American Quarterly article 1949

The Salzburg Seminar

by HENRY NASH SMITH, from American Quarterly, 1, 1949, pp. 30-37

The Salzburg Seminar in American Studies is difficult to classify. It is an educational institution and an effort to promote international understanding but it has neither a pompous methodology nor an atmosphere of baseless optimism. Its purpose is summed up in F. O. Matthiessen's remark at the opening of the first session: "We have come here to enact anew the chief function of culture and humanitarianism, to bring man again into communication with man". But this is hardly a definition. Perhaps the best account that can be given of the seminar is a brief chronological sketch.

During the winter of 1946-47 several Harvard students who had been highly successful in raising funds for sending food to European students began to ask themselves whether Americans who were contributing to the material reconstruction of European univsersities might not add something beyond, something on the plane of ideas, scholarship, culture. The leaders in this imaginative undertaking were an undergraduate, Richard D. Campbell, Jr.; an Austrian-born graduate student of history, Clemens Heller; and a young English instructor, Scott Elledge, who is now on the faculty of Carleton College. The original conception of an American seminar in Europe seems to have been Heller's, but it proved to be one of the happy ideas which once suggested take on their own life and form. The plan made converts. It was developed and transformed by discussion and by circumstances.

For the creators of the Salzburg Seminar the frustrated European eagerness to learn more about the United States suggested the inevitable theme of their curriculum. They determined to provide instruction in the principal areas of American Studies - history, the social sciences, literature, fine arts. The general topic of American life had a further important advantage. For Europeans, divided by the rancors of war and especially of the German occupation, it was a relatively neutral field of study. The same people who would almost certainly fall into mutually repellent factions if they were invited to discuss abstractions like international good will or to debate the current problems of Europe could work harmoniously together on such a definite body of scientific and scholarly materials as the facts of American history and the texts of American literature. Yet the weight of the United States in the modern world would keep the enterprise from being merely antiquarian. The study of American politics, the American economy, American fiction and poetry would raise important issues in circumstances that would allow them to be discussed thoroughly without leading to a mere exchange of dogmas and prejudices.

The decision to organize a seminar in American Studies somewhere in Europe was made in February 1947. After four months of frantic exertion, during which not only a physical setting but a faculty and student body as well had to be brought into existence, the first session opened on schedule in July, at Schloss Leopoldskron near Salzburg. The venture was financed by gifts from philanthropic individuals and foundations. Members of the Harvard faculty served as advisors, but the work and most of the planning were done by students, and from the beginning the seminar has been sponsored by the Harvard Student Council.

The choice of a location in Austria grew out of the accidental fact of Heller's familiarity with that country, but it proved to be sound. The presence of an American army of occupation imposed a certain realism on the seminar. At the same time, the relatively low temperattire of Austrian politics in the American zone meant that the seminar was not distracted by outside forces. Western Austria is at the gateway of central Europe yet is accessible from the west. Salzburg itself has a strong cultural tradition, recently embodied in the annual music festival. The countryside, at the eastern base of the Tyrolese Alps, is magnificent. Salzburg bears some marks of bombing: visitors are not likely to forget recent history. But the city is not heavily damaged and does not crush outsiders with the visual impact of ruins like those of Munich or Berlin. The exact location of the seminar in Schloss Leopoldskron, a mile outside the city, was determined by the discovery that this eighteenth-century rococo country house, remodeled in the 1920's by Max Reinhardt, was available for rent, and with ingenuity could be made to accommodate the seminar community.

The student body of the 1947 session consisted of ninety-seven Europeans from seventeen countries. Most of them were university people-students or younger teachers-but there were a few artists, writers, journalists, and labor leaders. They were selected through a variety of methods. The International Student Service, with headquarters in Geneva and connections with student organizations in many countries, was the principal means of access to European universities. Some European professors recommended students to personal friends among the American faculty. Individual applications were received from people who heard of the seminar indirectly. A few ministries of education made recommendations, although the leaders of the seminar have earnestly tried to avoid close relations with government agencies, either of the United States or of foreign countries, in order to guard against political pressures, and the flavor of propaganda. For the second year, participants in the 1947 session became additional sources of recommendations. Many participants were given round-trip tickets from their homes and all received free board and lodging during the session

The curriculum for the first year provided lectures and discussion groups in six fields: history, political science, economics, sociology, literature, and fine arts. The American faculty, of eleven members, was as follows:

Literature F. O. Matthiessen, Harvard; Alfred Kazin; Vida Ginsberg, New School for Social Research.

