Photos by Jason Smith

“I CAME TO THE UNIVERSITY of Chicago to study with David Wellbery,” says Germanic studies doctoral candidate Georginna Hinnebusch, AM’07. “He is the authority on Goethe.”

Wellbery is also chair of the Department of Germanic Studies and the author of two works considered classics in the field of German literary history: Lessing’s Laocoön: Semiotics and Aesthetics in the Age of Reason (Cambridge University Press, 1984) and The Specular Moment: Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginnings of Romanticism (Stanford University Press, 1996). After teaching at Stanford and Johns Hopkins University, he arrived at UChicago as the LeRoy T. and Margaret Deffenbaugh Carlson University Professor. His appointment as a University Professor—Chicago's highest honor—reflects Wellbery's stature, interest in, and influence on multiple fields. He holds appointments in Germanic studies, comparative literature, social thought, and the College and is the founding director of the University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on German Literature and Culture.

Since 1998, Wellbery has coedited the Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte, a prominent journal of German literary studies. Last year, he received the prestigious Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Prize from the DAAD, or German Academic Exchange Service. The prize recognizes lifetime contributions to the field of Germanic languages and literature; he is the second American to win the annual award since its establishment in 1995.

Tableau recently sat down with Wellbery for an update on Germanic studies at Chicago as well as his research.

You left Johns Hopkins for the University of Chicago in 2001. What drew you here?

Johns Hopkins is kindred to the University of Chicago, with an emphasis on intellectual inquiry. When the offer for a university professorship came from Chicago, it was very easy for me to make a step here.

Chicago has a deep commitment to scholarship—to scholarly exchange and dialogue. In my discussions with the president at the time, Don Randel, and with future colleagues, it was clear that there was that unified vision. And I felt that Chicago’s Department of Germanic Studies had incomparable richness in terms of its interdisciplinary bent. Part of the reason I wanted to come here was to help crystallize that interest and give it the sort of profile that it deserves.

To what does the department owe its strong reputation and high placements in the National Research Council's rankings?

In terms of what constitutes our intellectual profile and distinguishes us, there are three points that I believe everyone in the department would agree are extremely important.

 Chicago is recognized nationally as a place where the great literary tradition is still studied.Point one is that we place a good deal of emphasis on the study of the canonical German literary tradition—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Kafka, Heinrich von Kleist, Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Schiller, Gotthold Lessing. This is distinct from the approach of other departments in the country that focus more on cultural studies. Chicago is recognized nationally as a place where the great literary tradition is still studied—other schools study it too, but I’d say it’s one of our signature features.

The second feature, and one that I mentioned as a reason for coming here, is that the German literary canon is studied in an interdisciplinary context and with a variety of theoretical models. Our department is much smaller than those at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Berkeley. But we have situated ourselves in this University of Chicago context where we have very strong programs in German philosophy, film history and theory, music, art history, and so on. We do not recruit graduate students solely to the Department of Germanic Studies. That will be their home, but they are coming to the Division of the Humanities; indeed, they’re coming to the University of Chicago. All of the Germanic studies faculty are working with colleagues from other fields, and I’ll give you two examples. My colleague Susanne Lüdemann is coteaching a seminar with cinema scholar Noa Steimatsky on the relationship between image and text in the work of Roland Barthes, one of the most famous French literary theoreticians in the first half of the twentieth century. Another colleague, Eric Santner, is coteaching a course with Divinity School professor Paul Mendes-Flohr on the twentieth-century reception of Moses and St. Paul.

And the third feature is a robust internationalism. We train our students to participate in an international discussion of scholars. For the past seven years, we have conducted seminars with colleagues from the University of Konstanz. Graduate students from Konstanz travel to Chicago and vice-versa for these seminars. Past topics have included the concept of form, mimesis and poiesis, lyric poetry, and narrative theory. And we have an agreement with the Free University of Berlin for a series of seminars—one seminar every two years with graduate students and faculty from Chicago, the Free University of Berlin, and Cambridge in England. The first seminar in 2010 was on the limits of philology. The second in 2012 will cover atmosphere in literature and the arts. 

