From Idealist Experiment to Eminent Institution – 1948 to 1961




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Jun 23, 2017
by Louise Hallman
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From Idealist Experiment to Eminent Institution – 1948 to 1961

It may not have been the founders’ original plan, but the 1950s saw their idealistic experiment become a fully-fledged institution, attracting people of prominence and promise from Europe and America to learn from each other across diverse fields.

After three summer sessions, the experiment was deemed successful enough to legally incorporate in 1950 as a Massachusetts non-profit – the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies. The Seminar was now an institution, complete with an advisory board, staff and a (part-time) president – Dexter Perkins, a history professor at the University of Rochester and later Cornell. They had offices in Cambridge, MA, and a home (albeit not yet permanent) at Schloss Leopoldskron. Most importantly, there was the vision shared with the three founders: to bring together Americans and Europeans, across post-war divides.

Margaret Mead had written a glowing review of the first summer’s program, and later coined the phrase: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” This was embedded in the Seminar’s ethos from its beginning.

Despite the success of their first summer, not all the founders returned. Elledge gained a teaching post at Carleton College, MN, USA. Campbell did return for the second session but in a reduced role due to ill health. The biggest absence was that of Heller. The driving force behind the project was refused travel papers to return to US-occupied Salzburg on the grounds that he was a “dangerous ‘red’.” They did, however, remain engaged from overseas.  

In their place, new administrators were appointed. In 1949, one successful applicant was Harvard student Herbert Gleason. As clerk of the Seminar after his graduation in 1950, “Herb” was a signatory of the original incorporation papers and remained a member of the board of directors until 2010. Gleason, among others, was an early advocate of expanding the program of studies. Grants from the Commonwealth Fund and the Rockefeller Foundation enabled the Seminar to grow from an annual summer program to several sessions a year, which in 1950 focused on sociology, social relations, literature, music, and theatre, in addition to the General Session in American Studies. While more specialized, these early sessions were still all based in the study of America and its culture and institutions, with faculty coming from the US and Fellows primarily from Western Europe. (Between 1950 and the mid-1960s, diplomatic relations made recruitment from Eastern Europe almost impossible.)

The program continued to diversify and the summer of 1953 saw the establishment of one of the Seminar’s longest-running series – American Law and Legal Institutions – which ran every summer for decades, bringing in prominent American jurists and legal scholars, including a great number of US Supreme Court judges – both on the bench and prior to their appointment.

The participation of those who showed great promise alongside those who were already prominent in their field was not only the case of the law sessions but across all programs. Many Seminar alumni thus rose to prominent positions of their own. Notable faculty members of the period included Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow; then Harvard professor and leading Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Kaplan; diplomat and Yale president Kingman Brewster Jr.; political scientist Hans Morgenthau; poet laureate Robert Lowell; literary critic Ralph W. Ellison (who was the first African-American to serve on the faculty); and renowned historian Henry Steele Commager. Scott Elledge returned as faculty in 1953, as did many other early Fellows.

By the mid-1950s, the Seminar was well established and gaining an eminent reputation, but its home at Schloss Leopoldskron was by no means secured. There were several scouting parties to other locations in Europe as the future of the Schloss looked uncertain. Finally, after two years of protracted negotiations, the Schloss was sold by Thimig to the City of Salzburg, which in turn sold it to the Seminar in 1959 for $92,350 (equivalent to $1m in 2017).

Throughout his tenure, Perkins was determined to keep American studies at the center of the Seminar. However, with his retirement and the appointment of retired naval officer Arthur S. Adams as president in 1962, a shift began.

topics/article/cold-war-crossroads.htmlREAD MORE: Cold War Crossroads – 1962 to 1989