History Richard Schlatter, Rutgers; Elspeth Davis, Sarah Lawrence.

Political Science Benjamin F. Wright, Harvard; Neil McDonald, New Jersey State College for Women.

Economics Wassily Leontief, Harvard; Walt Rostow, Oxford.

Sociology Margaret Mead, Museum of Natural History, New York; Lyman Bryson, Columbia.

Anyone familiar with American academic life will recognize that this is a faculty beyond the reach of the most energetic and imaginative director of a summer session at an American university. But the teachers were so enthusiastically committed to the aims of the seminar that they taught without a salary, receiving only transportation and the far from luxurious common fare of Leopoldskron. This demonstration of sincerity proved impressive to European students and established an atmosphere of confidence from the start.

The 1948 faculty included only one member from the previous year, Professor Leontief, who lectured on the American economy, although Mr. James Johnson Sweeney came back again as a special lecturer on Premises of American Art. The other members of the 1948 faculty, and their topics, were:

Literature John Finch, Dartmouth: The Symbolic Tradition in American Fiction;Randall Jarrell, Women's College of the University of North Carolina: Recent American Poetry; Henry Nash Smith, Minnesota: The west in Nineteenth-Century American Thought.

History Thomas D. Clark, Kentucky: The Development of the New South; Walter Johnson, Chicago: American Political Parties.

Political Science Robert J. Horn, Chicago: American Constitutional Development

Economics William G. Rice, Wisconsin: The Role of Labor in American Life

Sociology Talcott Parsons, Harvard: The Structuire of American Society

Both in 1947 and 1948 students were given complete freedom to arrange their own programs of work. Both sessions scheduled four lectures every morning and one or more discussion groups every afternoon except Saturdays. It was expected that each participant would attend a discussion group in his field and prepare a report, after the fashion of American graduate schools. Everyone was allowed to attend any of the courses he wished, on the theory that specialists in a single field would profit from lectures in other subjects. Most students tried to attend too many lectures: there was a pathetic eagerness to take advantage of the opportunities provided. Since faculty and students were living together twenty-four hours a day, under slightly austere conditions that, despite the ornate decorations of the Schloss, gave a monastic tinge to daily life, there was a decided sense of cooperative effort. The degree of intimacy needed for serious discussion came quickly. In marked contrast to the usual situation in American universities, the teachers frequently visited one another's lectures and participated in discussions outside their own specialties. The sense of the community was fostered also by several plenary meetings for forum discussions and, toward the end, for evaluation and planning of next year's session. Most of the people who spent six weeks at Leopoldskron came to know a dozen of their colleagues very well, and formed something more than a speaking acquaintance with scores of others.

What really happened at the two sessions of the seminar? The American teachers were greatly stimulated by contact with acute and highly cultivated students who knew relatively little about the United States. The task of explaining the most obvious features of American history and literature to such an audience was novel and challenging. But the major results of the seminar must be sought in the experiences of about one hundred and seventy-five Europeans. This is not a large number, yet many of the participants are already persons of influence in their own countries, and most of them will acquire greater influence as they follow their careers in teaching, scholarship, or other professional work.

At the simplest level these men and women were helped toward a grasp of American history and the nature of American society. The teachers lectured and conducted discussions about decisions of the supreme court, political parties, labor unions, the American family, American novels and poems. The courses sent the students to the library, where they found hundreds of books that are virtually unobtainable anywhere else in Europe. Their reading and research was guided by scholars familiar with the present state of knowledge and opinion in American universities. For six weeks a group that speaks eight or ten different languages was immersed in an English-speaking community. Among other things they had a period of intensive practice in hearing, reading, and speaking the language in which American culture is embodied.

Furthermore, the European students were caught up into a pattern of education that was strange to them. The very methods of lecturing, of carrying on discussions, of arranging the curriculum were illustrations of the society they were seeking to understand. In the faculty and the American student administrators or assistants the Europeans had, so to speak, laboratory specimens of the American character - speciments sufficiently varied to dispel any idea of the uniformity of our national personality, yet sharing certain broad assumptions and attitudes that were certainly not European.

