’re probably all inaccessible, for “super security” worries, but then you could always go into them, take shortcuts. You would meet people; there were also some people who seemed to be living down there. But immediately, you were in a completely different world. And the elevators had telephones, so if you knew the extension of the Philosophy Hall elevator, you could just call and if somebody picked up, you could ask, “Which floor are you on?” They would be startled that they would be caught in the elevator. Columbia had a kind of man-made surrealism to it that the symmetrical campus plan only enhanced.
There was also a radical group around the Upper West Side then that had, as its platform, the hypothesis that the entire world’s population had been brainwashed by three agencies: the CIA, the KGB, and the Columbia Department of Anthropology. The founders must have been dropouts from that department. And part of the general Columbia folk wisdom was that what you see is not what’s actually going on. Columbia was, in one such paranoid script, a large-scale laboratory for observing a vast sample of urban intellectuals. For example, you might go to Butler Library and see a handwritten sign that read “close” — not “closed,” but “close.” But then you would try to open the door and the door was locked. You would go to another door, and it was open, so the sign had been misleading, after all. [Or] you’d have your book ready from which you wanted to copy a few pages as [a] handout for the students. You’d go to the three copier machines and this is what you’d find: one machine read “broken,” and it was broken; the second one said nothing, but it was also broken; the third one had a street person who had [Henry] Schoolcraft’s multivolume history of American Indians and towers of dimes in front of him and who also smelled, and you’d just say, “I guess I’ll do class without a handout today.” And meanwhile, the theory went, you were being observed this whole time: you were not a subject but an object of a behaviorist study!
AR: Last time we spoke, you were saying something about American studies and the approach you brought, the kind of assumptions that you observed and how you navigated them.
WS: At Columbia, the question of American individualism, of selfhood, that began to fascinate me — you know, in Whitman’s poetry, for example, with its excessive use of the first person singular, I, I, I. It may have been Kipling who commented that Whitman’s Is were like telegraph poles along train tracks. Quen-tin Anderson had written a book called The Imperial Self, in which he traced the sense of excessive selfhood to Emerson and throughout American literature, a tendency toward a sense of self without any dialectical need of an “other,” the sense of speaking to yourself, about yourself, for yourself. And Sacvan Ber-covitch used the term “auto-American biography” to describe and critique the ability of American individuals to substitute themselves for the nation, and to actually be taken as representatives of it. For me that generated the question of how migrants, most of whom came from more socially than individually defined worlds, would react to or adjust to a new and socially less anchored sense of selfhood.
On the historical side of American studies I enjoyed conversations with scholars in history and sociology. There was one historian who was very generous and invited me to give talks in his seminar and at Columbia alumni reunions, and who took me along to events in the city.
AR: Who was the historian?
WS: James Shenton.9 He famously gave an undergraduate lecture on immigration in which he provocatively paraphrased Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus,” with “Welcome, garbage!” “Wretched refuse” is the phrase in the poem that he parodied. He also organized guided tours on the Lower East Side. I met some of his students there, and he introduced me to members of New York society who were loosely connected to his Columbia ambience. There were dinner parties where there would be somebody who just had a first night at some Broadway theater and somebody who was preparing an exhibition that would open at the Met two days later. And when they asked, “What do you do?” and I answered, “I teach at Columbia,” they’d turn to the next person, who had more interesting things going on. Such evenings gave me an exposure to intellectual life in the city, beyond the confines of the university.