Rilke and Goethe: Two PhDs in Progress

The journal you edit—where does that fit in?

Actually, the Department of Germanic Studies is home to two very important journals. The one you mentioned is the Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte. The other is the Opera Quarterly, a major international journal for the study of opera edited by my colleague David Levin, who is an expert on theater and theatrical performance.

After ten years, what are the notable accomplishments of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on German Literature and Culture?

The center has been an essential vehicle in establishing the national and international standing of the Department of Germanic Studies, particularly through its conference series. I don’t think there’s any German program in the United States with as much conference activity as we have here at the University of Chicago. The conferences, which take different forms—workshops, lectures, and so forth—are sponsored in collaboration with colleagues from other departments at the University of Chicago and from other universities. Several have resulted in books, important publications that have appeared in international venues. For example, a 2008 collection of essays on Goethe’s poetry titled Die Gabe des Gedichts: Goethes Lyrik im Wechsel der Töne came out of a 2003 conference. Proceedings from our 2006 conference on Karl Philipp Moritz have just appeared. And with cosponsorship of the German Society for the Study of Romanticism, we had a major international conference on culture and German romanticism in 2007. That book, a collection of essays, is coming out this year in Germany.

The center has supported other publishing projects such as two issues of the Chicago Review that brought new German poetry to the attention of American readers. We’ve assisted with concerts and art exhibitions such as the Smart Museum’s Confronting Identities in German Art in 2002. The center has also been a pivotal supporter of the international student seminars that I mentioned earlier.

In today’s globalized world, with many different countries having widespread influence, why is the field of Germanic studies still relevant and important?

The first thing I would emphasize is the importance of the German heritage in the history and self-understanding of the United States—in the articulation of our culture. More people in the United States self-identify as being of German heritage than of any other national origin. For several years after the failed 1848 revolution in the German-speaking lands, six million German immigrants came to the United States. Imagine what that number meant in terms of the populations of both countries at the time—it was a very large influx, and these people went on to play significant roles in the development of American culture and industry. You can see this in Chicago—it’s not accidental that we have a Goethe Street, a Schiller Street, and so forth.

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This German heritage has been particularly important in the self-conception of the American university. The idea of a research university in its modern form was theoretically worked out in the early 1800s by linguist and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt, a close friend of Goethe’s and a central figure in the German cultural movement known as the Age of Goethe, which spawned classic intellectual and artistic work and embraces, roughly speaking, Goethe's lifetime from 1749 through 1832. Some of the other major figures in the Age of Goethe would be the writers Friedrich Schiller, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Heinrich von Kleist; the great lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin; the founder of modern literary criticism and theory Friedrich Schlegel; the composers Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert; the painter Caspar David Friedrich; and the geographer and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who was Wilhelm’s brother. When the University of Chicago was formed, it did so with reference to the Humboldtian tradition—an emphasis on the unity of education and research as well as on a university’s intellectual independence.

And today, Germany is important for many of the same reasons it was important in the nineteenth century: its cultural contributions, and its contributions to science in particular. In terms of economics, Germany is without question the most vital nation in the European Union and is of incredible international importance. More people in Europe speak German as their native language than any other language, and German is the second most popular language taught in Europe and Japan, after English. It’s also the third most popular foreign language taught worldwide.

Could you give examples of American scholars or artists who were influenced by German culture?

Development of an American cultural self-consciousness began in New England in the early part of the nineteenth century. Several journals articulated a uniquely American cultural view. Leading figures in this movement such as George Bancroft had studied in Germany and were deeply imbued with classical German culture, the culture of the Age of Goethe.  More people in the United States self-identify as being of German heritage than of any other national origin.The way that German literature was followed at that time in the United States is remarkable. The editor of the most prominent nineteenth-century journal, the Dial, was a woman named Margaret Fuller. Her essays on German literature and thought are extraordinary, displaying a depth of knowledge that compares favorably with the best European commentators.

