How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part II)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. Following the first part of their conversation, Part II focuses on Nietzsche’s revival in 1960s France.


Isabel Jacobs: Let’s talk about the French revival of Nietzsche which opens your book. One of the key events you recall is the Nietzsche congress in Royaumont in July 1964, which marked the emergence of both a “Nietzsche Renaissance” and French postmodernism. One of the issues a young Deleuze and Foucault discussed in Royaumont was how to read Nietzsche’s texts. Can you tell us a bit more about the French reception?

Philipp Felsch: Let me expand on that. We can basically say there are two major Nietzsche waves or fashions in the 20th century. There’s an early one, up to the 30s, which is mainly German, or German-inspired. One problem with Nietzsche has always been that he was not a classical or academic philosopher. Nietzsche had renounced his professorship of philology in early years. He was a Weltanschauung writer, so his status is very unclear. And you can see that many of the early interpretations of Nietzsche, also Heidegger’s, are concerned with legitimizing Nietzsche as a proper philosopher by projecting a systematic, central thought or idea of principle into Nietzsche’s vast body of writing: be it the eternal recurrence, or the will to power, or the superhuman.

In the 70s and 80s, there’s a second wave of Nietzsche revival that had its epicenter in France. There’s a long history of reading Nietzsche in France which goes back to the late 19th century. Nietzsche himself was a Francophile. He was anti-German in many ways, at least in later years. So he made it very easy for French readers to like him, even though they didn’t like Germany. Despite this long tradition, a “French Nietzsche” really only emerged in the 60s and the 70s. And this French Nietzsche was in many ways the opposite of the older Nietzsche. All previous attempts had tried to qualify Nietzsche as a proper philosopher with one central topic. 

Max Klinger’s Nietzsche bust at the Nietzsche archive. Creative Commons.

The new French philosophers, people like Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, they do the opposite. They’re interested in Nietzsche because in their eyes he basically destroyed or exploded philosophical discourse from within. For them, Nietzsche’s work is, among other things, an event in the history of language. Along with the literary modernists, Nietzsche was the first to set free the sign as a material object on paper. Liberating the signifier also meant to free the “text” from a certain definite, fixed, or ultimate meaning. And of course the French post-structuralists were exactly interested in these things.

Now the Italian edition comes into play. It’s published in parallel in an Italian, German, and French version. The first volume of the French edition came out in 67 which is also a very significant year for post-structuralist theory. The novelty about this edition was that Colli and Montinari, for the first time, tried to decipher Nietzsche’s notebooks exactly as they were. Up to then, Nietzsche’s late, unpublished writings had mainly been read in the form of a book, The Will to Power, which his sister had edited. It’s a strongly edited book which tries to systematize a vast body of notes, scribbles, and jottings from his notebooks. Colli and Montinari, on the other hand, tried to merely transcribe these notes into printed letters. Half of their edition is just this collection of short fragments of texts: the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. 

These notes moved into the center of a new Nietzsche cult. Because they show that Nietzsche was not a systematic philosopher, that he was not writing books in a classical form but that he was just producing a vast, autonomous body of text which had its own logic and followed its own laws. Nietzsche’s texts didn’t even have an author in the classical sense, because you have a chaotic mixture in these notebooks of philosophical aphorisms and excerpts from the stuff he was reading, but also everyday notations, like what to buy in the grocery store, things like that. And the French philosophers, namely Foucault, made a point out of that by saying that Nietzsche was not really an author in the way we traditionally perceived authorship. In Nietzsche’s case, the author is then rather an effect of posthumous editing.

How did the French philosophers know that? Of course because they had the Italian edition! Foucault was even a collaborator of Montinari and Colli; he was the guest editor of the French version of their edition, so he had access to these notebooks very early on. Today, the notebooks are all online, but back then nobody had ever seen them because they were in the archives in East Germany. Therefore, I argue in my book, the death of the author and many other of the post-structuralists’ core ideas emerged from the knowledge of and acquaintance with the unpublished writings of Nietzsche. That’s the legacy of the Italian edition. 

At the same time, that’s really not what the Italian philologists intended. They were looking for Nietzsche’s original text without any posthumous distortions. Stemming from the same edition, on the one hand, you have this idea of ultimate textual truth, on the other, in French hands, it turns into the idea of free floating signifiers which are not connected to any definite meaning or truth. And that’s why the Italians felt mistreated, even betrayed by their French readers who were privileged by getting this very early access to this new material, but very openly denounced Colli and Montinari’s philological project as being ultra-traditional and belonging into the 19th century.

Volume from the Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Credits: De Gruyter, 1992.

IJ: This leads me to my question why reading is so important for your story. The reader, it seemed to me, is the main protagonist of your book—as important as the author or even more. Intellectual history is told from a different point of view. This shift in perspective that you already employed in your last book is very productive. One of your inspirations is Michel Foucault’s genre of “reportage d’idées,” this whole idea of focusing on the places and events that give birth to new ideas. Can you expand a little on your approach?

PF: That’s exactly what I’m interested in. Of course there are many different angles if you try to do that but the basic idea is always the same. There’s a book by the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg called The Laughter of the Thracian Woman: A Protohistory of Theory which goes back to the early history of Greek philosophy. One of the Pre-socratic philosophers fell into a well because he was thinking so hard and didn’t watch where he was going. When his maid saw him, she had to laugh. Accordingly, in his book, Blumenberg was interested in philosophy as “exotic behavior” or, in other words, in the exterior, visible side of theory. In my book, and in the last one, I have also tried to describe theory insofar as you can see it. 

I’m interested in the exterior, material, behavioral aspect of supposedly interior ideas and theories. That includes scriptures, books, journals, or paperbacks, the gestures, the whole behavior and comportment of philosophers. What does it even mean to be a philosopher or theorist? And of course, if you’re interested in the exterior, then also the “practice of theory,” as they called in the 60s, comes into focus, but not the practice of theory in the sense of changing the world through practicing theory.

It’s more about the question: what do we do when we do theory? One of the answers is: we read. Reading seems to be a focal point where theory becomes visible and turns into a lifestyle for postwar generations. That connects Colli and Montinari with the protagonists of my former book. When Montinari first saw one of Nietzsche’s handwritings in Weimar in 1961, he was completely allured. He devoted his whole life to a never-ending reading exercise.

IJ: Is there a new project that follows from the Nietzsche book?

PF: Not directly. What I’m doing now is co-organizing an international conference on the comparative history of close reading which arcs from literary studies all the way into philology and philosophy. The idea that you have to delve deeply into texts is something very significant in the twentieth-century history of ideas. Of course, it has a long history rooted in biblical philology. But it seems to be very typical of the last century. Besides, I am writing a short book on the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, looking back at the decades of postwar German intellectual history that he represented like nobody else and that seems to finally come to an end.


Featured Image: Mazzino Montinari working at his desk. Credits: Aline Montinari.


How Nietzsche Came In From the Cold: An Interview with Philipp Felsch (Part I)

By Isabel Jacobs

Philipp Felsch is Professor for Cultural History at Humboldt University of Berlin. He is interested in intellectual history and the history of science in the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Summer of Theory. History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990 was published in 2021. An English edition of Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam is forthcoming with Polity.

Isabel Jacobs is a primary editor at the JHIBlog. She spoke with Philipp Felsch about his latest book Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam, which tells the story of two Italian anti-fascist philologists who, in the 1960s, discovered Friedrich Nietzsche’s manuscripts in GDR archives. As Felsch retraces in his book, their critical edition of Nietzsche’s handwritings would pave the way for French post-structuralism. Felsch also sheds new light on European cultural politics during the Cold War, traveling with his protagonists from Florence to Weimar and Royaumont.


Isabel Jacobs: First off, can you tell us how you became interested in the story of your new book? What did the research process look like?