The historian Nathan Huggins, whom I had met and made friends with in Berlin, was also warmly welcoming and invited me to come to dinners at his house as well as to give a literary lecture on the Harlem Renaissance (about which he had just written a book) at a Columbia reunion.10
The sociologist Herbert Gans, whom I visited in his office to introduce myself and whom I soon got to like tremendously, also invited me to social events at his apartment. He was then working on “symbolic ethnicity” and gave me a draft of his essay to comment on. It was the first time that a professor had asked me to do such a thing, and I was too shy and never dared to comment. Then, many years later, I tried to make up for this, by holding a panel for his “symbolic ethnicity” at the American Studies Association; [I] later asked him to write an updated ending for it, then republished the essay in a reader. He had a disarming honesty in looking at topics afresh, in the manner of “the emperor’s new clothes,” and then would go for what he saw. I thought his notion of “symbolic ethnicity” was a good counterargument to the then-popular notion of an ethnic revival, when a lot of people were jumping on that bandwagon. Spiro Agnew supported the ethnic revival. There was the National Heritage Act. People were encouraged to explore their ethnic identity. Gans was interested in studying the phenomenon, but he was not for one minute persuaded by its mystifiers. I remember that students once asked him, “What does klezmer mean to you?” He simply answered, “When I was growing up as a Jew, there was no klezmer.”
Gans introduced me to a group of intellectuals from different universities in the city who met every now and then to talk about a book. One of those meetings was at NYU, and we were reading [Renato] Poggioli’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, a book that I had actually drawn on for my dissertation. Everyone was sitting around, highlighting this or that passage from the book, when one professor (who later became a very famous social scientist) said, “Maybe this is all good and well with the avantgarde, but what happened in Siena in the fourteenth century may have been a much more momentous and radical change in the visual arts than anything that’s happened since 1800.” It was such a bold assertion that it reoriented the discussion and led to questions about modernist biases. There was one meeting at the Graduate Center of City University with Carl Schorske (who was then writing his study of fin de siècle Vienna), and the topic of friendship came up. Schorske said, “Well, we’ll have to look at the Krauts for that!” It was so freeing that he could use the war movie slur for Germans (though perhaps nowadays someone in the audience might take offense). Of course, he was also serious and incredibly knowledgeable, ready to expound on Schiller’s and Goethe’s notions of friendship, but it was also so funny.
In another seminar series, called Columbus Circle, Warren Susman talked at Sacvan Bercovitch’s home about the 1930s, using the change from black and white to color in the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz as the entry point to a new approach to the cultural history of the 1930s. How much he drew out of a small detail, that fascinated me. Susman also gave the graduate students who were there the advice that all dissertations could open with the following sentences: “It was a time of crisis. It was a time of change. An old bourgeoisie was declining. A new bourgeoisie was rising.”
AR: To come back to your intellectual trajectory, engaging with American studies and African American literature, which was, as you say, at the time not hugely developed. What was that like? What was the process of working through that and watching it develop?
WS: Well, when I started studying African American literature it was still at a stage when it was very difficult to get the texts. So, going to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Collection and having these silvery photocopies that you could make with their photocopying machines, with sometimes wavy paper coming out. There was good pioneering scholarship, so the basic bibliographies and, also, the studies of major genres were in place. There were a whole number of scholars who, because of Jim Crow, were compelled to teach at segregated Negro colleges (what are now called “historically black colleges”), who had created (very much like my professor) an integrationist approach of looking at the Negro in Romantic literature or the Negro in American fiction, the Negro in American poetry, and many similar topics.
Robert Bone, with whom I also studied for a while at Columbia, who invited me for dinners and introduced me to the writers Paule Marshall, William Demby, and Ralph Ellison, had published a book on the Negro novel and was publishing a new book on the Afro-American short story when I was working with him.11 And some of the older scholarship and primary literature reappeared as reprints in various series. However, within the big universities the field was very marginal and you always had to explain three or four times what it was that you were actually studying. And that was at a time when the riots were in very recent memory and on everybody’s mind — and of course, the “two Americas” hypothesis was strong, the Great Society project having failed. There was some sense of social urgency but relatively little interest in such questions as: What does the world in America look like from a black point of view? Or Ralph Ellison’s question: What would America be like without the Negro? In the course of four decades, that has changed very dramatically and visibly. At the first American Studies Association conference at which I presented a paper, my panel was the only one devoted to African American and ethnic topics. Now scholarship on these themes has become central for the field.