The letters of participants sent in after the two sessions make it plain that these experiences were instructive. Perhaps their greatest immediate value was to destroy some of the stereotyped images that Europeans have of Americans (just as Americans have stereotyped images of the Frenchman, the Norwegian, the German, the Italian). No one could stay at Leopoldskron without realizing that the conceptions of the American character held even by cultivated Europeans are vastly simplified if not downright misleading. One French student, of political science, younger than most of the group, put the matter somewhat naively by remarking that American teachers and students were much more like Europeans than had been the American soldiers he had met. This statement probably means no more than that academic people everywhere have many tastes and attitudes in common, but even so elementary a perception is not valueless.

The Europeans were most impressed by the relaxed American acceptance of freedom of discussion. Many European countries (not all of them of course) have long imposed restrictions on what Americans consider the individual's right right to criticize his own society. An American professor asserting that the supreme court had made a mistake in handing down a certain decision, or that the Negro is unjustly treated in the United States, was astonishing to Europeans who had grown up under totalitarian regimes. They were even somewhat surprised to find the teachers of literature remarking that this or that American writer was greatly overrated in Europe, as some of them undoubtedly are. That healthy criticism of this sort, which seems to us the indispensable condition of education, could be freely expressed by an American faculty in a zone controlled by the American army, was an object lesson in one of the meanings Americans like to attach to democracy. An Austrian girl who attended the showing of The Grapes of Wrath, one among several American films exhibited during the 1948 session, remarked that she was surprised that Americans would show to Europeans a film depicting such unhappy conditions in our country. In many parts of Europe education and propaganda have long been almost synonymous.

Although the most obvious purpose of the seminar was to bring Europe into contact with America, it also brought Europeans from all parts of the continent into contact with one another. This feature of the venture was as important as the formal curriculum of American Studies, for if Europe could recover its cultural unity it would need no help from America. Unfortunately, the issue of West versus East that had become so acute by the summer of 1948 could not be confronted directly because no Eastern Etiropean country except Czechoslovakia sent representatives to Salzburg. There were a number of Communists in the student body but they had evidently made up their minds not to be drawn into controversy and maintained an almost unbroken reserve on such issues as the Marshall Plan and the Berlin crisis.

On the other hand, the second great problem of contemporary Europe, the problem of Germany, was thoroughly canvassed. Both in 1947 and in 1948 the student body included a considerable number of Germans. It is far too soon to determine whether a tradition not incompatible with the needs and purposes of the rest of Europe can be recovered from the ruins of Nazi Germany, but the presence of the Germans in a small and intimate community created an interesting and sometimes tense situation. Many of the other students could look back on concentration camps, on the murder or brutal treatment of relatives, on a decade of violence under the Nazis. Some of them felt an entirely understandable hostility towards the German participants and there were one or two occasions when these rancors threatened to break out on the surface. But most members of the seminar managed to estimate the Germans according to their individual merits as human beings.

A questionnaire circulated by the members of a class in sociology, revealed a surprising number of friendships between French and German students. One of the German girls, a doctor of philosophy from Heidelberg, was a formidable (although effortless) contender for the position of the belle of Leopoldskron. By far the closest single relationship established during the 1948 session was a friendship between one of the American student assistants and a German historian. These two men were veterans of the recent war who discovered a common need to think through their experiences in the whole problem of the war, with its implications concerning guilt and innocence, individual and collective responsibility, force and freedom. Most veterans of the Allied armies, in fact, seemed to feel that men who had served on the other side were less clearly enemies than they were fellow victims of a monstrous mechanical horror contrived by generals and brass of all nations without distinction. A remarkable conversation in a men's dormitory reached the conclusion that one of the Germans present had piloted a pursuit plane in a great air battle in which one of the Americans had been a bombardier. The discovery seemed to give a complicated pleasure to all concerned.

But no one was likely to imagine that this personal kind of rapprochement had much bearing on the immediate future of Europe. The goodwill and genuine liking that grew up so tangibly during the sessions of the seminar merely served to dramatize by contrast the unrelaxed tensions of power politics and diplomacy. The seminar has proved that individual scholars from many nations can work happily and profitably together. It has restated concretely the ideal, the potential unity (not of course the homogeneity) of Occidental culture. Its contribution is to have demonstrated this possibility. Lacking economic or political force, its influence is confined to the realm of ideas and has no direct bearing upon practical problems. But those who believe in the efficacy of ideas will find this limitation less disconcerting than will those who do not regard ideas as causal forces.