Philipp Felsch: The book started with an image in my mind. I either heard or read about the story, I don’t remember. I imagined one of my two protagonists, the Italian communist scholar Mazzino Montinari (1928-1986), who at the time was, I guess, around 30. He had just moved to East Germany in the early fall or late summer of 1961—a few weeks before the Berlin Wall was built. That was of course a highly significant date. Montinari moved to the GDR, to Weimar, the capital of German classicism and high culture.

Next to Goethe and Schiller’s archives happened to also be the papers of Nietzsche. Montinari came precisely to Weimar to reedit Nietzsche who, which adds to the whole irony of the situation as I perceived it, was of course considered a fascist thinker in the GDR. Therefore Nietzsche’s writings were stored, let’s say, in the Giftschrank [a collection of forbidden books] of Weimar’s archives. And that’s where Montinari goes—apparently undisturbed by the fact that the GDR was building this wall.

At the time, Montinari was already deeply immersed in philology. He moved to the GDR, temporarily at first, going back and forth between Weimar and Florence, where he was mainly staying at the time. But then, after a few years, he permanently settled in Weimar and married a local. He even acquired a certain fame and became part of the “high society” there. A couple of years later, he was interviewed by East German television on the occasion of Goethe’s 215th anniversary. Shortly after, Montinari had already four kids with his wife which led to a telegram with congratulations from Walter Ulbricht himself. So this Italian cigar smoking communist who moved to the GDR in 1961 to decipher Nietzsche—that was just an image so loaded with different cultural, theoretical, and historical symbolism that I became interested in the story.

Philipp Felsch’s Wie Nietzsche aus der Kälte kam. Credits: C.H. Beck, 2022.

IJ: And then you started delving deeper into this figure? 

PF: Yes, somehow the story had an appeal to me, because my previous book, The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, was about the theory obsession of postwar intellectuals, mainly in West Germany, and their departure into abstract theoretical thinking. And in a way my new book does the opposite. While The Summer of Theory was mainly set in West Berlin, Paris, and Frankfurt, the story around Montinari and his companion Colli was situated between Florence and Weimar; it follows a completely different axis in the intellectual geography of the Cold War.

It didn’t have to do with theory, but in a way with its opposite, namely philology. In fact, it’s a dialectical relationship. So the extremely diligent, classical philology of these two Italians led to a renaissance of Nietzsche in France. But first of all, their philology was not about moving into ever higher levels of abstraction. Although Montinari and Colli were leftists and communists, they had to deal with the shock of 1956, when the New Left was born in Western Europe.

But they did not take off into theory; instead, they moved from communism into philology as the quest for an original text. You can see the biblical association here: the idea to discover an ultimate truth that was the opposite of the theoretical movement of the time. So I thought I could tell here a story that was also situated in the postmodern context, a very symptomatic story about the history of intellectuals at the time.

At the same time the research process moved into a completely different direction. That was also, of course, somehow appealing for me. Because, first of all, it became clear that I had to deal with the history of the GDR, which in my previous research hardly featured at all, although the book was located mainly in West Berlin. On the one hand, I began researching the historical context of the GDR; on the other, I had the chance to spend significant time in Italian archives. I studied in Italy in the 90s and speak Italian, and I like to spend some time there every year. So now I had a very nice excuse to spend a large amount of time in Italy which was fantastic! During the pandemic, it was basically empty, there was almost nobody in the archives except for me.

IJ: I find it interesting how you described Montinari’s philological research as a kind of spiritual quest. Let’s speak a bit more about that illustrious figure. While Nietzsche had escaped Germany to Turin, Montinari traveled the other way round, from Florence to Weimar, praising Germany’s healthy air. How did the Italian anti-fascist end up spending decades in Nietzsche’s archives, many of these years depressed and lonely. And what did his work in the GDR look like in practice? We also haven’t spoken yet about his paedagogo, Giorgio Colli (1917-1979).

PF: Yes, it’s important to remember that this is not a story about one figure but about two. It’s a story about a lifelong friendship, which at the same time has certain, let’s say, erotic undertones in a Grecophile, Georgean vein [referring to the literary circle around German poet Stefan George]. It’s a friendship, it’s a master-disciple relationship, and a work relation. And it starts in the 1940s, in 1943, when Giorgio Colli, in his mid 20s, 12 years older than Montinari, moves to Lucca in Tuscany to teach philosophy. At the time, we are of course in the midst of Italian Fascism. Montinari was a pupil in Colli’s class. Colli comes from a liberal bourgeois family in Northern Italy, in Turin; his father was a high-profile journalist who had lost his job under Mussolini. Colli was devoted to anti-fascism.

Giorgio Colli (1917-1979). Public Domain.

Not in an overtly political sense—he was against fascism as he was against politics in general, you know, in a very German way actually. Within the Italian history of ideas in the 19th and 20th century, we can observe a tendency that Italian thinkers had to find their intellectual home somewhere outside of Italy. Many chose France, others, like the literary modernists in the early 20th century around the Einaudi publishing house, Cesare Pavese and others, chose American literature, Melville, Faulkner, people like that.

Many others chose Germany, and Colli was someone who was very versed both in German and Greek philosophy; these two very often go together because many German thinkers were so fond of Greek culture—among them, of course, Nietzsche. So, part of Colli’s anti-fascism was a Nietzsche reading group in the early 40s. And in this context, Nietzsche was understood as an anti-fascist author, as somebody who was against the state and devoted to extreme individualism and freedom. I mean, we can find all that in Nietzsche. At the same time, we’re in the summer of 43, Mussolini turned 60, and Hitler gave him the 30-volume collected works of Nietzsche, bound in blue leather, because they shared, at least officially, a certain fondness of this thinker.

This reading group was the beginning of Colli and Montinari’s collaboration. Since Colli often went to his family in Turin, already in the 40s they were not at the same place. Therefore, there are letters which start at this young age. A 14-year-old Montinari basically wrote love letters to his teacher and colleague. And these letters go on until the 70s, when Colli died, so you have 30 years of intense correspondence. That’s the original scene, this anti-fascist reading group.

Then many things happened in between: Montinari became devoted to communism. Colli was, as always, the Grecophile philosopher who basically deplored politics as something dirty, so they moved apart. And then, in the late 50s, they met again, for many reasons, one of them being the fact that after 56, with the Hungarian uprising, Montinari became skeptical and moved away from the official party line of Italian communism. He meets his old teacher again. And at the same time, a debate starts in West Germany about the legacy of Nietzsche.

When looking at this debate, we have to keep two things apart which are important for the story. After 1945, Nietzsche, on the one hand, was regarded a fascist philosopher, especially within the Western Left, but also in Eastern Europe. In East Germany, in the 50s, it’s György Lukács who called him Hitler’s precursor and the mastermind of fascism. But also within Italian communism Nietzsche was a persona non grata. That was basically the consensus when it comes to Nietzsche. The fact that Hitler gave Mussolini this birthday present was a visible proof of Nietzsche’s allegiance to fascism.

Nietzsche’s Der Wille zur Macht, edited by Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche. Public Domain.

On the other hand, and now we’re in the late 50s, there’s another line of discourse, namely, the question, whether the Nietzsche who was considered the mastermind of fascism was the real Nietzsche. Did the fascists even have the original writings of Nietzsche or was that merely a Nietzsche distorted by the editorial policies of his infamous sister, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche? That’s a whole story in itself, which I won’t recall here, it’s well-known that Nietzsche lost his mind in 1890. And then the last 10 years of his life, he was in custody of his sister and she began to witness the international fame of her brother. She published many books, among them the infamous Will to Power which Nietzsche himself never wrote in this form.

If we go back to the story, in the late 50s in Germany suddenly erupts a big debate about this question. Do we maybe need a completely new edition of Nietzsche? Of course, this was also driven by the attempt to denazify him. Because if you say it’s not Nietzsche himself but his sister who basically distorted his writing and even forged some of his writings, which in fact she did, then maybe we can save him and rediscover his work.