AR: There was the sense that the political could bypass the cultural, something like that?
WS: Yes, I think so. And in the wake of the 1960s some black writers shared that sentiment.
AR: But you also spoke the last time [about] — we discussed your encountering the way that American exceptionalism manifested itself in [the] sort of intellectual work you did.
WS: I think this returns us to the question of American individualism, of the American self. I was then wondering how African American writers could share this sense of (from an outside point of view) exceptional selfhood while also being ascribed to a predominantly socially defined category, “Negro,” “colored,” “Afro-American” — whatever changing term prevailed. I remember a conversation with Nathan Huggins about Invisible Man exactly about this point. How can a nameless and close-to-familyless protagonist who never marries, [who doesn’t even have] a serious relationship with a woman or a close and enduring friendship with any other human being, also become a representative African American, he asked? Could one speak, in Bercovitch’s terms, also of “auto-Afro-American biography”? And how could highly justified critique of social conditions culminate in a paean to American possibilities?
AR: That’s a question that may have to be kept before us, as we move on; we can’t do it justice in the time we have left. There is another question I had. [In] New York, and Cambridge in its own way, [there] must have been lots of European émigrés. What was the socialization [like]? Were there tacit lines between in-groups of Europeans and out-groups of Americans? What was the process of navigating across these social circles?
WS: Quentin Anderson was the son of Maxwell Anderson, the playwright and old-line American, but I think somewhere of Scottish and Irish background, but certainly with a long history within the United States. Sacvan Bercovitch always liked to stress his Canadian identity and his Jewish roots in Odessa, where his father had been a famous expressionist painter. Herbert Gans was a German immigrant from Cologne. Nathan Huggins was born in Chicago to an African American father and a Jewish mother. James Shenton — though everybody thought he was Irish — was actually of English and Slovakian background, born in New Jersey. My Columbia colleague Michael Wood was English, his wife Mexican. Henry Rosovsky, the dean who hired me at Harvard, was born on the same day and in the same Danzig hospital as was Günter Grass. My Harvard friends and colleagues Homi Bhabha, Glenda Carpio, Peter Sacks, and Marc Shell were born in India, Guatemala, South Africa, and Canada, respectively. Perhaps the single American professor with whom I was and have remained closest is Jules Chametzky, whom I met in Berlin, and who, though from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, served as my Doktorvater [PhD adviser] in Berlin. He was of Russian Jewish background, while his wife, Anne, had been born in Germany. Many, many of my social contacts were people with recent immigrant backgrounds, minorities, or downright foreigners with foreign passports and no intention of taking out American citizenship. So that, I think, probably character-izes quite a bit of my life in the American academy. And everybody seemed to love that frisson of the American and the non-American.
AR: The university has often been seen as the place where foreignness is most tolerated in America. That’s one impression that one gets. It’s a place where foreigners can be regarded as an ornament. But you’ve seen that over some decades, and I’m just curious on your reflections on how that’s changed over time?
WS: Well, I think there is some truth to it. But I think people with particular biases have certainly affected African Americans most adversely. I mean, if you were black American — just take John Hope Franklin, with a Harvard PhD in his tory, who couldn’t then aspire to have a job at a university like Harvard.12 How many exceptionally well-trained African Americans had to teach at segregated Negro colleges? My own professor, Charles Nichols, with a PhD from Brown, became an expatriate in Europe for many years. A very strong bias was obviously shared by many individuals: it was, in effect, institutional. When I arrived at Harvard, I wanted to look at books that had been published about blacks at Harvard, and when I learned that there was no such book in existence then, I teamed up with my research assistant and a Tufts colleague and we put together a documentary history. It made me more fully aware of the systemic issue and its effects on Negro scholars in the age when they were confronting serious obstacles, yet could imagine, just like Nichols did, a utopian image of an integrated America in which you could appreciate writers of all skin colors but [be] specialized to a certain extent in black authors and black characters. Their scholarship in these books has a long-lasting quality to it.
