Fin de Siecle Vienna: Art and Culture in Schorske's Century

tags: historiography, Vienna, European history, cultural history, 19th century

Thomas Bender was university professor in the humanities and professor of history and dean for the humanities at New York University. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1994. His teaching and research concerned intellectual history and the study of cities and city culture. His books include New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (Knopf, 1987), Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), and A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (Hill & Wang, 2006).

Carl Schorske—the famed author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning 1979 Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture—rejected merely thinking about history. Instead, he argued for something else. “Thinking with history,” Schorske explained in 1998, “implies the employment of the materials of the past and the configurations in which we organize and comprehend them to orient ourselves in the living present.”1

It is no surprise, then, that Fin-de-Siècle Vienna is not a conventional historical narrative. Rather, Schorske captured a moment: roughly a quarter century of creativity that ended with World War I, situated in a particular place. Vienna at that moment would be one of the key sites that would jolt Western art and culture forward into high modernity.

Upon publication, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna was quickly embraced by critics and readers in the United States, Europe, and beyond. It was a masterwork deeply researched, written in flowing prose, and rich in illustrations from modern art and architecture in the context of a politics that also ended with World War I.

The book was a project of many years. It was partly built on Schorske’s famous lectures on politics and culture in his huge classes in the largest-available lecture halls at the University of California at Berkeley and, later, at Princeton University, as well as various public lectures. With each year, the lectures became richer, and in time they were expanded into the book.

His ability to connect with students translated to the reading public as well. His aim both in the book and in public lectures was to provide serious and even dramatic scholarship in a conversational voice.

When Schorske was an undergraduate at Columbia College (a part of the larger Columbia University), he found his history department courses did not involve the kind of cultural history that his work would later exemplify. But he did find one course that pointed to an expansive study of history and culture. It was a core course titled Contemporary Civilization in the West. Here the student Schorske saw the possibilities of an interdisciplinary approach to history, and he began to think about a career in the field.

He was prepared for such an aspiration by his family. From a young age, he was introduced to history, politics, and culture. He grew up in Scarsdale, an affluent suburb of New York City, and his whole family was engaged in both politics and the arts. His father was the son of an immigrant German cigar maker in New York who described himself as a socialist. Schorske’s father, however, was a liberal banker, and Schorske’s mother was Jewish. Schorske was born in 1915, soon after World War I began. Their German heritage notwithstanding, the family embraced Britain and the Western European democracies.

The family had resources, and they took advantage of the wide range of the arts available in New York City. Even as a child, Schorske knew well the cultural offerings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the Museum of Modern Art, and the city’s flourishing galleries, including those that represented the early decades of modernism.

Read entire article at Public Books

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