And that’s the point where the two Italian protagonists enter. They developed the idea to reedit Nietzsche. That’s why Montinari went to the DDR in 1961. You asked me about the existential undertones of Montinari’s philology. That was also for me one of the most interesting things. It’s, first of all, a question of character. Montinari wanted to become a monk in his youth, so the quest for truth was a constant in his life. 

Then he meets his Grecophile teacher, who moves him away from Christianity. Thus, Montinari becomes a devoted reader of Nietzsche and an admirer of the Ancient Greeks. And then he turned into a communist in the post-war years. The Italian Communist Party, as is well-known, was the most glamorous, so to say, and intellectually most interesting of the Communist parties in Western Europe after 1945. So you can imagine that it was a very appealing choice to become a communist in the late 40s in Italy! Communism was very avant-garde, it was not yet trapped in the trenches of the Cold War, but provided a very rich cultural environment.

In Weimar, Montinari discovered philology through his interest in Nietzsche. As we can see from his letters to Colli and also his diaries, the idea of philological truth and the search for the Urtext, the original text, is deeply Protestant in nature. In that way, Montinari was a model Protestant. His diaries of the time almost read like a Protestant Erbauungsbuch [Christian devotional book]. It’s a genre from the early modern period in which authors describe their quest for religion, for truth, for finding themselves. And we can observe all of that in Montinari’s writings. The search for his own personal truth is intimately connected to his search for the truth of Nietzsche’s texts. 

Nietzsche archive in Weimar, located at the Villa Silberblick, the late Nietzsche’s residence. Creative Commons.

Montinari pursued that search for many years, while going to the archive in Weimar every day—a very lonely existence during his first years in Germany. Nietzsche’s handwriting was hardly decipherable. Sometimes it took half a day to decipher two lines of Nietzsche. It was a monstrous task. And Montinari basically devoted the rest of his life to this task. That his work was driven by this very existential quest for personal truth reveals his philological undertaking as something of a deeply Protestant spirituality—which is maybe historically symptomatic for philology as such.

IJ: And despite all that effort, at first, Montinari’s critical Nietzsche edition, the Kritische Gesamtausgabe, was not even very well received. Besides reflecting on philology, your book also explores cultural politics in the Cold War period. Through the lens of Nietzsche philology, you analyze the ties between the GDR, West Germany, and Italy. Could you tell a bit more about your treatment of the Cold War? And why was Montinari and Colli’s edition so explosive?

PF: Yes, exactly. First of all, we’re at the height of the Cold War in the 60s. And the Nietzsche edition is deeply tainted by that context. Already as a student I wondered: why has the definite edition of Nietzsche been edited by two Italians? It has to do with the fact that Nietzsche’s legacy was drawn into the frontlines of the Cold War. The majority of philosophers and publishers in post-war Germany considered Nietzsche a fascist philosopher. On the other hand, there were also the Nietzscheans, people like Martin Heidegger, Karl Löwith or, Karl Schlechta—all of them fierce anti-communists. But Nietzsche’s papers were, and that’s the irony of history, in communist hands in Weimar. 

Thus, for a character like Heidegger it was very natural to denounce the unpublished writings of Nietzsche as being irrelevant. To denounce the Weimar archive, Heidegger even claimed that the communists had basically secluded Nietzsche’s heritage and that it wasn’t even possible to get access, which was basically not true. But Heidegger was only one among many others who made such claims. As a matter of fact, Heidegger himself wouldn’t have been welcomed in the GDR for sure—unlike these two Italian communists.

From his time in the Italian Communist Party, Montinari maintained intense connections to the GDR’s cultural bureaucracy. He had been in the GDR many times before, also during the 1953 uprising. These contacts made his work in the GDR possible. From the start, there was a feeling of fighting against the West German “Nietzsche establishment.” That’s the one thing, the other is the reception of their edition in France. And that opens up a completely different chapter.


Featured Image: Private photograph of Giorgio Colli (left) and Mazzino Montinari. Credits: Margherita Montinari.


The Atlantic Realists: An Interview with Matthew Specter (Part II)

By Andrew Gibson

Matthew Specter’s The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Thought Between Germany and the United States (Stanford 2022) provides a genealogy of “realism” through German-American exchanges over global politics. Following Part I, in Part II of their conversation, Andrew Gibson and Matthew Specter discuss the civilizational assumptions underlying IR “realism” and its emphasis on the “tragic” character of political life. With these limitations, Specter questions realism’s prospects for guiding future foreign policy decision-making.


Andrew Gibson: The concept of Haltung (posture or attitude) looms over many sections of the book, as does Bourdieu’s theory of habitus. What I find quite intriguing is how realist rhetoric often describes how one must come to “see the world” or take a “stance” toward the realities of power. You argue that this, however, is “a set of embodied attitudes and mental habits that can be historicized.” Thus, the ways of seeing and thinking that are assumed as “second nature” to the realist tradition are actually historical artifacts that can be “provincialized” (206).

Matthew Specter: What I found was this word that kept popping up in the texts from Haushofer to Morgenthau: Haltung, which can also be translated as “posture,” as you say. I thought well why is it that authors keep reaching for this word? Haltung is a very embodied word; it is not just worldview (Weltanschauung) or ideology. I saw this is realism’s “tell,” like poker players have a “tell.” It shows that realism is not all that convincing in its coherence. Instead, what holds it together is a sensibility.

Even though the policy dimensions of realism have evolved and waged widely from American empire to Nazi empire but what seems to persist across all of these contexts is a certain Haltung, a certain realist sensibility. There are metaphors of cold-bloodedness and sobriety. There are lots of metaphors of vision: being able to see the world as it is and face realities without flinching. You also find these metaphors of the face; these are all embodied and it is always a masculine, gendered body. 

In my Morgenthau chapter, what I was trying to argue was that Morgenthau didn’t just teach these ideas, he embodied them himself. In fact, he performed what it meant to be a realist. He was a charismatic leader of a certain kind, and my reading of his texts suggest that they are actually vehicles of the routinization of that charisma. When you are socialized into the American foreign policy establishment or into the discipline of international relations by reading its founding fathers, you are being socialized into not just specific axioms or doctrines—but, more importantly, a way of seeing, a way of thinking and feeling. For me, it is, fundamentally, a way of thinking like an empire and as an imperial subject. 

Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Realists often equivocate between describing realism as a set of scientific laws and an art. In his essay on Churchill, for instance, Morgenthau describes the wisdom of the statesman as unsystematizable. Maybe that is correct. Of course, I would want my statesman to have a good feel for his or her métier. But I’m not convinced that reading these texts will give you that set of tools. Realist habitus purports to be the equipment for a democratic statesman but embedded in that habitus are all kinds of ideas about hierarchy in international affairs.

In some ways, it is this “sensibility” which holds the whole tradition together and perpetuates a specific discourse over international politics. There is certainly a textual tradition at work within realism and its self-conscious creation of a canon creation of a “canon” in the mid-twentieth century. But there are also these supposedly enduring concepts like “vital interests” or “national interests” that can be traced back centuries. Instead of enduring concepts, I see them as unthought doxa we keep reproducing. 

I’ve been frustrated with one early review of my book in Foreign Affairs, where the reviewer wonders what purchase the history of realism has over its present-day value: “Although [Specter] is correct that the classical realists of the 1950s took concepts and ideas from earlier, less ethical theories of international relations, it is not clear why such borrowing undermines their later arguments…Much of Specter’s overall argument amounts to guilt by association.” But the reviewer’s implication that there is a clean break between the 1880s and 1930s discourses and those of the 1950s forward is not borne out. Not only are the discursive continuities more significant than the breaks but the temporality of imperial realism doesn’t conform to the moral narrative about 1945 as turning point. 