For other groups (I am thinking of women, of course; of Jews, Asian Americans, and others) there were also many formal and informal barriers to overcome. Foreigners were often welcome, even though the American-born descendants of the countries from which the foreigners came might have experienced discrimination. The scholar from Italy was more welcome in that sense than the second-generation Italian American had been.
Nowadays, racial categories are sometimes spelled out in such a way that they work like a cudgel. According to social surveys, today’s Americans actually like diversity — and in my experience, they most definitely do so in university life. They are genuinely happy to be with people from diverse environments and backgrounds. I think, in New York, in elevators, even, sometimes you feel that there’s a kind of excitement: look around you, you see every continent represented!
AR: — or the subway . . .
WS: Yeah! I think the feeling of mingling is often pleasing to Americans, especially at the workplace. “You look like America,” Bill Clinton would sometimes tell mixed crowds. That can be kitsch, of course, but it does reflect a widely shared notion. So, Americans like racial diversity, but they dislike affirmative action, which is also the only known process that helps to generate it. Here seems to me a big task for intellectuals now: to come up with a system that would actually facilitate the integration of the most excluded groups without going through the state-sponsored reinstatement of racial categories in the rigmarole of questionnaires that reify what the historian David Hollinger ( 2000) has called America’s “ethno-racial pentagon” of five races (8). And these are more or less the five races that discredited nineteenth-century ethnologists established! I had a student who had a job offer at Staten Island. She sent me the form she was asked to fill in. It read, “Are you white, black, Indian (or Native American), Pacific Islander, Asian-American, or Italian-American?” Staten Island thus created its own little “Italian-American” category. Such self-identification may be intended to serve good ends but it is weird — and if you say, “I refuse to self-identify,” it means you’re classified as Caucasian, because it is presumed that only whites don’t like to be classified. All these are folk myths, I think. And to have intellectuals — to have citizens — live by bureaucratized folk myths is a little bit odd and worrisome. To make ethnic identity central in a bureaucratized way is strange, when you think about it. It makes you appreciate my Columbia neighbor [and] famous sociologist Robert Merton’s (1972) manifesto asking insiders and outsiders to unite.
America and “Area”
AR: I’d had it in my mind, and I mentioned this at the very outset, that we would talk about Americanism and its relationship to the idea of area. I don’t know if we can come back to that, since you’ve obviously had a very specific sense of area coming into the United States.
WS: I once invited Richard Sennett, a David Riesman student whom I first met at that scholarly circle discussing Renato Poggioli’s Avant-Garde, to the American Civilization program at Harvard, and said to him, “After exceptionalism, how do we deal with American studies as a legitimate field?” He said, and I thought it was a very good way to put it, “We are now talking about things happening in America, and not about the Americanness of those things.” I think that’s a very good response that marks, also, some of the new trends in scholarship. I think the old trends were to search for an understanding of what makes America tick. You could have the positive answers (frontier openness), and you also had the negative ones (slaveholding settler capitalism). One way or another, good or bad, exceptionalism (a term first applied to the United States by Stalin, by the way) asked for the Americanness of American things. The Americanness of the American Revolution, the Americanness of Enlightenment ideals, or the Americanness of violence and the Americanness of aiming for global domination. Still, by finding America “exceptional” one had to have a kind of norm in mind to which it was the exception. Are we thinking of Europe? Of “more traditional societies” or a vague “non-Americanness”? (A graduate student once said in a heated discussion about this topic, “Let’s not essentialize non-Americanness!” — and she had a point.)
