T. Adam (Hrsg.): Approaches to the Study of Intercultural Transfer

T. Adam: Approaches to the Study of Intercultural Transfer.

Adam, Thomas
London 2020: Anthem Press
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Michel Espagne, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

We have to be glad about the publication of Thomas Adam's book and the series he inaugurates; we must wish him all the success that this beautiful initiative deserves. As the author himself observes, research on transcultural transfers began 35 years ago. It concerned then Franco-German relations from the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century and aimed to show that the national spaces in Europe, especially France and Germany, were shaped and defined to a large extent by each other. The circulation of cultural goods was accompanied by a resemantization which clearly showed that national identities were based on importations from foreign areas. Originality was a consequence of borrowing.

But it is also important to note that after this first step the field of investigation widened considerably. Subsequent studies observed how the Russian human sciences were impacted by importations from Germany, how modern Greece takes up architectural models from German neoclassicism, how archaic Greece is nourished by Anatolian models, how Chinese Buddhism reinterprets Indian religious books, how modern Vietnam appropriates moments of French culture to define itself as a new national identity.

The opening of historiography from the United States to this field of research is a new and valuable reinforcement. As the introduction clearly shows, all levels of social life are involved in the dynamics of transcultural transfers, from the transposition of the Göttingen University Library model in Boston to the arrival of Kindergarten in Watertown. It was in Germany that the painter Leutze achieved the painting, so important to American imagery, of Washington crossing the Delaware and the same work had different meaning in Germany and the USA. As Thomas Adam rightly remarks, research on cultural transfers separates transnational history from simple comparisons in order to link it to the circulations and creative transformations from one cultural space to another. This is what research on transcultural transfers has been trying to realize from the beginning. Mediators, like travelers, teachers, translators etc., are central actors and each chapter of this volume brings to light various figures such as George Ticknor, a former student from Göttingen who became a professor in the United States, who is frequently mentioned in the book.

Several areas of German-American or English-American transfer are successively highlighted by Thomas Adam, a pioneer of the cultural-transfer-approach in the US-context. The reforms of social housing, the spread of museum models, the football culture in England, Germany and America, the different forms of anthropology and its connectedness with many other places around the world, the different interpretations of non-violence, the transposition of Weihnachten to Christmas as well as the many other examples mentioned in the volume provide the historians with fascinating cases which can be approached with the model of cultural transfer. Victor Aimé Huber, who transports the English model of popular housing to Berlin, or Elgin Gould, who draws inspiration from Leipzig and Hanover for popular housing models transported to New York, show transfers that at the same time reveal different welfare policies. The wealthy Americans who visited European museums in the 19th century, including the Dresden gallery, were deeply convinced by the Kunstvereine-model, which allowed the creation of museums in the United States, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it would be wrong to think of these loans as one-way exchanges. Adolph Bernhard Meyer of the anthropological museum in Dresden was also impressed by his visit to museums in the eastern part of the United States. The global phenomenon of football has a history that begins in England in the 1860s, continues in Germany thanks to Konrad Koch or in Argentina thanks to Alexander Watson Hutton born in Glasgow; each step leads to an adaptation of the rules but also to a new terminology, “team” becoming for example “Gespielschaft”. Early in football's history the role of educators remained fundamental. As Thomas Adam rightly points out, cultural transfers cannot be reduced to a process of Americanization. This opinion emerges clearly from the chapter devoted to philanthropy, which has roots in the Sassanid Empire, extensions in the Jewish and Muslim worlds, as well leads into the system of the Crusades before continuing in more recent times in the foundations or associations. Philanthropy can provide donors not only recognition in the leading circles of society but also honorary doctoral degrees. Close to philanthropy would be non-violence as a mode of political action. Gandhi was certainly known to Bonhoeffer as well as to Mandela, but each attempt to apply non-violence takes a different form according to the special situations.

Resemantization, I would insist, remains here the main issue. We can only welcome the fact that the last chapter of this book is part of a kind of anthropological approach. It describes the passage of Christmas traditions from Germany to the regions of the United States with a German population like Wisconsin before the tradition spread over the whole territory in different forms. In Germany and in the US Christmas was considered as an affirmation of the nation. Once more we meet George Ticknor whose travelogues were influential in Boston’s high society. The cultural transfers concerning Christmas undoubtedly plunge into deeper periods, such as the passage from the oriental cult of Mithra to roman Christianity, studied among others by Hermann Usener.

Basically, research on cultural transfers is much more differentiated than the question of an Americanization of German or English traditions. Few cultural areas are completely free of transcultural transfers. But the analysis of the resemantizations that led to the creation of an American culture constitutes a promising new field of inquiry in the wide framework of transcultural transfer. Thomas Adam's book is an important milestone in this regard.

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