That’s why I pay so much attention to Mahan, because I see his writings of the first two decades of the century as a workshop in which the first realist syntheses were hammered out. Later figures like Morgenthau aren’t nearly as original as they seem. And none of us are innocent of history; we carry it within us. So, it’s not a matter of guilt by association. It’s more like we’re thrown into the world, and this is what we got, so now we need to work through it. Realism is a set of theories embedded in practices—practices of empires, practices of comparison. We don’t free ourselves from the broader way of seeing like an empire overnight.

AG: Certainly. My last question is on how to view history and the history of international thought. In your final chapter, you emphasize the place of the “tragic” in classical realist thought. Take Mearsheimer’s Tragedy of Great Power Politics(2001), for example. By critically grappling with the history of this transatlantic discourse, you claim your study will help one see realism “not as a storehouse of accumulated historical ‘wisdom’, but rather a historical artifact—and one that has, tragically, exerted too much power over world politics.” Why is it important to move beyond tragedy? How will it help us “emancipate ourselves from realism’s tyranny over the political imagination”? (17).

MS: Well, to start, many scholars have noted the contributions of German-Jewish émigrés to the development of American IR after they fled persecution in the Third Reich. Take a figure like Henry Kissinger. Most of the biographies on him I’ve read often emphasize his pessimistic view of human nature, the sense of the inevitability of tragedy, and critiques of the illusions of liberalism coming out of his confrontation with Nazism. That generation, however, was quite successful in convincing that the lessons of the twentieth century were realist and that the moral catastrophe of history and the Holocaust demanded a certain kind of stance, a certain kind of sobriety and alertness to the weaknesses of liberalism.

But if the true origins of those ideas are much earlier, then the effort to derive moral capital from the confrontation with fascism and the Holocaust seems to be a distortion. If I’m right that late nineteenth century imperialism is the formative matrix, not the 1930s, then the moral capital accrued to it would not just be a world scarred by the Holocaust.

I can’t dismiss the view that a Morgenthau or a Kissinger gained some wisdom or insight of the tragedies of the twentieth centuries. After all, the émigrés are serious scholars and impressive in many ways. Yet, I feel as though there is a kind of romanticism of tragedy within their thought—a romanticization of the gap between ideals and reality. It becomes a sort of fetish of the tragic failure. My argument is that if that becomes a mental habit, then it is not a very empowering vision for us as political actors today.

To always be focused on the gap between intentions and outcomes or between ideals and power, I don’t find that empowering for political action. I think that if we want to be creative political actors in our time, we needn’t be fixed on this vision of the constraints of the world that emerged from a traumatized generation that attempted to construct a tradition which left intact many of the hierarchical imperial notions. 

So, my broader point is that the Atlantic realists all shared a common imperial blind spot and democratic deficit. Both Kissinger and Morgenthau were committed to the idea of an elite statesman who would understand and develop the art of statecraft. This art was for the privileged few, as statecraft was not something they believed the democratic public could handle—it was too emotional, too plural, too divided, too fickle, what have you. 

After writing this history, I remain skeptical of realism as a liberating project. I find realism’s tendency to prioritize great power competition and spheres of influence as the “hard-wiring” of international relations particularly ill-suited to thinking about common planetary challenges like climate change. I agree with the new coalition of foreign policy thinkers in Washington, D.C. that argues for a new grand strategy for the US focused on “restraint” as opposed to what Stephen Wertheim calls “armed primacy.” But many of the restrainers self-identify as realists. Defense Priorities, a think tank, calls themselves the “hub for realism and restraint.” Restraint and realism are distinct traditions. I am for the pragmatic wisdom of the former and against the more fatalistic ontological claims about international anarchy and inevitably “tragic” clashes of interest and principle of the latter. 

I worry that some of the restrainers take on too much realist baggage and breathe new life into a deeply flawed tradition thereby. I imagine the restrainers worry that the current backlash against realism, occasioned by l’affaire Mearsheimer and the realists’ inadequacy on Ukraine, will harm the strategic cause of restraint. Both are legitimate concerns. A progressive realism is not an impossibility, but I just don’t think it’s the right starting point for thinking international politics. The turn to “hierarchy studies” and away from the anarchy-centered problematic in IR is an example of that turn away from conventional realisms. But anyone who wants to be progressive and realist should at least be sensitive to the realists’ historic investments in imperial and racial hierarchies, as well as illiberal and undemocratic modes of thinking. 

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Andrew Gibson is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University and a Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow with the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC). He is currently writing his dissertation on the “transatlantic Machiavelli” and mid-twentieth-century debates over the Florentine secretary’s political-historical legacy; pieces of his research were recently published on the JHI Blog

Edited by Isa Jacobs

Featured Image: The War Room with the Big Board from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 


The Atlantic Realists: An Interview with Matthew Specter (Part I)

By Andrew Gibson

Matthew Specter is an intellectual historian who specializes in 20th century Germany and the global history of international thought. His most recent book is The Atlantic Realists: Empire and International Thought Between Germany and the United States(Stanford 2022). Specter is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for European Studies at UC Berkley, a Lecturer in History at Santa Clara University, and an Associate Editor at History & Theory. He is also the author of Habermas: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge 2010). 

Andrew Gibson spoke to Specter about The Atlantic Realists (2022) and the legacies of “realism” in international relations (IR) theory. Rather than seeing the realist tradition stretching back to antiquity or emerging in the mid-twentieth century, Specter contends realism should be considered a “discourse” and “sensibility” born out of late nineteenth century debates over empire. He argues we cannot simply divide Atlantic imperial powers into the “exceptionally virtuous” or the “pathologically deviant” and must confront the imperial origins of the international relations theory. This includes questioning realism’s pessimistic assumptions about human nature and the oversized influence of “great powers” in international history. 


Andrew Gibson: Your new book offers a timely and provocative critique of “realism” by suggesting that its core logics have troublesome imperial origins. Consequently, contemporary calls for “restraint” in U.S. foreign policy should be weary of basing their policy positions on realist grounds. To start, how did you come to write this genealogy of “the realist paradigm in North Atlantic international thought” (2)? It initially began as an investigation of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), the international relations theorist Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980) as well as German diplomat and professor of law Wilhelm Grewe (1911-200), correct?

Matthew Specter: The original project was aimed to connect Schmitt and Morgenthau as well as Schmitt and Grewe and to sort of do a triangulation of their thought from roughly 1930 to 1960. Morgenthau was the central figure because of the outsized impact of his ideas in American international relations and in foreign policy discussions. His status as an émigré from Germany and a bridge between worlds fascinated me. William Scheuerman had just written his first articles on the influence of Schmitt on Morgenthau’s vision of global politics. Like Morgenthau and Kissinger, Wilhelm Grewe had had an impressive career that spanned academia and government. 

But Grewe’s reputation as a wise man of the Adenauer administration and brilliant scholar of international law had left his wartime oeuvre unexamined. When I found that there was no dialogue between Morgenthau and Grewe whatsoever—even though their careers seemed incredibly parallel—I was astonished to see that they had nothing to say to each other. I still don’t entirely know why that is; perhaps it was because Grewe was so complicit with the Nazi state that Morgenthau wanted nothing to do with him.

President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Ambassador of West Germany, Wilhelm G. Grewe (1911-2000). Image courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

In any event, the first chapter that I wrote was the Schmitt chapter on Großraum and Lebensraum. To understand those discourses, I started research Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) and Karl Haushofer (1869-1946), and in that process I was led back to the 1890s by Jens-Uwe Guettel’s German Expansionism, Imperial Liberalism, and the United States 1776-1945(2013) as well as Dirk Bönker’s Militarism in a Global Age: Naval Ambitions in Germany and the United States Before World War I (2012).

Once I looked at the 1890s, I started thinking about the geopolitics of empires by land and by sea—a topic covered in Geoff Eley’s lifetime of reflection on the historiography of German imperialism. Eley showed that to understand the Holocaust, you had to understand the earlier German discourses on spatial and racial thought of the 1890s. So, I had all of these things pointing me back to the 1890s. 