I can also give you an example from the twentieth century, one that’s particularly compelling for the University of Chicago because it relates to Saul Bellow. In 1987, Bellow published a novel called More Die of Heartbreak, a central figure of which is a man who studies plant morphology and possesses an extraordinary gift of perception. It just so happens that, a few years prior, Bellow had written an essay on Goethe’s Italian Journey, a diary of Goethe’s self-education during a trip to Italy—how he came to understand the structure of plants, to see in surrounding phenomena their ideal form. In the first edition of More Die of Heartbreak, there’s a photo of Bellow pointing at a bookshelf in the background. Recently, I looked very closely and discovered that the tip of his finger is in front of a volume of Goethe’s Italian Journey. He’s offering us a clue as to the source of his novel. 

I’d love to learn more about your current research endeavors.

I am engaged in a research project with James Conant of the Department of Philosophy and a colleague in Germany named Christoph König. It’s supported by a Humboldt Foundation grant and is laying the groundwork for an interdisciplinary conference on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and its relationship to literature that will take place at the University in June 2011. I am also working with Professor Conant to put together a September conference in Berlin on Nietzsche and literature, and with my colleague Christopher Wild to organize a conference at Chicago on the work of Heinrich von Kleist. It’s scheduled for December and supported by the International Heinrich von Kleist Society.

And what about your ongoing work on Goethe?

My first Goethe book was on his early poetry. Goethe had a long and productive life, and now I’m moving over to his scientific work and related aesthetic theories. Goethe edited journals on morphology, and published his first great scientific book, the Metamorphosis of Plants, in 1790. He also studied animal morphology, meteorology, geology. I’m investigating how that work is reflected in his thinking about art—and how Goethe’s thinking about art relates to contemporary theories of art and literature as well as theories that were worked out in his time. 


Rilke and Goethe: Two PhDs in Progress

Current doctoral students in Germanic studies talk about the program.

Robert Abbott, AM’10

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His dissertation: My focus is on a cycle of ten poems by Rainer Maria Rilke called the Duino Elegies, which were completed in the 1920s. I’m examining poetic mourning: its role as a social practice and how it contributes to and casts light on the formation of communities.

On learning German late: While working as a teacher after graduating from St. John’s College Annapolis, I read a single line from a version of Goethe’s Faust that contained both the original German text and English translation. It suddenly hit me that German was a living language, the language of Goethe, and that I wanted to speak it. Fast forward a year, and I was living with a family in Germany. I would take walks with the family members, point at certain things, and they’d tell me the corresponding German word.

Best of both worlds: I came to the University as a student in the Committee on Social Thought, with Professor Wellbery as my adviser. By my second year here, I had taken so many German classes that I decided to pursue a joint degree. I appreciate the broad and open approach in social thought, but also benefit from being part of the Germanic studies community, where everyone is naturally engaged in each other’s research. 

Georginna Hinnebusch, AM’07

Her research: My dissertation examines Goethe’s conception of Bildung, or the process by which an individual fashions the contours of his identity. Accounts of self-fashioning are typically elaborated through embedding them in narratival form, and Goethe is recognized for setting the paradigm for this sort of fictive work. My dissertation argues that most scholars’ identification of Goethe’s conception of self-cultivation with the genre of the novel actually overlooks and obscures important insights on self-fashioning that he developed through his engagement with the natural sciences and the arts. I am looking at human formation as a practice that’s indebted to a Goethean methodology.

Berlin Scholar: I graduated from Yale and applied for a grant to study in Germany soon thereafter. I had taken one year of college German prior to being in Berlin, but attending seminars in literature and philosophy is what really developed my skills. I became enamored of German culture and the German intellectual tradition.

Grounded in Great Books: What I really respect about the University’s Germanic studies program is that it continues to prize the scholarly tradition of studying canonical, foundational texts. Students ground themselves in the great works and come to understand the literary tradition in terms of its most important exemplars.