Skip to content

Peter Freese, America(n) Matters: Selected Essays, ed. Michael Mitchell and Markus Wierschem (Heidelberg: Winter, 2018), 599 pp.:


Peter Freese, America(n) Matters: Selected Essays, ed. Michael Mitchell and Markus Wierschem (Heidelberg: Winter, 2018), 599 pp.

America(n) Matters, and this is not just true for Peter Freese’s entire academic career, but, and they are of concern here, also in the twenty-one essays that Freese selected for publication in this voluminous book. Edited by Michael Mitchell and Markus Wierschem, two of Freese’s collaborators in the English Didactics section of the University of Paderborn, the essays, as the two editors explain, have “originally [been] published over the course of four decades” and “testify to the extraordinary breadth and depth of Peter Freese’s commitment to advancing an understanding of the literature and culture of the United States of America” (7). The introduction to the collection not only informs the readers of what to expect during a reading of the 599 pages, but also paints an intriguing picture of the man who has been a prominent figure of German American Studies at least since 1979 when he became head of the American Studies department at Paderborn.

The essays are grouped into four thematic sections, with their publication dates ranging from roughly about 1977 to 2017, thus covering four decades of scholarly activities. Reading the essays, one cannot but fully agree with the editors that the anthology “gives the reader an impression of Freese’s engaging voice: serious, but not without humor; sympathetic, but not without critical distance; incisive, but never simplistic; intellectual, but never dull” (9). The four sections the interested reader finds are “Europe and the American Dream” (four essays), “The Two Cultures: Literature and Science” (five essays), “Changing Forms and Shifting Perspectives” (four essays), and “Textual Kaleidoscopes: American Identities” (eight essays). Since the editors describe each section and each essay in their introduction, I take the liberty to not simply repeat what they say but to choose one essay from each section and look at it in more detail.

Peter Freese’s seminal essay on “‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’: The translatio-Concept in Popular American Writing and Painting” (1996) shows him at his best, not only explaining well-known but rarely fully understood concepts such as translatio imperii, religionis et studii, American exceptionalism as well as manifest destiny, but also illustrating these concepts with images taken from American painting such as Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way also known as Westward Ho! (1862), which presents a group of settlers looking toward the Pacific, shows their hope but also the suffering they have had to endure, and yet they are all looking forward to a Western El Dorado. Biblical and historical visual references situate this painting in the context of world history and, as Freese aptly points out, reveal the translatio concept “as a recurring element of world history not only by relating the contemporary settlement of the American West to the geographical extension of the huge continent […] but also by seeing it as a repetition of a continually repeated process that extends from classical antiquity […] through modern European history […] to American national history […]” (41). Freese is quick to point out that Leutze was not the only painter in the nineteenth century to be inspired by Bishop Berkeley’s poem: others such as Andrew Melrose, Charles Wimar, and J. M. Ives and F. F. Palmer were intrigued by his work as well. Freese moves on to the popularization of the concept in advertising by McCormick Reapers and in the missionizing spirit of Josiah Strong’s Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885). Strong, as Freese argues, proclaimed “that Protestant America was God’s special instrument for the regeneration of the world” (47), combined with “the old plea for the missionizing of the West” (47), which ultimately turns into the claim that the race “‘is divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother’s keeper’” and “‘the world’s leading nation’” (Strong qtd. in Freese 49) based on “‘the extinction of inferior races before the advancing Anglo-Saxon’” (Strong qtd. in Freese 50). As Freese shows, the translatio concept has furthermore fed American imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century when Republican Senator Albert J. Beveridge from Indiana delivered a speech (Jan. 9, 1900) on “Our Philippine Policy,” in which he speaks of “‘the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples’” as the “‘master organizers of the world’” with a “‘divine mission’” (Beveridge qtd. in Freese 51). Freese’s historical journey above all through the nineteenth century investigates the legacy of Bishop Berkeley’s poem “On the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” (1752), which had laid the foundation for, as Freese argues, “a welcome proof of American exceptionalism, […] a prophetic anticipation of America’s manifest destiny, and […] a ruthlessly exploited alibi for America’s hegemonial claims as a world power” (52).