AG: Yes, I think one of the most important interventions your book makes is scrutinizing the mid-twentieth century origins story of IR realism. Against the “moral narratives” that see realism as a product of the collapse of European liberalism in the 1930s and the influx of émigré intellectuals into the United States, you argue it should be best seen as an Atlantic discourse born from “the spirit of fin de siècle American and German imperialism” (205).

MS: Sure. I think one of the important moments of discovery was realizing that Nicolas Guilhot, Udi Greenberg William Scheuerman, David Milne, and Martti Koskenniemi—all of the people who work on the German émigrés—had realism emerging in the 1930s and 40s. And then to see that the historiography of geopolitics was never discussed at the same time as the historiography of realism. Everyone says that the age of classical geopolitics is the 1890s, but the historiography of realism always starts in the 1930s. 

With Ratzel and Mahan, I discovered these “bridge figures” who take you from the fin de siècle up to the First World War. It wasn’t as though I just read John Bew’s history of Realpolitik (2016) or the essays in Guilhot’s The Invention of International Relations Theory (2011) and thought I would write a book that tells a slightly different story. I wanted to go back beyond what was in the existing literature. It was a book that took a lot of time to write, a voyage full of interesting discoveries that were hard to let go of.

Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914), a U.S. naval officer whose The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (1890) was an immediate success across the Atlantic. Emperor Wilhelm II claimed that he was “not reading but devouring” Mahan’s book; soon after, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz urged all of the German Naval High Command to study the “works of Captain Mahan” (24). Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

After I wrote the Schmitt chapter and worked on Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) and Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914), I realized I had this big historiographic problem of how to get from around 1910 to 1930. I knew the chapter on Haushofer would link fin de siècle realism and Weltpolitik to mid-century modern émigré realism—and I knew that Schmitt would help me as well. But that was just the German side. In looking at the American side, my realization was that Isiah Bowman, who had all of these affinities with Haushofer, was working for Woodrow Wilson.

So you have this German inflected realist at the heart of the liberal internationalist establishment, which is at the same time pervaded by racial thinking of Archibald Coolidge and Lothrop Stoddard, as is shown in Robert Vitalis’s excellent book White World Order, Black Power Politics (2015). What I started to see—and I think I underplay this in my book—is the idea is that realism and liberal internationalism are the two faces of North Atlantic empire.

AG: Yes, this early history is often covered over in the American collective memory. One of the striking scenes in your book is the American moral panic over “geopolitics” in the late 1930s and early 1940s when an intense public relations campaign was waged to distinguish the “good” American form against the “bad” Nazi Geopolitik. Even a Frank Capra propaganda film sponsored by the War Department emphasized the dangerous teachings of Karl Haushofer. Were these traditions as disparate as many international relations theorists wanted Americans to think? 

MS: In the runup to the Second World War, geopolitics appears in the American public sphere as urdeutsch—a kind of Nazi superweapon that is essentialized and seen as something foreign, something to be feared. This ignored American political geographers like Bowman who had been in dialogue with the group around Haushofer’s Zeitschrift für Geopolitik. It also undersold the American inspiration for German geopolitics, especially since the circle surrounding Haushofer saw themselves as responding to Bowman’s book The New World: Problems in Political Geography(1921). 

During the Second World War, Bowman tried to make these very ideological distinctions from what Americans do and what the Germans do by exaggerating the differences between the two. Ultimately, realism became what I call a “semantic refuge” from geopolitics (12). Geopolitics gets a bad name, yet much of the interwar Atlantic discourse gets a second life under the rubric of “realism.” Whether it is Nicholas Spykman (1893-1943) and Arnold Wolfers (1892-1968) at Yale or Edmund Walsh (1885-1956) at Georgetown, postwar planning is filled with the same logics and assumptions across the Atlantic. 

AG: This leads us to Hans J. Morgenthau (1904-1980), often considered the father of “classical realism.” As you note, Morgenthau was at first uneasy with the “realist” label, only coming to embrace it in the late 1940s and early 1950s. How did this émigré—trained as a scholar of international law—become the founding father of an American approach to international affairs?

MS: Certainly, writing a classic such as Politics Among Nations (1948)did important work in this regard, as it was adopted as a foundational textbook in American universities shortly after publication and is still assigned in IR courses today.  Part of the problem is that so many editions of Politics Among Nations have been circulated since the original publication in 1948. Further, the “Six Principles of Political Realism” was only added in the second edition of 1954 through the encouragement of the publisher. 

Morgenthau also has a very selective reading of American history. He leaves out the Monroe Doctrine and Mahan to jump back to the Founding Fathers. I wouldn’t say that Morgenthau is just building with indigenous American materials; that’s more a cynical PR gesture to show that Washington might have anticipated some of these questions in his “Farewell Address.” So, he’s neither genuinely recovering an American tradition, nor is he simply bringing Realpolitik to America as some scholars have suggested. My point is that Morgenthau is bringing Weltpolitik across the Atlantic. 

But that doesn’t mean he was fully formed at age 35. He’s not just Schmitt, Meinecke, and Nietzsche writing to an American audience. What is missing from the “Germanization of the American mind” argument is that Morgenthau was very much formed by his encounters in America in the 1940s and 50s with “behaviorism” at the University of Chicago. Oliver Jutersönke has done a wonderful job characterizing his early years in the United States especially how the encounter with behaviorist political science at the University of Chicago informed his tendentiously antiliberal contrast of “scientific man” and “power politics,” so deeply redolent of Schmitt. American Freudianism even emerges more clearly in his American works as he offers psychoanalytic readings on Americans and their aversions to facing the realities of global power. 

AG: In drawing our attention to Morgenthau’s lesser read works such as Scientific Man Versus Power Politics (1946), you critically analyze Morgenthau’s characterization of Wilsonian idealism, which he believed dominated American interwar thought. While rhetorically engaging, you suggest his conclusions are highly reductive and rely on dualities or false dichotomies. For instance, the contrast between a Wilsonian who seeks only justice and a Machiavellian who seeks only power (146-7).

MS: The story that the realists tell is that all interwar thought was dominated by liberal internationalists and idealists. They claim that to be realistic, you have to reach over the interwar period and over the fin de siècle all the way back to Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898). And so, the story the realists tell is about recovering Bismarckian Realpolitik to counter a naïve Wilsonianism. Yet, not only are the Wilsonians not as naïve or “liberal” as is often imagined, but what’s also left out is the two important chapters in the making of a realist tradition.

This is significant because realism centers the anarchy problematic in international relations rather than the hierarchy problematic. So, Morgenthau can describe the failure of the League of Nations and the absence of a centralized authority in international affairs as the problem realists must understand; they must refuse intoxication and gaze upon the world in this disillusioned type of way because there is no ordering force that can adjudicate conflicts between states. In centering anarchy, the hierarchical and racialized nature of international politics—along with the centrality of empire—is pushed to the side. The unit of analysis becomes the nation-state and the great powers. 

There has been a critique of Eurocentrism in IR theory and we have histories that emphasize the persistence of racial and civilizational hierarchical thinking deep into the twentieth century. And the story that IR likes to tell itself is that it is a new discipline intended to be a science of peace to prevent the recurrence of the First World War and the realists are essentially trying to repeat the reoccurrence of the Second World War.

However, there is another temporality to how realism unfolds. Brian Schmitt and David Long bring us back to the late nineteenth century; this is when IR is really coming together, not the post-World War One period. My point is that neither American nor German history is exceptional. Both belong to a shared Atlantic tradition. And the point is note that there have been various ways of seeing like an empire in the North Atlantic in the twentieth century, and that what all of them leave unquestioned is the hierarchy of great powers and small states.


