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Thomas Mann’s War at MLA

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In anticipation of the Modern Language Association Annual Convention this January 9-12 2020 in Seattle, we asked Tobias Boes, author of Thomas Mann’s War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters, three questions about his research.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book? 

One of the most memorable moments in my research came to me courtesy of the New York Public Library. It was there that I examined several dozen Tarnschriften—anti-Nazi pamphlets that had been smuggled into the Third Reich disguised as quotidian objects. There were fold-out street maps containing seditious texts on the inner folds, and tiny pages that had been stuffed into tea bags. Thomas Mann was one of the authors who featured in this genre. To see Mann, who has a rather patrician personality, connected to the anti-fascist struggle in such an immediate fashion was quite a revelation!

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now? 

One important thing that I did not know about before I started my research was that the US Army ran a reeducation program for German POWs that provided German readers with copies of important literary texts, including those of Thomas Mann. Military historians have written about this quite extensively, but literary scholars, especially scholars of modernism, are only slowly starting to pay attention to the weird and circuitous paths that books often take to their audience. It raises important questions about reader reception and canon formation. Who determines how books become branded as literary classics?

3. How do you wish you could change the field of literary studies?

I hope my book will challenge our understanding of what modernist literature was, and of how its impact continues to resonate in the present. Thomas Mann’s War is not just a work about one man’s cultural crusade against the Nazis.It’s also an attempt to show how stylistically difficult texts responded to a world overshadowed by global conflict. And it’s an investigation into how the role of the author changed in response to this crisis. Whether they know it or not, many literary figures who also function as public intellectuals in our day owe a debt to Thomas Mann!


Tobias Boes is Associate Professor of German at the University of Notre Dame and the author of one previous Cornell University Press book, Formative Fictions: Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Bildungsroman.


Access the full 2020 Modern Language Association Annual Convention program, or follow the meeting on social with hashtag #MLA20 and @MLAnews

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