Art and Culture in Schorske’s Century

In the latest installment of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, 2005–6 CASBS fellow Thomas Bender reviews the career of the author of the masterwork “Fin-de-Siècle Vienna.”
With decades of creativity—that ended with World War I—Vienna jolted Western art and culture forward into high modernity. But how?

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.

He went to kindergarten in 1919, a year after World War I ended. The United States had won the war, but many continued to think of Germans as the enemy. On Schorske’s first day in kindergarten, the teacher asked the children to volunteer a song. Given the family’s passion for music, including singing—which he carried throughout his life—he was quick to raise his hand. He offered “Morgenrot.” It was a heavy, gloomy German song. It was obviously a bad choice. The teacher marched her “little enemy” to the principal. In talking to little Carl about the incident, she decided that he was a quite intelligent young boy. She had a solution: on the spot she promoted him to the first grade.

A dozen years later, he went to Columbia College, not far from home, but far from the ethos of the suburb. It was a lively place at the time, and at the campus gate at Broadway and 116th Street there was something like London’s Hyde Park Corner. The rallies held there often addressed the Great War and various small wars on all continents, but the main point was to avoid American entanglement in further European wars. Schorske was ambivalent about the war, and he took the Oxford Oath, pledging that the Oxford Union “will in no circumstances fight for its [England’s] King and Country.”

More important were Schorske’s studies at Columbia. He was impressed by the curriculum. It was centered on Clio, the Greek Muse of history. The Columbia historians James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard shaped the discipline there, and the philosopher John Dewey represented democracy as well as the new philosophy of pragmatism. But Schorske was already drawn to history as a field, and he was most impressed by Columbia’s two-year humanities colloquium, where his teachers included Jacques Barzun and the literary scholar Lionel Trilling.

In these early days of Columbia’s famous core curriculum, two of the required classes were Contemporary Civilization in the West and a humanities colloquium taught by Barzun. The latter covered 19th-century intellectual history, which included art and music. The class overwhelmed some of the students, but Schorske embraced it. It was there that Schorske discovered the possibilities of an interdisciplinary approach to history, which would manifest itself so brilliantly decades later in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: a history blending politics and the arts.

As a senior he was inclined to an academic career in history, and he arranged a meeting with Charles A. Beard at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York. Beard and his wife, Mary, had a few years earlier published a masterwork, The Rise of American Civilization (1927). Beard had dramatically resigned from Columbia in 1917, when its president, Nicholas Murray Butler, enthusiastically embraced the United States’ entrance into the war. But Butler went further: he militarized the university’s schools and departments by reorganizing them into a military model.

At the meeting, Beard did not encourage a university career. Schorske also went to Lionel Trilling, another of his teachers. Trilling, a famous literary critic and scholar, was blunt. It would be a “folly to embark, as a half-Jew … in the midst of depression.”2


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Still, Schorske went to Harvard in 1936, to get a doctorate in German history. The topic of his dissertation was German politics in the pre–World War I era. This was straight political history, not the cultural history that he would later inhabit as a famous historian.

But his Harvard dissertation adviser, William L. Langer, interrupted his dissertation project. Langer had become the head of the research and analysis branch of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and he recruited Schorske out of Harvard to do research and analysis for the OSS. Schorske’s focus during World War II was on intelligence on Germany.

When Schorske left the Strategic Services in 1946, he found himself with an unfinished dissertation, a wife, and two children to support. But college enrollments were rising after the war, and professors were in demand. He quickly acquired a position at Wesleyan University. He turned his energies to teaching, and he put his dissertation aside. (His book would not be published until 1955, under the title German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism.) Teaching was more important to him than publishing, and that would be true throughout his academic career.

At Wesleyan, Schorske’s understanding of history was expanded, and he began to bring together the relations of politics and culture. This was enabled by long discussions of scholarship, culture, and politics with two of his friends at the time. One of them was Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher, sociologist, and political theorist who had just written Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955), and the other was Norman O. Brown, a classicist and Freudian.