Andrew Gibson is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University and a Hans J. Morgenthau Fellow with the Notre Dame International Security Center (NDISC). He is currently writing his dissertation on the “transatlantic Machiavelli” and mid-twentieth-century debates over the Florentine secretary’s political-historical legacy; pieces of his research were recently published on the JHI Blog

Edited by Isa Jacobs

Featured Image: Geopolitical Conceptualization of the World According to Heartland and Rimland Doctrines. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 


Inside Anthology-Making: An Interview with Sarah Robbins (Part II)

By Sanjana Chowdhury

Sarah Ruffing Robbins is the Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at TCU. She has published ten academic books, including the Choice-award-winning monograph Managing Literacy, Mothering America (2004); The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe (2007); a co-edited award-winning critical edition of Nellie Arnott’s Writings on Angola (2011); and a monograph building links between archival research and public-oriented humanities projects, Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Teaching (2017). She is presently co-editing a special issue of English Journal on the impact of current curriculum wars on secondary education in the US; serving as the coordinator of selection and assessment for Building a More Perfect Union, a major NEH grant supporting over three dozen participatory humanities projects; and doing preliminary research for a monograph on the role of the arts in the construction of counter-histories addressing justice issues. With Andrew Taylor and Chris Hanlon, she co-edits the book series on “Interventions in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture” for Edinburgh University Press

Sanjana Chowdhury spoke to Dr. Robbins about the 2022 anthology Transatlantic Anglophone Literatures, 1776 – 1920, which was another collaboration with Dr. Taylor, also including Dr. Linda K. Hughes, Adam Nemmers, and Heidi Hakimi-Hood as additional team members. Dr. Robbins is serving as faculty sponsor for that project’s companion website, which is managed by a team of graduate students and alumni from TCU.

Read the first part of the interview here.

Sanjana Chowdhury: It is really great that the Teaching Transatlanticism website exists, and, unlike a print edition, digital space is unlimited and perfect for featuring the ever-expanding conversation around Transatlantic literature. It is also on the web, which means it is accessible to anyone anywhere across the globe. Providing the Transatlantic literature resources to readers and scholars everywhere for free is a great political statement too. Since we did talk about categories like race and gender, I would like to hear your thoughts on how education depends so much on social class, race, and gender, and other intersections of identities that are placed on us by society. It appears that the Transatlanticism website is taking a stand that education and knowledge should be free and accessible irrespective of one’s identity categories. 

Sarah Ruffing Robbins: Yes, I think this digital space will bring more people into the work of the digital anthology. I am also really excited about how the website is generating some types of texts on its own, like the “Image of the Month” feature. Again, Edinburgh University Press was very generous in letting us have sixty illustrations from the print anthology to publish on the website. It is vital to understand that culture and cultural change did not just happen in words but also in imagery. I think the website has the capacity to make that even more, pardon the pun, visible. As an editorial team, we are beginning to devote more time to seeking out images to include in our presentation of primary texts on the web. One good example is Saffyre Falkenberg’s engaging treatment of a story by Frances Hodgson Burnett, “Little Betty’s Kitten,” which includes a set of illustrations from one of the editions of the story. Saffyre also addresses the role of the illustrator and his place in Transatlantic publishing culture.  

SC: As part of the web team, I think the website also provides a particularly inviting space for conversation about issues that remain relevant in the present day, such as questions of gender or race. The fluidity of the digital environment reminds us that culture is ever-changing, even as it reflects the influences of past events, movements, and social issue. For instance, there is the ongoing debate on abortion right now. How do we read and teach texts that contain the history of the Transatlantic Anglophone world as we navigate through and possibly even resist current political changes? As we look for more individual texts to add to the digital anthology, I hope we can also inscribe intertextual connections across texts, themes, and writers; marking those movements with techniques like listing the same entry in more than one theme, or directing users from one text to a related one (such as saying “see also…”), we can help spotlight the various genealogies of ideas and social practices across time and space.

The editor-in-chief of the Teaching Transatlanticism website, Soffia Huggins has recently chimed in on this subject. She stated, “I definitely see the website as an ongoing archive, and with that, I constantly am thinking of what archives ARE and what they DO. Because of the ease and fluidity of the web, I think that keeping in mind how archives craft narrative is perhaps less intuitive than in print but it is just as essential. In building the anthology in particular, I often consider that what we don’t include is as important to that narrative as what we can and do include. As for tracing radical genealogies, I think that is my personal hope for the website. The affordances of the digital anthology to show how texts are connected makes this particularly exciting. The connections between radical and roots come to mind, especially when you think of the ways in which texts are part of larger systems AND the way a website is put together, connected through an intricate series of roots and branches of code.”

SRR: One of the things I love about Transatlanticism as a field is the way it helps us see cultural movements  like women’s rights and racial justice across time. Sometimes we feel like our moment is unique, and it might in fact be uniquely terrible – or wonderful – in a certain way, but rarely is it unique and instead have connections to other moments in history. A past period can help us think through strategies for engaging with these important issues.  

For example, the anthology was envisioned pre-COVID and the pandemic was not on our mind. The Spanish Flu of 1918 fell out of our cultural memory until we looked for answers in the past during COVID. So, coming back to the question of women’s right to their own bodies and reproductive rights, the anthology does not have a theme specifically labeled “medical”, but we have a few texts scattered across the ten themes. We need to bring attention to certain topics like “medicine” and “disability/ability” in the digital space, and I look forward to doing that. Similarly, one colleague who’s taken a close look at the anthology commented to me recently that she’d like to see us bring together and highlight texts about education–and not just non-fiction ones–in nineteenth-century Transatlantic culture. She was speculating that some of the current curriculum wars – especially in the US, where the political Right is attacking frameworks like Critical Race Theory – might have antecedents in the long nineteenth century.   

SC: These are very relevant topics to feature on the website, and also to bring to the classroom. I think the Transatlantic anthology is a great resource for teaching. What do you think are the best ways of adapting the anthology for teaching undergraduate courses, both literature courses and non-literature (for example, Women and Gender Studies, or Race and Ethnicity Studies) courses? 

SRR: In a course I was preparing to teach in fall 2022, I found my own work on the digital anthology team led me to consider what texts I’d learned about from that work could be added to my class, especially texts that would be particularly helpful and relevant to my students. We have, for instance, a couple of pieces by Mary Seacole, but I might use more of her book Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole, especially the section on Crimea. One of the things you see right away when you open that book is a map of Ukraine. That is a space that was not geographically familiar to many people three or four years ago, but now it is going to be on everyone’s mind, and people want to be supportive of the experiences of folks who are undergoing the stress of warfare. So, I developed plans to teach from the online anthology – and excerpts from the print one – to touch on some current topics.  

SC: That is a very relevant topic and I am sure the students would find it helpful to see historical and literary perspectives about Crimea, Ukraine, and those regions. Since we are on the subject of current events and relevant texts, I would like to touch on the question of race and racial justice. The anthology is very sensitive to and respectful of various issues surrounding race in the long nineteenth century. How do you think the reader should approach the racial topics discussed in the book, especially given the current environment of racial tension in the Western world? 

SRR: As you said earlier, we have questions of race woven through the entire anthology. I am  especially thinking about texts in anticipation of the Phillis Wheatley anniversary in 2023 – it is the 250th anniversary of her 1773 collection of poetry, the first such collection by an Black American poet, who at the time of her initial publications, was actually a Transatlantic British subject. I want to do some work beyond what is already in the print anthology, that would encourage us to bring more material on to the digital space

In addition to that, I have been thinking recently about mixed-race identities, and about different strategies of interacting with the questions of race in the light of the anti-CRT movement currently going on in US schools. I want to foreground that a bit more in class, so I picked out two texts from Pauline Johnson. We have one piece by her in the print anthology – a long memoir that appeared in a newspaper that tells her own story of being mixed race and traveling and moving in and out of different cultural spaces. In my class, I wanted students to read more of her short stories, not just the poetry, since I think her critique of how race limits social agency is often more pointed in the prose.  

