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Joshua Parker, Tales of Berlin in American Literature up to the 21st Century

Mariana Neț

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1Joshua Parker, Tales of Berlin in American Literature up to the 21stCentury

2Leiden/Boston: Brill Rodopi, 2016. Pp. 426. ISBN13: 9789004312081

3Mariana Neț

4If Romanticism was fascinated by medieval history, the moral values of rural communities and the beauty and “mystery” of landscapes, throughout the last century cities have been an ever increasing presence in literature and the arts, have haunted people’s imagination, dreams and desires and become constant topoi in their lives. Modern civilization is essentially urban and all the more so is contemporary, post-industrial one. Books have been written and anthologies have been compiled on Paris, London or Rome as depicted in fiction, music or painting. This trend is still en vogue. Examples would be superfluous.

5 Americans’ fascination with Berlin has deep roots, probably starting with the massive waves of German immigrants to the New World during the former half of the 19th century, when it materialized in nostalgia for a city lost forever, albeit in many cases never actually known. With the next generations, this nostalgia was doubled by the quest for a father, grandfather, sibling or beloved left behind, and further complicated by the cataclysms occurring in 20th century history. Both the US and Germany were instrumental in triggering these major changes and both have been subject to their effect. All this offers ample food for thought and fictionalization and has done so for almost two centuries, whereas fiction gives birth to metafictional analysis.

6 Joshua Parker’s Tales of Berlin in American Literature up to the 21st Century (2016) is a complex and extremely learned achievement along this line. The book dwells on the intricate interplay of subjectivity and alterity at work on writing about an “alien” city, quite different from one’s own – whatever the adjective “different” may mean in such a case. The analysis encompasses a wide range of literary pieces from 1840 to 2014 and from literary masterpieces to pulp fiction. Visual illustrations from drawings, paintings and movies are also to be found in some chapters.

7It ought to be stated from the very beginning that such an enterprise must have be difficult and puzzling from the very start. The bibliography of primary sources includes 188 titles of “works mentioning Berlin by American authors best known as fiction writers” (382). Obviously, it would have been both fastidious and redundant to attempt an in-depth analysis of all these works. The literary historian had to establish categories and classes, to find common themes and topics which dominated certain epochs and reverberated through time and space.

8 Thus, the book’s Prologue, titled “A Smaller but More Intense Orchestration” contends that Parker had started from Michel de Certeau’s assumption that one’s detours “through distant places” produce “precisely the body of legends […] lacking in one’s own vicinity” (cf. de Certeau 1986: 107). The scholar further explains that the world we live in is a bordered one, which has to be interpreted by the help of maps; whenever we travel, we have to transpose “familiar semiotics onto any landscape we pass through” (7), while coming to terms with our implicit “imagology concerning […] stereotypes of people […], places and landscapes” (8). It is upon these principles that Joshua Parker builds the 26 chapters of his Tales of Berlin.

9 Chapter 1 understands “American space” as a “mental territory” usually “repressed at home and projected abroad,” but which often does “not fit central national mythologies” (30). Therefore, the second chapter is a survey of “American Berlin across three centuries” and starts by explaining why this research is a completely new one: on the one hand very little bibliography exists about the image of Berlin in American literature, while on the other hand, unlike Paris, Berlin is not a synecdoche for Europe, and neither is it a synecdoche for Germany. Also, when American writers are “remaking the city in fiction, they often reconstruct what is only sensed or imagined, but today physically absent, [as] many of the buildings and monuments they describe no longer exist or exist uniquely as text, photograph and film, perhaps having them all the more malleable to imagination” (4). An interesting and well-founded discussion follows concerning the transformations suffered by the city of Berlin and its dominant ideologies throughout the 20th century and the (possible) reactions to it of American travelers and literary characters from inter-bellum narratives to the rise of National Socialism, from the destruction of most of the city during WWII to its brutal split by the Wall and to its eventual reconstruction and reunification, this chapter follows a strict chronology, while also showing “themes resonating across periods” (45).

