Dimension2: Contemporary German-Language Literature

Volume 2, Number 2


American Pie and German Literature

Ingo R. Stoehr

Several years ago, when the contributions of German immigrants to the United States of America were celebrated, one poster caught my attention. It showed a cake whose icing was the American flag, and the slice that was lifted up had layers in the colors of the Federal Republic of Germany. The message was clear: A slice of American life has a German filling.

This message is true, I think: therefore, I like the poster. However, I liked it for yet another reason. Somehow it seemed to me as though at the moment when that particular slice is lifted and the German colors become visible, it is almost a surprise. While about twenty percent of all American can claim German ancestry, "things German" are indeed not very visible in American life.There are many reasons for this invisibility, above all perhaps, the Nazi legacy that silenced the German voice in American life. But "things German" are there: From Carl Schurz and Henry Kissinger in politics to popular culture today with Austrian-born Arnold Schwarzenegger. While there are writers in American who are German either by birth or by ancestry, their names are little known such as Hermann Seele, a nineteenth-century German Texan.In addition to that slice of American life that has a German filling, there are also the cultural achievements in today's Germany that may complement American experiences very well. US culture and politics have had a tremendous influence on German life--almost an entire generation grew up on American radio because American Forces Network played much "cooler" songs than German radio stations; the songs were American, and so were the movies and many TV series from Lassie to Star Trek, all dubbed in German, but the images of America remained. Therefore, the German interest in the USA has been great: My guess is that up to thirty percent of all literary works that have been published in recent years are American books in German translation. All of these factors make it very likely that at least some of Germany's culture, though distinctively German, is in part a response to aspects that American life addresses, too.Thus, there is more German filling that can be added to the American pie. While this sounds very easy, it involves serious efforts to build and sustain bridges between the two cultures. Teachers of German at all levels are actively involved in this endeavor; so are institutions such as Inter Nationes and the Goethe Institut.It is this quality of building bridges that makes the founder of the Literary Archives in Sulzbach-Rosenberg, which is the focus of this issue of DIMENSION2, all the more interesting to an American audience:On the one hand, Walter Höllerer has exerted a tremendous influence on German literature as an author (of poems--the 1982 collection of Gedichte 1942-1982, published by Suhrkamp Verlag, presents a good survey--and prose, in particular the novel Die Elephantenuhr [The Elephant Clock], 1973), and editor (most notedly of two literary magazines: Akzente, founded by Höllerer and Hans Bender in1954, and Sprache im technischen Zeitalter [Language in the Age of Technology], founded by Höllerer in 1961), a scholar (with a host of publications, i.e., books as well as articles; just recently published, a collection of earlier essays: Zurufe, Widerspiele -- Aufsätze zu Dichtern und Gedichten [Acclamations, Counter Plays--Essays about Poets and Poems], published by Berlin Verlag 1992), a professor of literature (in Germany first at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität at Frankfurt and then, from 1959 to his retirement, at the Technische Universität at Berlin), and a mover of the literary scene in Germany (for instance in conjunction with the "Group 47" but above all as the founder of the Literary Colloquium Berlin in 1963 and the Literary Archives in Sulzbach-Rosenberg in 1977).On the other hand, Walter Höllerer has always been interested in "world literature": He has worked to introduce American and other literatures to a German audience, for instance, when American authors were guests at the Litarary Colloquium Berlin or or when together with Greogry Corso edited Junge amerikanische Lyrik [Young American Poetry] published by hanser Verlag 1961; the book was reprinted under a new title, Lyrik der Beat Generation [Poetry of the Beat Generation] published by Heyne Verlag 1985.And he has worked to bring German literature closer to an American readership, again in several functions: as editor, scholar, and teacher. He published articles on German literature in English, especially in Evergreen Review (Grove Press, New York) where he also served as contributing editor for several years beginning in 1960. In a letter from March 12, 1995, Höllerer mentions in particular the November/December 1961 issue of Evergreen Review, where he presented texts of the "German scene," e.g., translations of Uwe Johnson's Speculations about Jacob (excerpt), Günter Grass' "The Wide Skirt," Paul Celan's "Death Fugue," Alfred Andersch' "Spilt Beer," Günter Eich's "Dreams," Hans Magnus Enzensberger's "A Poem for the Affluent Society," Helmut Heissenbüttel's "Fragment III," and Heinrich Böll's "In this Country of Ours."It is also in Evergreen Reviw and also in 1961 that Höllerer published an excerpt from a work in progress, i.e., his novel Elephant Clock which was not published until 1973 by Suhrkamp Verlag. The novel's revised paperback edition was published in 1975, and Leslie Willson's Dimension featured a translation of the first ten pages of the paperback version in 1976. The text published in this issue of DIMENSION2 represents the first ten pages of the typescript of the Elephant Clock. In a telephone conversation with Brigitte Fleiß on January 14, 1994, Höllerer explained that this typescript is the result of his compiling the notes for the paperback revision with remaining notes for earlier versions; after that, he threw everything away--except for the compilation, i.e., the typescript that is now available at the Literary Archives in Sulzbach-Rosenberg.Höllerer has had a long-standing fascination with America. In his essay, "Westwärts, Endstation: San Francisco im Herbst" [Go West, Final Destination: San Francisco in Autumn, reprinted in Oberpfälzische Welterkundungen 1987], it becomes obvious that Höllerer himself is attracted by the complex interaction of the myth of the West that promises a new beginning and the fact that the myth meets its final destination in San Francisco, both geographically in the Pacific Ocean and idealistically in the various underground movements that started in San Francisco (and which in turn might renew the myth).Walter Höllerer seems to have been able to do those things in which he could find himself, too. He is an author first because he believes that only as an author will he gain the insights that make it possible for him to do everything else: write about, edit, and teach literature. Mythical places in America attracted him, but when he taught in the USA, it was primarily at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. It was there that he could find himself in a landscape that reminded him of his native Upper Palatinate. It was also there that he was perhaps able to build the most enduring bridges between American and German cultures: by teaching German and Comparative Literature to graduate students (of whom, I might add, I was one in 1984).

In terms of the initial metaphor, Walter Höllerer has been an expert cook who has served several delicious dishes--even quite literally and tongue-in-cheek to the public during the opening celebrations in the old courthouse of the Literary Archives Sulzbach-Rosenberg, as he himself points out in the essay that is reprinted here, exploiting the double meaning of the German word "Gericht," i.e., "meal" and "court of law."


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