CHAPTER 2: American Berlin across Three Centuries

By Parker, Joshua | Spatial Practices, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

CHAPTER 2: American Berlin across Three Centuries


Parker, Joshua, Spatial Practices


Much has been written broadly on American literature set in European cities. Most work on single urban settings has treated nineteenth- and early twentiethcentury London, Paris or Rome. Notable work has been published on images of Berlin in British fiction, including that by Edward Timms and David Kelley, Günther Blaicher, Derek Glass, Dietmar Rösler and John J. White, and Emer O'Sullivan. The United States' relationship with Germany, however, in terms of immigration, and of its physical distance from the two wars with the country in the last century, make its relationship with Berlin something quite different from that of the British. Much work, like that of D.E. Barclay and E. GlaserSchmidt, Hans-Jürgen Diller, Hanspeter Dörfel, Peter Freese, Walter Kühnel, Henry Cord Meyer, Martin Meyer, Georg Schmundt-Thomas and Waldemar Zacharasiewicz, has been devoted to the image of Germany in the American imagination, either in literary or general comparative imagology.1 Yet despite marked increases in fiction treating Berlin since its first designation as Germany's capital and particularly in the past twenty years, little work has targeted the city itself as a setting or image in American literature and popular consciousness. That which has is almost limited to Jörg Helbig's very general collection Welcome to Berlin: Das Image Berlins in der englischprachigen Welt von 1700 bis heute and to Christine Gerhardt's very specific "'What was left of Berlin looked bleaker every day': Berlin, Race, and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature." As America's fictional Berlin only begins to appear clearly just before the First World War, in the last warm glow of the nineteenth century, its story is encapsulated in a relatively short time span, while a paucity of earlier fiction allows engagement with works spanning 175 years. The corpus here comprises some 150 works of fiction, poetry and plays, from 1840 to the present.

America has long looked to European models (from ancient Greece to imperial Rome) to describe its contemporary political situation. Berlin may not offer a synecdoche as well-formed as might Rome, Paris, London or Venice. And while Paris and Parisians may be used to stereotype France and the French in American literature, or London may stand in as symbolic of England, Germany's metropolitan representation is divided between more than one city. This fragmentation is bolstered in the American imagination, not only by Germany's nineteenth- and twentieth-century political divisions, but, as Zacharasiewicz has shown, by a propagandic division of Germany into the Prussian-dominated North and the Southern states, intended to keep u.s. citizens from stigmatizing their largely south-German immigrant citizens during the First World War (or indeed later during the Cold War to heal rifts with West Germany). Berlin's place in the American imagination developed later than that of the Rhineland, the Alps or Bavaria. Yet it gave birth to the first American imaginings of a modern, even hyper-urban German space. What is written here about Berlin might be used as a template for imagining links between nationality, self and any city. But it also illustrates what is singular about Berlin's very marked relationship to Americans. As it becomes evermore popular in the American imagination today, as well as with the American tourist, it can in many ways, as a recent article in the German weekly Die Zeit suggests, be seen as both a symbol and a litmus test for Europe itself (Jessen). Certainly, as this book hopes to show, it has often served as a laboratory for American culture.

Given that Germany was the first industrialized nation the United States ever occupied- and in some senses a model for later occupations-Berlin is highly relative not only to u.s. cultural imperialism, but to American identity. As Jeffrey Garten has written, postwar u.s. foreign policy attempted to regenerate Germany "from the ashes of war and remake [it] in its own image" (46). …

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