Magazine December 22, 2019, Issue

Thomas Mann in America

The base of a sculpture celebrating famous German authors at the Bebelplatz square in Berlin (Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
Thomas Mann’s War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters, by Tobias Boes (Cornell University Press, 376 pp., $34.95)

Thomas Mann, from the beginning of his career, took himself very seriously. Although his writing is difficult, he appealed to Germans familiar with their nation’s classics and was by 1929, when awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, a very popular writer. Moreover, emulating Goethe, he was not partisan. Seriousness meant standing above the fray, giving a hearing to both sides, which is one of the sources of Mann’s irony. This lack of partisanship led to a squabble with his brother Heinrich (the author of The Blue Angel), who, influenced by Émile Zola’s role in the Dreyfus affair, believed that writers had a duty to take sides. In response to this sibling contretemps, Thomas broke off work on his great opus The Magic Mountain to pen Reflections of a Non-Political Man, which appeared on the eve of Germany’s surrender in World War I. Only a German, one might hazard, would go to such lengths to tease out so excruciatingly the position of the artist vis-à-vis society. Proust never bothered, nor did such an earlier towering figure as Henry James. Even a later modernist such as Virginia Woolf did not contaminate her art with overt politics.

By the time of Woolf’s first literary efforts, before 1920, however, Britain was one of the good guys, while Germany, despite its renowned cultural and scientific heritage, was a pariah among the nations. In order to improve Germany’s standing, Mann forged relations with other writers across the continent in the 1920s, during the period of the Weimar Republic. In the same years, however, his reputation in the U.S. was negligible, and the first part of Thomas Mann’s War concerns how he was made palatable as a novelist here. He had by then modified his earlier reluctance to meddle in politics. Besides being receptive toward socialism, he spoke out against the Nazis, which led to the revocation of his German citizenship in 1936 and his exile in the U.S. from 1938 until 1952. The second part of Thomas Mann’s War portrays how he leveraged his growing literary reputation in the U.S. to counter National Socialism. In the process, he became a “political man.”

As portrayed in Tobias Boes’s wide-ranging study, Mann’s American reception was facilitated by numerous middlemen, first among them the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, who marketed Mann “as a personality, rather than just as a name on the title page of long and difficult novels.” Thomas Mann’s War brings back to our consciousness the role of long-ago arbiters of taste — Van Wyck Brooks, H. L. Mencken, Archibald MacLeish, Kenneth Burke, among others — and portrays the rise of the opinion-influencing potential of printed media in American “cultural formation” in the 1920s. While other authors have covered the subject of the German exiles, including Thomas Mann’s American years, we are concerned here with the intersection of culture (or, in the German sense, Kultur) and American middlebrow.

The thinking class in the U.S. has always been of the opinion that the majority of Americans need edification. The organs that produced such edification and played major roles in Mann’s elevation as an icon of cultural distinction included the Book of the Month Club and The Saturday Review of Literature. Mann was promoted to Americans as “somebody who could be used to signal taste and familiarity with European culture at a time when Americans were still unsure about their own grandeur as a nation.” Whether one agrees with this assessment of Americans, it does indicate how much the thinking class deferred to Europe. For Time magazine, he was the “great Mann,” and for Dorothy Thompson (New York Herald Tribune) the “most eminent living man of letters.” It is interesting to learn here that The Nation was once considered a mainstream publication.

Mann is, of course, an incredibly rarefied writer, as I discovered to my consternation when assigned Death in Venice in one of my first German-literature courses in college. The effort to make him accessible to Americans was helped by his official translator, Helen Lowe-Porter, who confessed that she did not really understand Mann’s writing until she had dressed his thought in “English garb.” Mann, pleased to reach a larger audience, went along with her reduction of symbolic complexity and style. One 337-word sentence was transformed into 14 sentences in an essay that appeared in 1939 in Esquire. (Very good translations of Mann’s novels, by John E. Woods, began appearing only in the 1990s.)

From the late 1930s, when he and his family took up residence in the U.S., Mann lent his literary prestige to the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany, both in numerous public tours and lectures (90 between 1939 and 1942, attended by upward of 6,000 people) and in pamphlets and essays. Along the way, he accumulated honorary degrees from Hobart and Harvard, served as a lecturer in humanities at Princeton and a consultant in Germanic literature at the Library of Congress, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And whatever political message one might discern in Mann’s literary work in these years (e.g., the novel Joseph the Provider as praise of the New Deal), and in contrast to writers of the Political Front, these large, unsparing novels blending history and allegory were indigestible even to many of his supporters. By the year of his death, 1955, he had exchanged his position as a representative German writer for the role of representative of humanity.

Boes is not attempting to turn Mann into a hero, although it is correct to say that Mann threw himself into the Allied war effort. (If there is a hero here, it is Gottfried Bermann Fischer, the German publisher who, in exile himself, kept Mann’s works in print and in circulation in non-German territories during World War II.) Of the many German émigrés, however, Mann was the one who might be said to have turned loss — that of his native audience, as happened when the Nazis banned his books — into profit. And unlike the many Eastern European and Russian writers who put their lives, not to forget their careers, on the line during the Cold War, Mann, while living in a free society,  “blazed a new path to global literary relevance.” Thomas Mann’s War is thus the story of the lengths to which a writer will go to maintain what must be regarded as his market status.

A conclusion considers the relevance of Mann’s experience to writers in today’s “global literary market.” Commercial metaphors cannot be avoided here, especially in a contemporary world of  “cultural producers” (Boes’s appellation). Mann’s case would seem to anticipate the present global publishing market, which increasingly erases the long-established identification of writers with specific languages and literary traditions. Quite a few contemporary non-Western writers now bypass their native publics and market their works to an international readership, either in translation or, directly, in a European language, most often English. In doing so, they miss the opportunity to enrich a canon of literature in their mother tongues.

Thomas Mann’s War was written for a scholarly audience, but I can’t help thinking that Boes’s approach might have been moderated with some levity or irony, both of which characterize Thomas Mann’s oeuvre. It’s hard to imagine that Mann, the great ironist, was not aware of the self-caricaturing potential in the adulation lavished on him by American politicians, from Henry Wallace to Harold Ickes. For those willing to steep themselves in this long-ago era, Thomas Mann’s War shows the persistence of the struggle of Americans for cultural self-definition.

This article appears as “Mann in America” in the December 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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