This essay—just like its companion pieces on the American Dream, the American image of Germany, and Americans in Europe—has significantly shaped American Studies in Germany, its teaching (in high schools and universities) and research, because they all address fundamental features of American history, culture, and society without which the contemporary United States could not be understood. American exceptionalism resonates with the “America First” movement, and the current U.S. government certainly can be perceived as the master (dis)organizer of the world.

“The Two Cultures” section opens with two essays on entropy, continues with two essays on Kurt Vonnegut’s use of science, technology, and religion as sense-making categories, and ends with a detailed analysis of Bernard Malamud’s, Kurt Vonnegut’s, and Thomas Pynchon’s fiction. My choice for discussion here is “Science and Technology in Kurt Vonnegut’s Novels” (2003) because Freese not only is a Vonnegut expert but also a pioneer in the application of C. P. Snow’s two cultures to American literature. Freese has often chosen Vonnegut, not the least in his 769-page monograph on the author, because the author, himself trained as a chemist and engineer (see Freese 205), was one of the earliest proponents of a scientific education for contemporary fiction writers, “‘simply because the scientific method is such an important part of their environment’” (Vonnegut qtd. in Freese 205). By now, disciplines such as the Medical Humanities and the Digital Humanities as well as a whole range of interdisciplinary study programs testify to the need for such an intersectional approach. Vonnegut, as Freese points out, was not interested in scientific details but was mostly concerned with “the social function and the moral responsibility of scientists and technicians,” with “the misuse of scientific discovery or the consequences of a technological innovation without understanding their details” (205). Vonnegut’s World-War-II trauma provides significant evidence of such potential abuse and initiates the author’s “radical skepticism” (206).

Freese sheds light on Vonnegut’s use of science in its myriad manifestations in the writer’s essay collections as well as in novels such as Cat’s Cradle (1963), Galapagos (1985), and Player Piano (1952)—anticipating “a computer-controlled society” (207). It is in the latter and very early novel, as Freese maintains, that Vonnegut significantly insists “that it is not the machines which constitute the real enemy, but the built-in flaws of their human inventors” (211) and that “the machine can only vomit back information fed into it by its human operators” (212). In The Sirens of Titan (1959), Vonnegut parodies “sci-fi conventions” (212) with extragalactic powers controlling human civilization, whereas Cat’s Cradle is about a young man’s trauma of Hiroshima and his desire to write a book about this event to make meaning of it while science has become a form of religion. The scientist Dr. Felix Hoenikker is, as Freese depicts him, “a pathetically immature intellectual gambler unmindful of the consequences of his discoveries” (217). Freese offers similar analyses of Slapstick; or, Lonesome No More! (1976), Deadeye Dick (1982), Hocus Pocus (1990), and Timequake (1997) and affirms that “the sci-fi elements in Vonnegut’s novels are usually so fantastic, so exaggerated and so patently impossible” (221), with the exception of Galapagos, that his intention becomes very clear, namely to depict science as “inherently dangerous” (221) by creating weapons of destruction; this is how Vonnegut ends The Sirens of Titan.

This excellent discussion of an important U.S.-American postmodern novelist and his many works and of his very topical treatment of science in fiction is paralleled in the third section by the similarly outstanding and highly relevant essay “Universality vs. Ethnocentricity, or; the Literary Canon in a Multicultural Society” (1996). This essay carefully weighs the need for a canon and the “aims of a pluralistic democracy” (299). While the abandonment of a canon has, as Freese sees it, led to a “pseudo-pragmatic openness and variety” (299) because teachers on all levels will teach what they know best but often do not reflect on their choice’s relevance, so that “an unacknowledged canon caters to the demand for orientation” (299). Here Freese’s long-standing interest in how and what to teach in an EFL or university classroom comes to the fore. Freese depicts the canon debates in detail, which took up speed in the mid-1980s and often revolved around the meaning of “canon” and which literature to include according to which criteria. For most critics, the canon debate is about nothing less than “‘the future of the United States’” (Asante qtd. in Freese 305) and “‘what it means to be an American’” (Schlesinger, Jr. qtd. in Freese 305). However, Freese also emphasizes that such a homogenizing canon has never existed (see Jan Gorak, The Making of the Modern Canon [1991]). Yet, as Freese points out in his 1996 essay, arguments on both sides verge on the absurd, which he illustrates in his analysis of the Norton Anthology of American Literature and its “multicultural competitor, the new Heath Anthology of American Literature” (310). However, no matter which arguments one might be inclined to adopt, the question of selection is not solved because someone always has to choose based on some criteria. No matter which texts are chosen, people fail to recognize that “imaginative literature is ‘universal,’ that it can transcend both the vertical dimension of historical time and the horizontal dimension of cultural space, and that therefore one can recognize one’s own experience in the texts of another culture” (314). Freese is convincing in his argumentation since he also makes a case for ethnic texts to be equally universal and does not give much weight to the argument that literature has been used to maintain the assumed superiority of one type of literature over the presumed inferiority of another. To remedy this hierarchical thinking, one cannot simply reverse this hierarchy, as Molefi Kete Asante seems to suggest. Rather, Diane Ravitch and others have offered the use of a “‘pluralist approach to multiculturalism’” (qtd. in Freese 316) to promote “‘a broader interpretation of the common American culture’” (Ravitch qtd. in Freese 316). Ultimately, also ethnic literature is “universal,” because why would we—if this were not the case—teach American literature in a German EFL classroom? Freese ultimately pleads for “‘intercultural understanding’” and “learning a foreign language” (318) in order to be able to overcome one’s own inevitable “ethnocentricity” (318).