All these influences were in his mind when Schorske received an invitation to spend a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1959. He now had time to think about how to write a distinctive book, one that would bring together politics and culture. And write the book he did, though it was a long time coming.

Carl Schorske rejected merely thinking about history. Instead, he argued for something else: “thinking with history.”

While Schorske was at the center, a colleague at Berkeley asked him if he could be a fill-in for two weeks in his intellectual-history course. Schorske agreed, and he found the class of three hundred students lively and responsive, with a “spirit of collective engagement and responsiveness.”3 He wondered if he might be able to stay, and Berkeley said yes. The shift from a small liberal arts college to a large public university expanded his academic world. It felt to him akin to a shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft—that is, from community to society—and he immediately embraced the place, both his colleagues and the students.

Then came the Vietnam War, anti-war politics, and Ronald Reagan, the governor who launched an attack on the “radicals” at Berkeley. With his civic sense, Schorske found himself among a group of liberal members of the faculty worried about the governor’s action. They urged the governor to allow public discussion of the war on the campus. With all of that in addition to teaching, Schorske was exhausted. When Princeton invited him to teach there, he said yes. He later said he had gone to Princeton “in order to save if possible my scholarly work.”4

That work would be a rethinking of history. It would produce the study of the politics and culture of major European cities: rich studies of the play of politics and modern culture. Vienna was not the only localized study he produced. There was “History as Vocation in Burkhardt’s Basel,” as well as “To the Egyptian Dig: Freud’s Psycho-Archeology of Cultures.” These essays were not widely known, but when Fin-de-Siècle Vienna was published, it was immediately acclaimed in both the academy and among the reading public. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981, and the same year he was selected in the first round of the MacArthur Fellows Program.

I met Schorske in 1977. Richard Sennett, who knew Schorske, asked him to help us as we developed the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University. Schorske embraced the idea and became a regular at our Friday lunches. He also participated in the monthly Friday-afternoon seminar on cites that I had organized. He presented a draft of what would become the Ringstrasse chapter of the Vienna book at one of these seminars. He and his wife had an apartment in New York for their afternoons at the museums and their evenings at the opera, and he was thus interested in the book I was then writing, New York Intellect (1987).

Carl and I worked well together, and he drew me into two projects. The first was a study of the other great city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—Budapest. The project was prompted by IREX, a US organization that sponsored academic exchanges with the former Soviet Bloc. We collaborated with the Institute of History at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, whose president was a historian who knew Schorske, and who wanted his historians to engage with Western and especially American historians studying their country. The material result was a book edited by Carl and me: Budapest and New York: Studies in Metropolitan Transformation, 1870–1930 (1994).

We also had a domestic collaboration on a topic we shared interest in: the development of the humanities and social sciences in the United States. This project was supported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The results of the meetings were published in the academy’s Dædalus quarterly and later published as a book, American Academic Culture in Transformation: Fifty Years, Four Disciplines (1997). The disciplines were economics, English, philosophy, and political science.


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Schorske was always more a teacher than an author. The seminar, the lecture room, and the auditorium were his natural spaces. He connected with audiences, and the audiences responded. The text of the Vienna book carries the relaxed cadence of his voice.

His lectures were fully written out, not just notes. On the days he taught classes or gave public lectures, he would get up early and read the lectures page by page—giving them voice. That would take at least two hours of preparation. But as he lectured, he did not read them; they were only prompts and, perhaps, an element of security.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Carl E. Schorske, Thinking with History: Explorations in the Passage to Modernism (Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 3. This book offers a fuller sense of the range of Schorske’s history thinking and his historical reach.
  2. Carl E. Schorske, A Life of Learning, Charles Homer Haskins Lecture (American Council of Learned Societies, 1987), p. 5.
  3. Ibid., p. 14.
  4. Ibid., p. 18.
Featured image: Gustav Klimt, Schubert at the Piano II (1899). Wikimedia Commons