Hence more recent approaches would more explicitly seek out comparisons: Canada and Mexico also had frontiers; the United States functioned in hemispheric contexts. So the right “area” to study could be “North America” rather than the USA. Yet the United States was also, like Australia, South Africa, and Latin America, a “fragment” culture, and hence one could go back to Louis Hartz’s (1964) Founding of New Societies and compare different settler countries with each other and with the lands from which they were colonial offshoots, thus breaking through the sense of one specific area. At the end, what are the limits of finding similarities and differences?
In my own quest, I may have remained really curious about what was behind all these GIs, who were roaming around town and chewing gum and were nice to kids and invited us sometimes into the requisitioned houses with pianolas that they lived in? What made them so different? When I was a kid, my mother on cold winter days would wrap me up in three scarves. Yet the GIs walked around in thin khakis or even short-sleeve shirts. I asked her why. She said, “They get some medicine; they even put it in the swimming pool, so they can’t get colds.” Something almost magical.
AR: So there was an aura which didn’t go away. How long did it last?
WS: The other side was clearly apparent by the time I was in high school. I had one close high school friend, Lutz Unterseher, who became a social scientist and an assistant of Adorno’s. He worked on unions and, later on, on military disarmament and the limits of disarmament. He and I went to some African American bars in Frankfurt, black GI bars, and you could see it so quickly. You’d sit down and GIs were always ready to talk, [to] get a beer and chat. In the ’60s, there was so much talk. They would complain that they would hear things like, “Monkey, go back to the jungle,” within the army, see it as graffiti on walls. That kind of stayed with me. The ordinary myth of America may have been a little conceited and took not much notice of blacks and their suffering. When “black power” had become a big slogan, I went to one of those bars with this friend again, and we had these little black power pamphlets. We drank and stayed until three in the morning. And we said things like, “Well, what do you think of black power?” And one GI said, “For me, it’s the way I carry myself, so I don’t need to adopt any slogan like that.” It was basically: I don’t let them touch me, I don’t let them touch my inside. They can say whatever they want.
AR: This was an African American.
WS: An African American soldier. I was very impressed by that, so I still remember the phrase, “The way I carry myself.” It has an old-fashioned ring of honor, of dignity. He was so dignified and, at the same time, this was a seedy bar where they weren’t really segregated — Germans went in — but there was never a white GI in those bars. They were clearly marked. This one was called Down by the Riverside, on the Main River.
AR: Yes, it’s something that you talk about in your Du Bois and Nazi Germany essay, where you remark that the Germans didn’t have an aversion to African Americans or “blacks.” And there was a much more instinctive response and aversion to “Jewish,” which was historic, but also competitive, and so on. I was just thinking about that in terms of demarcating different kinds of others.
WS: Well, W. E. B. Du Bois came up with that assessment of the situation. Ethnoracial fault lines work themselves out differently in different areas. Du Bois wrote that the chief German complaint against Jews was that in the nineteenth century “they would not intermarry with Germans and lose their identity in the German state.” But he adds that by 1936, because of the relentless anti-Semitic propaganda, the prejudice against Jews had seemed to become more instinctive but was not yet completely so. Though, theoretically, blacks would be just as much targeted as Jews by Nazi racist beliefs, Du Bois praised the “fair, even friendly” press coverage of colored athletes at the Berlin Olympics and mentioned not only that he, too, had been treated courteously in the months he spent in Nazi Germany, but also that it would have been impossible for him to spend the same length of time anywhere in the United States without experiencing “personal insult or discrimination.” Du Bois nonetheless felt that Der Stürmer, with its vile anti-Semitic drivel, exceeded even the propaganda against blacks in Southern segregationist newspapers.