There is something else in this essay on the canon debate that one hardly notices but that is of utmost relevance. As early as in the 1990s, Peter Freese decides to use the pronoun “she,” that is “her,” when he depicts what a German Americanist has to do in the classroom. Freese does not rely on the generic masculine form but is brave enough to change perspective.

The essay chosen from the final section, which contains contributions on Bret Easton Ellis, Bobbie Ann Mason, Leslie Marmon Silko, Tony Hillerman, Bernard Malamud, John Kennedy, and T. C. Boyle, testifying to Freese’s enormous range of interest and knowledge, is “Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, ‘Empire State of Mind’: A New Anthem to New York City?” (2011), which adds another dimension to his broad expertise, namely popular culture and genres other than fiction. He manages to show, in the words of Jay-Z, that “‘hip-hop lyrics […] are poetry if you look at them closely enough’” (qtd. in Freese 401). Freese’s analysis of this hip-hop song explores its rich allusions to other musical phenomena. “Empire State of Mind,” first performed in 2009 in New York City and later turned into a video, is represented through its lyrics on various websites, but often falsely so that misunderstandings, as Freese shows, lead to completely nonsensical lines and, consequently, ignorance of what it is about. Freese’s line-by-line in-depth reading unveils how the song’s lyrics reflect—if contextualized and historicized—New York City’s development, many of the city’s ethnic locations and people as well as the history of rap and other forms of popular music. Freese explains a phenomenon that we all know, namely that the lyrics of pop songs are hardly ever understood or significant for listeners; however, with rap, as he maintains, “the verbal message is thought to be of central importance” (421). While Jay-Z argues that music can have more than one layer and that perhaps the second and third layers might only be accessible to an in-group, Freese, although agreeing, adds as reason for a hip-hop song’s success “the consumer society’s ability to integrate and thereby defuse all critical attacks by turning them into marketable commodities” (422). He concludes on a rather pessimistic and critical note: “And it is this unavoidable process of commodification which has domesticated black rap into just another segment of a booming music industry that caters to the expectations of an apolitical audience simply wanting to be entertained” (422).

For lack of space, only four out of the twenty-one essays feature prominently in my review. But even if we just look at these four scholarly articles, we can easily recognize the historical depth and breadth, the expertise in a multiplicity of genres and disciplines (painting, literature, music), and the impressive historical, political, and cultural knowledge paired with a universalist’s or generalist’s wisdom of an erudite scholar such as Peter Freese who works across and beyond the disciplines (hip-hop lyrics as poetry) and enters interdisciplinary (literature and science) and disciplinary (the canon debate) discussions in the broad field of American Studies. Yet, it is above all, but not exclusively so, literature that, for Peter Freese, opens our eyes to the multiple facets of the United States of America. His essays offer valuable material for teachers in high school or university to acquaint their students with American matters, and they reveal even to uninitiated students that America matters. Although 599 pages do not invite a leisurely perusal, each one of the essays opens up significant and, sometimes, surprising insights into the past and present of what we know today as the United States of America.

Carmen Birkle (Marburg)

Export Citation