10 Chapter 3 analyzes the novel Countess Ida: A Tale of Berlin (1840) by Theodore Sedgwich Fay, a text largely forgotten nowadays, set fifty years before its publication, i.e. on the eve of the French Revolution and largely considered a fictional mirror of its author’s life and of American post-Revolutionary politics and ideology. The chronological survey continues in the next chapter by pointing out that 60 years would separate the publication of Fay’s Tale of Berlin from the revival of American writers’ interest in Germany. “In fiction […], Berlin’s association with academia seems well established in American imagination by the early second half of the 19th century” (84) and this image was to stay unchanged for about a century. The critic notices that “there were even suggestions this shift from provincial frontier town to American like metropolis was somehow of American doing.” (96) In actual fact, as Joshua Parker is right to emphasize, ever since mid-nineteenth century, Berlin has been viewed as “the most American city” and this stereotype “seems too strong to repress even after two world wars” (93), while in the years 2000 “Berlin as a stage for American self-critique” (Ibidem) has reached popular fiction, where it has become a cliché.

11 Striking a different key, chapter 5 deals with several texts in which the narrator’s vision of Berlin is associated with childhood and reconstructed from picture books and toys. Texts by Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher Isherwood are among those focused upon. Chapter 6 dwells on such authors like Thomas Wolfe, H.L. Mencken, Tom Gabbay, Irene Dische, Danielle Steel and Arthur R.G. Solmssen by offering insights into their fascination with Berlin, as well as by comparing various aspects of the city’s images in their texts.

12 Based on an (implicit) Marxist ideology, chapter 7, expands upon “Rags, Riches and Rooming Houses” in American literature set in Berlin. Anna Loos’s famous novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Theodore Dreiser’s memoir A Transfer at Forty are shown to “suggest implicit references to one of the most resonant of German myths: Rheingold” (114), while Margot Abbott’s The Lost Innocent Hour and Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again evoke Berlin’s lavish Olympic Games of 1936. The world rendered manifest in Upton Sinclair’s Wide Is the Gate lies at the opposite pole. As Parker remarks, “striking economic contrasts juxtaposed in a single space provided outlets for Americans with socialist or communist sympathies” (126). The most telling example in this respect is considered Martha Dodd’s novel Trough Embassy Eyes, set in Hitler’s Berlin, but Parker also discusses examples along this line found in several other texts published throughout the 20th century and afterwards. Among them, Arthur R.G. Solmssen’s A Princess in Berlin, Charles W. Thayer’s Checkpoint, Ross Thomas’s The Cold War or the very recent Necessary Errors (2013) by Caleb Crain.

13 The next chapter sees divorce as “not a surprising metaphor for German-American relations over the 20th century,” while further explaining that “divorce in (and from) Berlin often underlines American disavowal of Nazism or Socialism” (153). Upton Sinclair’s Wide is the Gate is, once again, an appropriate example. So are Nabokov’s Mary and Despair, and Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth. Chapter 9 is titled Water Crossings and lays stress on a different kind of “divorce” viz. “watery separations [which] frequently divide American characters from an increasingly hostile Berlin during the rise of National Socialism, [while] return after the war is also often marked by recrossings of rivers, seas or oceans” (167).

14 Chapter 10 reminds Parker’s readers that John Dos Passos was the first well-known American intellectual who visited Berlin during the fall of 1945 and conveyed his overwhelming impressions in writing. In this context, especially after WWII, American writers are said to have viewed this city in ruins as a post-Apocalyptic topos, conjuring images of ghosts and gods. This trend of research is continued in Chapter 11, Ruined Landscapes, Ruined Women,” which accurately points out that “if ruins are an allegory for mortality, the women emerging from them might be interpreted as figures offering an alternative to death, or, more ominously, leading one toward death” (191). Chapter 12 is devoted to “Women with Attachments: Mermaids, Drink and Drowning” and explains that many women characters haunting the destroyed city of Berlin are often married or in a relationship with other men, while the stereotype of heavy-drinking Berliners often arose from the American travelers’ own drinking habits, especially if they had visited Germany during Temperance and Prohibition periods.

15 The next chapter starts from Mark Twain’s assertion from over a century ago (1892) that in the evening Berlin was “an inspiring sight to see” and notices that American writers have often portrayed Berlin as a “city of night,” in which prohibitions of all kinds are continuously suspended. This idea is further expanded upon in the next two chapters, dealing with “Certain Tendencies”, i.e. with “Queer Berlin” and with “Underground Berlin.” Parker contends that in the 1950s and 1960s when homosexuality was “actively repressed” in the US, “fictional Berlin was a locus for projecting American phobias” (212), whereas “underground tunnels in postwar fiction repeatedly suggest clandestine connections between Americans and Germans” (236). In both these chapters, pulp spy novels are analyzed alongside “serious” literature.