I was excited to have them read some texts that are not in the print anthology or the website yet. And, at the time of this interview, I am starting to work with the members of the class to support their selection and development of new entries, their own new contributions for the digital anthology. Linda and I have used materials from the anthology in the recent graduate seminars, but fall 2022 would the first time for me to teach with the actual physical copy of the book. At the point when we are having this conversation, Sanjana, I’m framing questions to share with those undergraduates. I want to know from my students what they think of the themes and what they think of who’s there and who they might feel is not there, and really encourage them to use the course to think about the way that systems of knowledge get organized. To use John Guillory’s term, the syllabus becomes a culture maker and creates cultural capital. I really want to encourage my students to understand the way those systems get artificially constructed and how they might exercise agency to resist the very structures that are presented to them in any literature class. I hope the way the anthology is organized and the way the introductions to the various sections and annotations are crafted will encourage people to view the anthology as an ever-dynamic process of thinking and learning. 

SC: I am sure that would be a very valuable learning experience for your students. It is a wonderful way of being on the inside and outside at the same time, as they see how systems of knowledge are created and what they can do to resist it from within. That is an effective political strategy, and I am very excited to see how this class unfolds. 

SRR: I hope you will come visit the class! And I think the “inside-outside” description is a very generative one that I will borrow for the class. 

SC: I will certainly come to your class! I have one last question as we wrap up our wonderful discussion today. We have talked about the digital anthology and thinking of it as a dynamic growing organism, but I was wondering if there any future projects you are envisioning in terms of Transatlantic literature of the long nineteenth century or maybe even transoceanic literature.  

SRR: We talked a little bit about the Wheatley anniversary in 2023. I am also teaching a diaspora literature course for the first time in spring 2023. There is certainly a lot of nineteenth-century material to look at, but I am also thinking of “transtemporal” literature that will go forward as well as back in time. Of course, when you tear down fences like time periods and other categories, there is always a danger that you get lost in the sheer quantity and possibility of texts, and you also worry that you are going beyond the area where you have knowledge and expertise. 

  Connecting to your earlier question about teaching Transatlantic literature in a Women and Gender Studies class, I was thinking of how we can teach it when we take “gender and sexuality” as a broader category. It is important to consider how folks who would identify with LGBTQ+ identities are underrepresented in the current version of the anthology, and addressing that limitation is certainly a future project. I think one of the ways that I can imagine using the anthology in a future graduate course is by constructing some alternative anthologies. In the NEH project I mentioned earlier, Making American Literatures, that I did with folks from UC-Berkeley and the University of Michigan, one of my favorite secondary school educators who was part of the learning and teaching team, charged her 11th graders to reorganize their own anthology. I thought that was such a wonderful thing to do. One of her strategies that I have always tried to model on, is never to start at the beginning, but always start with the “now”, with something contemporary to the moment that is important and has roots in the previous periods. I am working on a new monograph, Telling Histories, and I am thinking about what is in the current moment that encourages us to creatively construct engagement with the past. These kinds of texts are not seeking to do factual reporting, but rather a carrying out a creative engagement with the past that admits to being rhetorical and that tries to intervene in the contemporary culture through that imaginative, aesthetic process. I am curious to see how we might use new literature and other artistic productions to rethink some things from nineteenth-century Transatlantic culture more broadly in ways that would be useful to us today and would help us live our lives more thoughtfully and productively.  

Sanjana Chowdhury is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Texas Christian University. She has also completed a graduate certificate in Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies. Sanjana is the copy editor of the digital humanities project Teaching Transatlanticism, an online resource for teaching nineteenth-century Anglo-American print culture. Her peer reviewed essay on Hinduism has been published in the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing (ed. Dr. Lesa Scholl), 2022. Her research interests include Long Nineteenth-Century literature, marxist theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and British Empire history. She is currently researching foodways of the British Raj.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Élisée Reclus (1873) Ocean, Atmosphere, and Life, being the Second Series of a Descriptive History of the Life of the Globe, New York City, NY: Harper & Brothers, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Inside Anthology-Making: An Interview with Sarah Robbins (Part I)

By Sanjana Chowdhury

Sarah Ruffing Robbins is the Lorraine Sherley Professor of Literature at TCU. She has published ten academic books, including the Choice-award-winning monograph Managing Literacy, Mothering America (2004); The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe (2007); a co-edited award-winning critical edition of Nellie Arnott’s Writings on Angola (2011); and a monograph building links between archival research and public-oriented humanities projects, Learning Legacies: Archive to Action through Women’s Cross-Cultural Teaching (2017). She is presently co-editing a special issue of English Journal on the impact of current curriculum wars on secondary education in the US; serving as the coordinator of selection and assessment for Building a More Perfect Union, a major NEH grant supporting over three dozen participatory humanities projects; and doing preliminary research for a monograph on the role of the arts in the construction of counter-histories addressing justice issues. With Andrew Taylor and Chris Hanlon, she co-edits the book series on “Interventions in Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture” for Edinburgh University Press

Sanjana Chowdhury spoke to Dr. Robbins about the 2022 anthology Transatlantic Anglophone Literatures, 1776 – 1920, which was another collaboration with Dr. Taylor, also including Dr. Linda K. Hughes, Adam Nemmers, and Heidi Hakimi-Hood as additional team members. Dr. Robbins is serving as faculty sponsor for that project’s companion website, which is managed by a team of graduate students and alumni from TCU. 

Sanjana Chowdhury: What was the inspiration/motivation/starting point for the Transatlantic Anglophone Literatures anthology? 

Sarah Ruffing Robbins: There are several strands there that are worth mentioning. One inspiration came from teaching a Transatlantic Literature course with Dr. Linda Hughes. We got the idea not too long after I came to Texas Christian University (henceforth TCU) in Fall of 2009. Since we both worked in Nineteenth-century Studies, and we were both aware that Nineteenth-century Studies was becoming increasingly global, both in research and teaching, we thought we might be well positioned to envision a Transatlantic course. So we started meeting and planning the class and thinking what it might look like. We were fortunate enough to get an Instructional Development Grant from TCU, which allowed us to bring a series of scholars to the first offering of the course. So we developed the first version of the syllabus, and we got it ready to run, and we had several visiting scholars come to our class at different times during the course. One of them was Dr. Meredith McGill, who has done amazing work on the culture of reprinting. One was Dr. Kate Flint, who has that wonderful book on the Transatlantic Indian, and another was Barbara McCaskill, who works on the Black Atlantic. Having those scholars come in was doubly helpful because they each taught a seminar session with us, and they also reflected with us on the syllabus, on what was there and maybe what was not there the first time and how we could make it better. From those conversations we began to realize that everyone who was trying to do transatlantic pedagogy was hoping to have more infrastructure and guidance for their work, and that is how we got the idea for the first book, a collection of essays called Teaching Transatlanticism. We approached Edinburgh University Press about publishing it because we knew that they had already done work in Transatlantic studies. They were enthusiastic, and published that first collection entitled Teaching Transatlanticism: Resources for Teaching Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Print Culture (edited by Linda K. Hughes and Sarah R. Robbins, Edinburgh UP, 2015). The Table of Contents and the Introduction of  collection are available on the website Teaching Transatlanticism. That book did well, and it led the press then to approach us about maybe doing a primary text anthology. So it was an iterative process, growing out of our teaching and also out of a wonderful connection we made with an interested press that has a sustained interest in the topic. Andrew Taylor, our co-editor, had already done a lot of work with the Edinburgh University Press, and he came on board. So the three of us – Linda, Andrew, and I – started thinking about the anthology. That was kind of the starting point.

SC: That is such an interesting backstory! It is amazing that the Transatlantic Anthology came out of creating a course, because I always imagined it to be the other way around since we tend to follow a book to teach a course.

