- My Sixty Years as an Amerikanist
My life as an Amerikanist began in 1958 with a seminar on Herman Melville that brought my rather vague academic interests—I was then in my fourth semester—into sharper focus. My major had been German literature. But Melville made me switch (or, rather, “convert,” the experience was that intense) to the study of American literature. Melville’s novels, especially Moby-Dick, seemed new and exciting, so different from everything I had read so far as a beginning student that I didn’t have to think twice. Besides, there were other reasons: Germanistik was a huge field. I remember an advanced seminar on Goethe’s Faust with 200 participants. In contrast, my Melville seminar was small; we were about ten. The Germanistik professors were all German and inaccessible, many of them tainted by their ideological affiliation with the Nazi past. My Amerikanistik professor (John McCormick) was American, strict, even authoritarian (he had been commander of an American destroyer during the war), but willing to interact with his students on the basis of personal respect—if perhaps not of intellectual equality—as long as he recognized their serious commitment to the subject he taught. His seminar, for me, was a lesson in democratic behavior, a self-strengthening experience of intellectual exchange, perhaps even a glimpse of a utopian republic of letters. It was so different from what I had experienced previously in other contexts of German academia in the 1950s (at the Universities of Mainz and Freiburg) that, for me, there was no alternative but to continue my studies as an intellectually reborn Amerikanist in Berlin.
Of course, Amerikanistik was then still part of the English Department, like almost everywhere else in Germany and Europe. A few years [End Page 335] later, the section of American literature was integrated into the newly founded Institute of American Studies based on the concept of area studies. Ernst Fraenkel, who had to flee Berlin for the United States in 1938, brought the field back to Berlin around 1960, at the height of another “Berlin crisis” that culminated in the construction of the Berlin Wall. Several disciplines were brought under one roof, loosely connected by “America” as their shared object of research. Yet they were by no means interacting in the formation of a coherent discipline (“American studies”). On the contrary, the borders between disciplines were sacrosanct. When I joined the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien (DGfA) in 1968 (fifteen years after its foundation in 1953), the majority of its membership was formed by literary scholars—although there were also some historians and fewer political scientists who felt rather uncomfortable in such a predominantly philological environment.1
The rebellion that started at the Erlangen conference was directed against the hierarchical structure of the association but did not (yet) aim at a redefinition of Amerikastudien as something more than American literature.2 That came a few years later, first as a protest against close reading and the purist restrictions of the New Criticism, then by discussing the canonical texts of American literature within larger social and historical contexts or placing them within the theoretical frames provided by Frankfurt school Marxism, social history, anthropology, poststructuralism, semiotics, or psychoanalysis. (In this, the German academic rebels—largely untenured assistant professors and PhD students—more or less followed the example of their American peers.) Of course, by then, the established canon had itself come under fire, together with the academic establishment that defended it. The canon was eventually enlarged to include texts of minority groups that formerly had been excluded from it. But I also remember an early student strike at my American Studies Institute (by then, renamed the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies) for putting Dreiser’s Sister Carrie on the reading list, before the idea of a canon itself was shelved altogether. I myself, although an ardent reader of literature (I had written my dissertation on the poetry of Hart Crane), had become member of a research team that studied German working-class culture in Chicago from 1860 to World War I, funded by the German Research Foundation and mentored by the American social historian Herbert...