16 In Chapter 16, “Something Was Different, but Nothing Had Changed,” Parker refers to, and illustrates, Leon Uris’s remark (Uris 1985: 637) that during the 1950s to 1970s, the city of Berlin had “completely revised its meaning in the eyes of the world,” and therefore could not help astonishing American characters – and, obviously, American authors – who got back there after a long absence.

17 The next chapter sees American writers taking over and illustrating the image of Fascist Berlin and of superego German characters as a “virus,” contaminating many of the city’s inhabitants and visitors. Chapter 18 dwells on spy fiction and notices that in some novels, innocent American civilians who had gone to Berlin in search for a lost character are forced to become spies; in this way the border is blurred between “right” and “wrong,” while moral values are no longer relevant. Dan Fesperman’s relatively recent The Arms Maker of Berlin (2009) is considered an illustrating example along this line.

18 Chapter 19 refers to “The Garden and the Forest [as] Natural Spaces in Berlin,” and speaks of an increasingly urban Germany’s longing for a “natural self” (266). In American literature, Parker contends, Berlin’s Tiergarten is seen as a kind of “Arcadian space” (268). As for “the weather in Berlin” (Chapter 20), American fiction is often set in frosty winters as a metaphor for the Cold War. In effect, as accurately shown in Chapter 21, Berlin is usually viewed as an isolated and “isolating” city, as “even in panoramic historical novels” actual news of the city are often disjointed, with often switching viewpoints rarely leaving a single protagonist to have a clear view of the whole city” (280).

19 Chapter 22 shows many 20th century American writers as “naturalizing the Wall,” which plays a complex part in literature, being instrumental in the separation or union or lovers, or as “a metaphor for the ubiquity of political or social injustice in the world generally” (286). W.I. Tyler’s Last Train from Berlin (1994) is considered suggestive for the Wall’s disappearance ushering, in “a more complex picture of international political dynamics, even provoking nostalgia […]” (290). “Escapes from Berlin,” namely themes of fictional American men helping Berliner women go away from the city especially during WWII and the Cold War are the subject matter of Chapter 23. Symmetrically, Chapter 24 deals with “Family Reunions [i.e.] Searching for Someone in Berlin” and lays stress on the fact that happy marriages in the city are fairly rare and only few Americans find their lost fathers there, whereas sibling reunions in Berlin are both common and complex. “Tales of German-American childhood friendships broken by war,” Parker further argues, are also common enough. “Here, not fraternal, but root-like German connections underscore German-American relations” (300).

20 The title of Chapter 25 is “Women and Children First: Taming History;” it underlines the almost total lack of German points of view in American fiction about Berlin and focuses on recent fictions, which “sometimes jump analytically between present and past, to illuminate their connections, thematic or historical, or leap between focalizers to provide panoramic – and theoretically more “balanced” – views of dramatic periods of Berlin’s history” (309). In this way, contemporary American fiction depicting Berlin is shown as more “objective” and nuanced. Also, as Chapter 26 announces in its very title, “Contemporary voices [are] restoring mythologies” (318). From the 1990s’ onwards, fiction is necessarily set in a reunified city, which “holds ambiguous moral shadings, often carefully teased out for purposed of reconciling oneself to them” (318).

21 The book’s main conclusion is both well-documented and appropriate: “Whether as a scene of climactic destruction, in smoldering ruin, conquered or rebuilt, Berlin is rarely portrayed as a space of decline or stagnation, but almost invariably in a state of transformation” (379).

22 And so Joshua Parker’s Tales of Berlin in American Literature up to the 21st Century comes to an end. In this book there have been quite a lot of tales of fascination, horror and nostalgia, of love and hatred, split and reunification. Parker’s work is a meta-tale of quest and frustration, of mythical past, wished-for projections, and threadbare present, of history, daily life and literature. It is a book of fictional reality, and in-depth documented analysis of endless American mirrors of Berlin and Berliners throughout over one and a half century.

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DeCerteau, Michel.Heterologies. Discourse on the Other. Trans. Brian Massumi. U of Minneapolis P, 1986.

Twain, Mark. “The Chicago of Europe.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 2 April 1892.

Uris, Leon. Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin. 1963. Dell, 1985.

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Mariana Neț, « Joshua Parker, Tales of Berlin in American Literature up to the 21st Century », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2017-3, Online since 28 November 2017, connection on 21 April 2018. URL :

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