Associate professor of German Rob McFarland discusses his latest book, Red Vienna, White Socialism, and the Blues and Austrian journalist Ann Tizia’s Leitich’s influence on Europe’s reception of America in the 1920s.
PROVO, Utah (Mar. 14, 2016)— During a study abroad, German professor Rob McFarland took five students to the Austrian National Library, where they scoured the archives to find writing by female journalists. It was during this project that McFarland and his students came across Ann Tizia Leitich, a fascinating writer with a unique perspective on the colliding cultures of 1920s Europe and America.
McFarland, who participates in a research group on the emergence of the modernist movement and the reception of America in Europe, is interested in the counterintuitive connection between the European left and the American capitalism of the 1920s. For him, recovering Leitich’s journalism provided crucial insight into the question of how Europe perceived and received America.
Leitich came from an upper-middle class upbringing in Austria, where she had a prestigious job as a history teacher in a well-to-do high school in Vienna. When Austria’s Habsburg Monarchy fell in 1918, McFarland said Leitich went through a personal crisis that ultimately brought her to America, where she worked her way up as a nanny, a maid and a cook until landing a secretarial job in New York City.
“She was very well versed and had already been writing articles and attempting to break into journalism before she left Vienna,” McFarland said. “She comes to New York, beats the pavement, gets this low-paying secretarial job and starts writing these articles. She became a sensation in Vienna over night.”
McFarland said it was then that Leitich started her decades-long career of interpreting what was going on in America for her European readership, and it is through Leitich’s perspective as an Austrian living in America that McFarland decided to approach the question of how Europe received America during the 1920s.
McFarland explained that Europe’s reception of America differed in two ways, and that both receptions were unrealistic. There was a favorable reception of America proposed by Antonio Gramsci that looked at Fordism – economic and social systems founded on mass production and consumption – as something to replace European culture with, and then there was a more negative reception of America that looked at pop music and American culture as a force that would eventually destroy European culture. Essentially, America was the embodiment of “the end of culture.”
“There’s a really influential thinker named Oswald Spengler, and Spengler wrote this two volume book called The Decline of the West,” McFarland explained. “Greece was this deep, beautiful culture, tied to the earth with its traditions, and then it gets technology, and it gets more and more automated and things, and it ends in civilization, which he called Rome.”
He explained that Rome, which was just a replica of the old culture of Greece, had technology but was a shallow copy cat of a more refined culture. Essentially, Spengler argued that civilization is the death of a culture. In this sense, Spengler speculated that Europe was culture and that America would one day be the end of that culture.
Leitich, however, completely disagreed with arguments like Spengler’s. “She complained that people came over, took a quick tour, went back and wrote all these things, or just read the newspapers,” McFarland said. “She, having lived with Americans for years and years, and worked here and understood how things ran . . . saw it from the bottom to the top and felt that she could give a little bit more nuanced perspective.”
Leitich believed that though there were parts of mass culture in America that were unsavory, America was also the beginning of a new culture, not an end-all-civilization. She saw both culture and civilization as necessary for a good society to function. She further believed that Europe could give America the culture it needed; in return, America could give Europe civilization.
“She said instead of seeing [America] as the end of [European] culture we need to see it as two cultures that can mutually integrate each other and infiltrate each other for good,” McFarland explained. “[Europe] needs to learn about [America’s] optimism and freedom of expression, and [America] needs to learn from [Europe] about beauty, art and tradition. The more they can interact with each other, the better it will be.”
Because Leitich lived in America for so long, McFarland believes that reading Leitich’s journalism is important because she could mediate America to Europe during the ’20s and ’30s in a unique way.
His book also works to recuperate Leitich’s reputation as a journalist. “In a certain era she was a big thing, but not anymore,” McFarland said. “She’s kind of gotten a bad wrap for being one of the people who ignored Austria’s part in the war and looked back to its glory days, not really dealing with Austria’s war crimes and problems with its Nazi period, making Austria into a victim rather than a perpetrator.”
Yet in spite of this, McFarland said that there was something progressive about Leitich’s overall project, which was to give cultural capital to the masses and help them understand their cultural history.
McFarland’s book also does important work to recapture the ephemeral art of journalism. “There are so many more important figures who were writing in newspapers. Leitich is a woman author that nobody’s looked at, and her writing about America is just really, really prescient. You can understand American history and its interaction with Europe a lot better by understanding what she’s writing about.”
McFarland’s research on Leitich ultimately evolved from his work on the Sophie Digital Library, or Sophie Project, which takes the writings of women that were important in their time and makes them available again.
“Journalism is one of the most important parts of that project because journalism gets lost. Men will have their great articles collected into a book, and that happened to Leitich earlier in her career, but it’s out of print now too, so we’ve taken most of her articles and made them available online,” McFarland said.
He concluded, “We’ve also translated 35 of her articles so that they’re available in English. This whole interaction of what America thought of Europe is still useful today. Her articles examine why we have these different values, and Red Vienna, White Socialism, and the Blues helps to explain it.”
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)
Sylvia Cutler covers the Department of German and and Russian for the College of Humanities. She is a junior double majoring in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.