SRR: That is often the general assumption, but I think it is important for people to know that teaching really came first for us. The learning, however, goes back even further. When I was at the University of Michigan for my doctoral studies, my very first course was a Transatlantic Literature course with Dr. Julie Ellison. So I was certainly trained in and encouraged to envision the possibilities for Transatlantic Studies. Even before that, when I did my Masters at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill many years ago, I took two courses with Dr. Richard Fogle, who was a nineteenth-century specialist. I would not say he organized his courses as transatlantic, but he worked on both sides of the pond, as it were. Edgar A. Poe, Henry James, and Nathaniel Hawthorne were the main figures in one of the courses I took with him, and in that class he did present such authors in transatlantic terms. (I also took a marvelous course with him on British Romantics, wherein he made connections between those poets and American writers. I guess you could say that I have been thinking of and working with Transatlantic literature and pedagogy for multiple decades. 

SC: The entire process behind your anthology is very informative. I completely agree that we should be cognizant of how anthologies shape fields of study. Are the organizational categories of the Transatlantic Anthology also a product of the thought process about formative powers of anthologies? When you organized different authors and works under different categories, what was the reasoning behind the decision? How do you think this organization helps the reader?

SRR: When you organize materials for teaching or scholarship, what you are doing is constructing an artificial system. It is not a material object that exists in the world, but rather a deliberate construct. Our collection of ten themes came out of collaboration among the three lead editors – Linda, Andrew, and me, as well as the associate editors and advisory board members. 

There is a story that Linda loves to tell, and I want to credit her for it.  In a really pivotal moment in the early envisioning of the anthology, we were able to get together in person in Washington, DC, during a very early stage of our work. We were all three presenting together at the American Literature Association (henceforth ALA). It was so generous of Linda to go to ALA because it is not one of her regular conferences, and Andrew flew over from Edinburgh. We spent a whole day in my daughter’s condo in DC while she and her husband were off at work, and we literally sat at the kitchen table all day talking about how we wanted to organize and why we wanted to organize that way, and our initial idea that it should be thematic. We tried to blend chronology and themes for the anthology, but we could not see an easy way to do it quite as smoothly as a straightforward chronological listing as in some anthologies, and we did not really want to. We spent some time thinking really hard about what the most important topics were that people would probably want to teach and we literally argued, in the academic sense, over those different themes. Some of them were obvious, like “Migration and Settlement”. “Abolition of Slavery” initially seemed like an obvious organizational theme, but after some thought, we realized that we needed to think of the aftermath too. This was well before the 1619 Project (initiated by The New York Times in 2019) that marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery and that focuses on the contribution of Black Americans to the national narrative of America. I think that, in a sense, we were anticipating the argument of the 1619 Project that slavery as well as anti-slavery does not have a neat start and end date. It has a long life, broad consequences, and cultural legacies. So one thing that we were trying to do by organizing thematically was to resist the very chronology that we were using. Although we wanted to focus on the nineteenth century, and that is the time period we co-editors work in for much of our scholarship, we immediately undermined our chronology by starting with 1776 and ending with 1920. To say “Long Nineteenth Century” is not a new thing, but we had to put some thought into what should be the starting point, and how we were going to trace the thematic threads across this long time period we were working on. 

By the end of that day in DC, we had about seven or eight themes, and the advisory board was extremely helpful in separating some of the themes. For example, “Migration” and “Travel” became separate themes, because the kind of travel you do when you are Henry James or Edith Wharton going on a trip is very different from the migration for settler colonialism. We also received important advice from the board about categorization of authors. Barbara MacCaskill, for instance, told us to make a commitment that Black writers would not just be in the expected categories but across all ten themes. So we were attentive that Black writers and Indigenous writers – First Nations and Native American authors – would not be cubby-holed. That is how we began to think of potential primary texts to go under particular themes. 

Literature anthologies tend to be chronological, and thematic periodization, such as Romanticism or Realism, seems to be confined to specific time periods, when in fact modes of thinking are not actually constrained to and fenced off in a particular period of time. So, one of the things our anthology is actively trying to resist is the practice of assigning a firm starting and ending point to a literary and/or political movement. One of the ways we carried out our resistance is by organizing the anthology in the ten themes (which are now also mirrored on our companion website). Within each theme, we did organize texts somewhat chronologically, but twisted that a bit too by having clusters of texts that were responding to each other not necessarily presented exactly chronologically. We want readers to have those moments of surprise and to see the places where we have resisted our own structure. 

We did the same thing with “Anglophone”. We are not experts in multilingual dimensions of transatlantic study. For instance, I speak and read French and Italian. But I do not work in other languages that were important to the culture of Transatlanticism in the nineteenth century, such as Spanish or Portuguese So we had to recognize the limits of our own expertise, but, at the same time, we wanted to acknowledge that the Anglophone textual exchange was constantly interacting with other languages. There are several instances in the anthology where we are presenting a text in English but it comes out of translation, and we discuss in the headnote for such texts the role of translation and the translator. We are inviting our readers to think about the way “Anglophone”, just like time periods, is not a clearly marked-off territory of knowledge, but rather there are people and discourse moving back and forth across different languages. Even when transatlantic authors are publishing in English, they are interacting with other languages. Overall, I would say that in each of the words in the title of our anthology – “Transatlantic” and “Anglophone” and “Literature”, we are trying to honor but resist each category. 

SC: It is very enlightening to hear about how your academic practice of resisting constructs shaped the organizational themes of the anthology. I especially liked how the various writers of color appear across all ten themes, which is frankly unlike any other literary anthology. Usually, we tend to read authors of color when we are discussing race and racism, or women authors when we talk about gender issues. The Transatlantic Anthology, I believe, is setting the tone for literary anthologies by consciously not putting authors into historically predetermined boxes.

SSR: This is where I want to send a shout-out to generous colleagues like a wonderful cohort of Black scholars—such as Koritha Mitchell and Joycelyn Moody—who came to a luncheon I arranged during a conference on women’s literature and spent that hour-plus spinning out recommendations of Black Atlantic writers, especially women, whose texts should appear in the anthology. Our advisory board members were essential; we asked them to make suggestions for individual texts, and that is how we generated such a wealth of varied literary works. I am also going to go back to something you said earlier about scholarship preceding teaching. There were, of course, pivotal pieces of scholarship, such as Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic (2014), which served as a kind of scholarly “Bible” for helping us think about who were major First Nations and Native American writers that we should read and incorporate. We were also thinking about the women writers who had worked their way into important positions in the scholarship on nineteenth-century literature and transatlantic culture. We were thinking in terms of intertextuality, so that individual texts within a section would speak to each other, in addition to how the texts from one section would interact with other sections. This is why certain authors appear in multiple thematic spaces. 

It was extremely beneficial that we already had the Teaching Transatlanticism website, and we knew that taking out a text did not mean it was not part of the conversation, since we could feature the text on the digital anthology. In fact, we came to recognize that some texts might be better positioned on the website, where they could appear under multiple categories, and need not be excerpted as much as is necessary for the print anthology. We were trying to make thoughtful decisions in that regard, and also invite people to think conceptually to bring more texts to the website in the long term. Anyone who teaches with the Transatlantic Anthology will probably think it should have a particular text or author that does not appear there, and the Teaching Transatlanticism website provides us the space to insert that text or author and facilitate further conversation, helping the field continue to grow organically. 

Sanjana Chowdhury is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Texas Christian University. She has also completed a graduate certificate in Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies. Sanjana is the copy editor of the digital humanities project Teaching Transatlanticism, an online resource for teaching nineteenth-century Anglo-American print culture. Her peer reviewed essay on Hinduism has been published in the Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women’s Writing (ed. Dr. Lesa Scholl), 2022. Her research interests include Long Nineteenth-Century literature, marxist theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and British Empire history. She is currently researching foodways of the British Raj.

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Élisée Reclus (1873) Ocean, Atmosphere, and Life, being the Second Series of a Descriptive History of the Life of the Globe, New York City, NY: Harper & Brothers, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.