Precarious Romanticism: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies in Germany – J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists – article

Precarious Romanticism: Nineteenth-Century American Literary Studies in Germany

Clemens Spahr | J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists


I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. —Henry David Thoreau1 For this essay, and in keeping with this Forum’s intent, I will heed Henry David Thoreau’s advice. Such a focus allows me to address some of the general issues associated with the field of American studies in Germany from a particular subject position, one linked to a specific research field and shaped by my career stage. While I don’t think that topically or theoretically there is something inherently “German” about American studies in Germany—there is a Heideggerian Emersonian tradition in the United States, just as there is a pragmatist romanticist tradition in Germany—the question about the specificity of German American studies can productively be asked institutionally: How do local institutional conditions affect scholarly exchange? How is it possible to reconcile the expectations of the German university system with the often different time lines of academic discourse and publications in the United States? The latter question is, of course, of particular relevance for those on the job market, and it importantly shapes what it means to work in American studies in Germany. I will try to link the “narrowness of my experience,” as Thoreau has it in the same passage from Walden, to a few general observations.2 But, first, some further details: I am an assistant professor of American [End Page 357] studies at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz. My major research fields are American transcendentalism and modern American poetry. My interest in the links among idealism, materialism, and modernity developed at the University of Tübingen, both in the American studies department and the philosophy department, with its strong focus on German idealism. As I read widely in romanticism and, more particularly, transcendentalism, I also turned to neo-Marxist theory from Theodor W. Adorno and Ernst Block to Fredric Jameson, later including Immanuel Wallerstein’s historical sociology. As Marx himself was heavily influenced by romanticism, the move from romantic idealism to materialism could be considered theoretically imperative.3 As I showed in my first book—Radical Beauty: American Transcendentalism and the Aesthetic Critique of Modernity (2011)—the transcendentalists dwelled on this relationship more than is usually appreciated. They recognized that a universalist aesthetic utopianism ultimately has to overcome social injustice and class division. Although not all of the transcendentalists embraced the radical politics of Orestes Brownson and Margaret Fuller in her socialist years, all of them understood aesthetic experience as having a potential for resisting capitalist commodification. My institutional position comes with a number of complexities and complications, which affect the ways I approach the field. Thoreau is still one of the best critics of the nature of liberal capitalism, but when he exclaims, “Give me the poverty that enjoys true wealth,” I respectfully disagree.4 In Germany, assistant professors are usually nontenured: this is the case for me and, at least at my university, the norm. But the German academic system is undergoing fundamental changes, and as a result the parameters for a permanent position are shifting. While the Habilitation used to be the most important criterion to apply for full professorships, this criterion has been replaced by “Habilitation or habilitation-equivalent achievements,” which can mean anything from a second book to a book manuscript, essays, or research grants. The lack of clarity in this phrase reflects a larger shift in academic structure: there are nontenured assistant professors, nontenured junior professors, and tenure-track junior professors. The intricacies of this system are beyond the scope of this essay, in particular since these positions also vary according to state. Generally, however, tenure-track positions remain the exception, so that most midcareer academics find themselves in a precarious job situation. Academic employment law, a complicated statute that essentially limits academic employment at the PhD and postdoc level to a combined twelve years, adds to this insecurity. As an [End Page 358] assistant professor, then, I occupy a particular place within the university system, hoping to enjoy the kind of “true wealth” Thoreau celebrates but limited every day by a precarious job…


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