By Anna J. Cook
Last Wednesday (January 5th) visiting scholar Alexander Kluger from the Universitat Wurzburg (Germany) spoke at a brown bag lunch event on the subject of his research while in residence here at the Massachusetts Historical Society. In this post, I offer a brief summary of Alex’s prepared talk, “What Is ‘Influence’? German Literature and American Transcendentalism,” and the discussion that followed.
Prior to beginning his year-long residency, Kluger proposed to examine the influence of German literature on the work of the American Transcendentalists. With this research, he sought to fill a gap in the existing scholarship, providing a more focused study than many previous works that have explored (for example) broader themes such as the German influence on New England authors, or narrower studies that constructed direct lines of connection between German author A and American scholar B.
During his research, it became clear to Alex that to speak of German “influence” on the Transcendentalists, particularly in the narrow sense of German authors’ style and thought substantially altering an American author’s work, would be a mischaracterization of the relationship between the two intellectual traditions. Instead, Alex has come to think about the “role” of German writers, or German writing as “objects of reference” for the Transcendentalist thinkers. He gives as an example Margaret Fuller’s poetry, which often references German writers, whom she greatly admired, but does not give any noticeable sign, in style or form or overall opinion, of having been substantially changed by her reading of (for example) Goethe.
Instead of being “influenced” by German intellectuals, Alex suggests that the Transcendentalists felt a kinship with their German contemporaries, with whom they shared the experience of having come of age as thinkers within a common “salon culture.” Therefore, many similarities observed their approach and thinking previously attributed to German-to-American influence may in fact be a case of simultaneous development. As Alex put it, the Transcendentalists gravitated toward German writers because they looked at them as kindred spirits: “These are people who have thought the thoughts that we are thinking right now!”
During the discussion period following Alex’s presentation, participants sought to clarify what the Transcendentalists, particularly, found so compelling about German thinkers. German intellectual culture was popular within a much broader group of Americans than the Transcendentalist circle. However, Alex suggests that many others who felt an affinity with German culture, such as George Ticknor, emphasized the lessons that could be learned from Germany concerning the development of educational institutions, whereas the Transcendentalists emphasized a more emotive, romantic connections. They used German thought as a vantage point from which they could critique American society. Also discussed were the intersections between theology, nationalism, and literary discourse, all of which energized young thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic.
We congratulate Alex on a fruitful six months here at the Society and look forward to seeing where the next six months will take his research.