From Friday, April 22 to Sunday, 24 1966, the German department invited the Gruppe 47 to hold its annual meeting in Princeton. A West German literary association founded in 1947, Gruppe 47 had soon established itself as the voice of (West) German literature. Its illustrious members included, among others, Heinrch Böll (Nobel Prize 1972), Günter Grass (Nobel Prize 1999), Peter Weiss (Büchner-Preis 1982), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (Büchner-Preis 1963), Uwe Johnson (Büchner-Preis 1971), and Peter Handke (Büchner-Preis 1973).
The event at Princeton was recorded. The complete recordings of the readings and the discussions of these three days have now been made accessible by the German Department at Princeton. To access these recordings click here.
Far less known is the fact that on the same weekend, and the following Monday, April 25th, two events also took place at Princeton bringing together some of the most influential figures of the contemporary American cultural scene. The first, a two day series of events, was titled “What’s Happening: The Arts 1966”. Allen Ginsberg read from his latest poems, Tom Wolfe spoke about art becoming the religion of the educated, Milton Babbitt discussed the latest developments of electronic music and Duke Ellington gave a concert on Saturday night.
On Monday, a conference addressed the question of modern authorship under the title “The Writer in the Affluent Society”. This was meant as an opportunity for writers and critics from both sides of the Atlantic, American and German, to engage in an intellectual exchange.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, April 26 and 27, most members of Gruppe 47 moved on to New York, where a number of publishers and literary magazines hosted a series of dinners and receptions. Afterwards, 25 of the group members used a Ford Foundation travel grant to go on reading tours to other cities and University campuses.
The Gruppe 47 meeting has by now entered the annals of literary history. An event of such significance calls for interpretation and re-interpretation. From today’s perspective, the convergence of the German group with their North-American contemporaries raises a series of questions concerning whether and how these artists communicated coming from such distinct cultural contexts.
Such encounters are always expected to give rise to an increase in cross-cultural understanding, even the strategic recalibration of shared goals and values. Or so the story goes. That such a successful meeting was at all possible, both intellectually and on an organizational level was a premise that was clear, at least for the donor. Such cultural and political optimism was translated clearly by a phrase in the donor’s final report that summed up the meeting as having “enlarged the understanding of America among the most articulate German men of letters.”
But such a summary risks a naive, under-theorized take on cultural encounters, which on this level, as we now know, tend towards their own singular logic. Between the after-image of the meeting and its reality there lies a series of possible complexities and fractures. The identity of the German group remained strictly controlled due to their self-promotion as an organ of national literature. This problematic goal was reflected in the rigid procedures they had chosen to frame their visit: a tight schedule, restricted access to the meetings, which often took place behind closed doors and followed a fixed yet unspoken hierarchy. The group’s self-regulation ran in conflict with their mission to communicate as cultural emissaries. The paradigms of national literature and high culture were bound to touch their limits when juxtaposed with competing models of cosmopolitan and popular culture. The contemporaneity of the Gruppe 47 with the North American scene may very well have been a competitive one, testing the borders and limits of national aesthetic, political and cultural agendas. More than an event of self-evident cultural importance, the archive of the visits opens the possibility for researchers to discover what happens when institutions as different as academic departments, national literary groups and popular cultural figures meet.
Nikolaus Wegmann / Cornelius Reiber