Benchmark Europe

Liberalism and Cultural Nationalism in the United States, 1900-1930

November 10, 2016
Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Adelheid von Saldern (Leibniz Universität Hannover)
Comment: Thomas Bender (New York University)

Adelheid von Saldern © Chester Simpson

The Annual Lecture 2016 was given by Adelheid von Saldern, Professor Emeritus for Modern History at the Leibniz University of Hannover and renown scholar on German and American social and cultural history in the 20th century history. 

Professor von Saldern's lecture examined the role of so called quality magazines” in the development of liberalist and cultural nationalist approaches in the United States in the first three decades of the 20th century. At this time, modernity changed US urban life dramatically especially in the contexts of culture, moralism and media. Von Saldern argued that quality magazines - such as New Republic, Forum or The Nation - had a particular importance in this transformation. Quality magazines differed from newspapers and popular magazines in terms of reach of only 50k-100k, yet they were highly influential in generating nationwide public discussions and promoted nation building. While most of the magazines’ editors and contributors had ivy league degrees, only a few had a background in journalism. What they shared however was a liberal and cultural nationalist background which drove their urge to modernize the United States and press for cultural independence from Europe.

As Professor von Saldern explained, the United States until then had remained an English colony in terms of art and literature. Content in quality magazines often complained that US literature was often still an imitation of British or European standards. They opposed the new moralism in European Art expressed in Naturalism, Expressionism and there like. Instead they called for an authentic and organic American Modernism, which would be similar to European Modernism yet genuinely different. Consequently, articles in quality magazines showed a striving America and pictured transatlantic elites, which was compatible with the growing concept of “American Exceptionalism”. Particular emphasis was given to a “remasculation” of art and culture, which went along with populist and nationalist argumentations.

According to von Saldern, the phenomenon of liberalism and cultural nationalism expressed in quality magazines’ contributions was not so much an attack on Europe. Rather, it was proof for a nation in transition and uncertainty, which still dealt with the aftermath and imprint of colonialization. While this struggle for a modern national culture was not an exception at this time, it took place in Europe and other parts of the world as well. And looking at current developments, cultural nationalism and liberalism certainly was not an exception of the early 20th century.

In his commentary, Thomas Bender (New York University) noted that the clear inward shift of the United States was after World War I. He argued that the analyzed magazines concentrated an audience of intellectuals in an exceptional era and while “culture and arts” was at the center of the discussion, in fact the strategy was to hide the multicultural nation that was emerging.

Lecture and comment were followed by a lively discussion.