What I found striking is that he’s reporting the historical complaint that Jews hadn’t intermarried enough in the past, looking at it somewhat ironically from a black American perspective. You know, in Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun, the young protagonist Beneatha asks her sister-in-law Ruth about white fears, “What they think we going to do, eat ’em?” and Ruth answers, “No, honey, marry ’em.” That’s where the core of the American prejudice is, there. Everything else is window dressing: no beer in the same bar, no shared schools, residential zoning. The core of it is: you can’t marry my sister or be my brother because you’re of a different race. In Germany, to find the historical anger that Jews wouldn’t assimilate, become completely German, marry over three or four generations so there wouldn’t be any kind of Jewish residue left, and doing this through marriage with Germans, seemed striking to Du Bois. It’s quite a contrast with America, where the phobia against interracial marriage lasted from the first intermarriage bans in colonial Virginia until after Du Bois’s death.
AR: It’s hard to rank cultures of discrimination, I know, but the durability and intensity of anti-black feeling is really extraordinary. But I want to focus on a different issue in this last phase of the interview, on the influence of the German university model. We know that the American research university was modeled on the German research university (specifically Heidelberg), beginning with Johns Hopkins University in the late nineteenth century, integrating teaching and research, and making the university a site for research as such. Intellectually ambitious students would often go to Germany for higher education and return to teach in the US. Today it is more often the other way around; both in terms of breadth and depth, the training afforded in the best American universities is hard to rival.
I am thinking of a specific aspect of this reversal. Germany’s intellectual and industrial eminence resulted in political overreach, perhaps due to a failure of understanding, and the United States came to the rescue, in a sense.
Today we are at a historical moment that is both similar and different, where the United States might need to be rescued from the consequences of its own failures of understanding, and where perhaps Europe may be required to play a role.
As someone whose own academic career comes close to bridging this historical divide, I’d be interested in your reflections on this reversal.
WS: World War II marks the big divide in the story you have sketched in your question. Robert Park, the foundational figure in the Chicago school of sociology, wrote his dissertation in Germany (and in German); Franz Boas built up anthropology at Columbia with the university president’s explicit agreement that he could send his students to Germany; and this was the case in many other disciplines at other universities, too. Yet the vast, forced intellectual migration from Europe to America in the 1930s and 1940s is another story, as it turned so many famous European scholars into political refugees and brought them to American universities that a mere list of their names would probably exceed the length of this interview. Let me just mention Ernst Herzfeld in Near Eastern archaeology and the literary scholars Erich Auerbach, Leo Spitzer, and René Wellek. The center of gravity shifted, and the growth and importance of American universities continued in the Cold War years.
The old golden age of the German university that the Nazis so brutally ended had become possible because of a whole combination of factors: excellent high schools that prepared students (who constituted only a very small percentage of each generational cohort) for university study, as it made them acquire competence in languages, mathematics and the sciences, history, geography, and literature; generous university funding through state support; and a great deal of professorial autonomy and discretion, combined with [the] high social status of the professorial profession. While a newly restrictive and less competitive US visa policy may steer more international students and faculty away from the United States, while skyrocketing costs for housing, education of children, and health-care, high tuition fees for students, and the phasing out of pension plans for professors at many American universities contrast with far more congenial social and economic environments in European countries, and while several countries have created incentives to reverse the “brain drain” and launched other initiatives to stimulate excellence and draw renowned scholars to European universities, I wonder whether you already see a new constellation of factors on the horizon that might bring about a new golden age in today’s digitized and more and more bureaucratized academic environment.
Let me take your question also as an occasion to say at the end how grateful I am to have been able to work for over three decades at Harvard in the world’s largest open-shelf research library, in which I was given an office of my own, making me feel like a medieval monk might have felt who worked among Saint Gallen’s vast collection of manuscripts; to teach in four departments and programs with illustrious colleagues, with many of whom I have become friends; and perhaps best of all, to teach undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom have entered illustrious careers or have trained subsequent academic generations. Had someone predicted such a career for me when I was a high school student in Frankfurt or a student in Berlin, I would not have believed it.
Of course, I would also like to thank you, dear Arvind, for arranging this interview and for asking me these questions.
Literally, special way; the term refers to German history’s rapid postwar recovery and supposed deviation from that of the West.
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