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Uwe Johnson
"I came here to verify the rumor"

Uwe Johnson
Photo (detail): © picture allicance / Keystone

Uwe Johnson (1934-1984) is regarded as a chronicler of 20th century German history, particularly of the postwar division of Germany.  His first novel, Speculations about Jacob (Mutmassungen über Jakob), was published in 1959, establishing his place in German literary history. It is no coincidence that this book was reissued in 2017 as the first volume of a new collected works. His library, manuscripts, and letters are preserved in the Uwe-Johnson-Archiv at the University of Rostock. They provide insight into a biography that exemplifies the upheavals of 20th century German history.  At the same time they help to explain the work and thought process of an engaged observer, particularly visible in his collection of newspaper clippings from the New York Times that Johnson put together while living in New York. These clippings served as a material basis for his massive novel Anniversaries: From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl (Jahrestage. Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl).

"America was a rumor", Uwe Johnson said in a 1966 interview with the New York Times. "I came here to verify the rumor". Because he didn’t want to experience daily life in America second hand, he took great care not to come as a writer or a tourist. Helen Wolff, his American publisher, got him a nine-to-five job at Harcourt, Brace & World.  He was given a year to compile a German reader for high school students.  It was published in the fall of 1967 as Das neue Fenster. Selections from Contemporary German Literature. The book is comprised of texts by 21 German-language authors, all written after 1945, that present the complexity of literature and emphasize its ethical dimension.  He demanded the same from students as he did of readers of his own literature: to participate actively as a reader and to come to an independent conclusion.
Two of Johnson’s novels were translated into English while he worked at the publishing house: The Third Book about Achim (Das dritte Buch über Achim) und Two Views (Zwei Ansichten). Helen Wolff also made sure that Johnson was involved in the city’s literary scene, and introduced him to Hannah Arendt.  Arendt’s appreciation for Johnson can be seen in her recommendation in letter she wrote to Martin Heidegger in 1972: “[Johnson] wrote a good book years ago called Speculations about Jakob and is now writing an unusual book in three volumes, of which the first two have already been published: Anniversaries, a book that I am almost inclined to call a masterpiece.  In any case it is the first German postwar novel that I hold in any esteem.”
Arendt took Johnson under her wing and included him in her intellectual circle.  Through her he met poets such as W.H. Auden and Robert Lowell, and critics such as Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy, all influential voices of the country where Johnson sought to live as attentively as possible.  Through these connections he found the material for his next novel while he was still working on the German reader.  This meant that in his day-to-day life he ceased being an editor and became a writer again.
Now his own experience became a reference source for descriptions in his new novel, such as how to fill out paperwork for an entry visa, how to take a subway ride, or how much ice cream cost.  Johnson used his own life in New York as material to such an extent that his family’s actual personal address and telephone number were given to the fictional Cresspahl family in the novel. For the novel he incorporated New York even further, beginning with his daily routine of reading the newspaper.  He created an archive of his newspaper clippings that eventually filled 16 binders.  These clippings formed the basis of what the novel calls the “consciousness of the day.”
Johnson wrote a short essay based on these materials he collected, which would later be published under the name Ein Teil von New York [A Part of New York].  It introduced the Upper West Side, the neighborhood where the Johnson family lived. Johnson attempted to capture the character of this area through a series of descriptions: geographic features, the condition of the streets, and the diversity of it residents by race, religion, income, and occupation: whites, blacks, intellectuals, handymen, Puerto Ricans, Irish, Catholics, and Jews.  Everything is accompanied by an impressive amount of detail: historic dates; local news; observations on school buses, neon signs, and residents on their Sunday outings; and it concludes with a description of the “other” Broadway, above 72nd Street.
Johnson used the same material to develop a script for a documentary film about the Upper West Side: Summer in the City, directed by Michael Blackwood (Christian Schwarzwald’s nom de plume). Filmed in black and white, it followed the method of Direct Cinema, pioneered by Robert Leacock.  The camera acts as an observer, nothing is staged, and the material is reproduced with as few cuts as possible.  The effect of the film is developed from the selection, placement and commentary of the scenes.  This technique corresponds to the approach in Johnson’s description, and he read the voiceover himself.
All of the local material in the novel is connected to a transatlantic constellation. The plot takes place across two temporal levels, which correspond to two locations: New York and the German province of Mecklenburg. The storyline of the present reports the life of a single mother, Gesine, and her daughter Marie in New York in the late 1960s.  Gesine tells Marie the story of her family, beginning in 1888, the birth year of her grandfather, until the spring of 1961, when both of them arrive in New York.  It is a private history that is closely linked to German history. The mother narrates the story up till the moment when Marie is able to take up the narration herself.  The novel mirrors the narrative flourish of Gesine: it transmits the history of the family and asserts it’s worth in the narrative present. 
Fifteen years later, as Anniversaries was finally finished, Johnson wrote the time it took to create the novel on the last page: “January 29, 1968, New York, N.Y. - April 17, 1983, Sheerness, Kent.” When Johnson departed New York in 1968, he had 47 pages in his carry-on.  In his head he had an picture of the city and a vision of America. 

Holger Helbig is the Uwe Johnson Professors for Modern German Literature of the 20th Century at the University of Rostock, where he heads the Uwe-Johnson-Archiv. He is project manager of Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences edition of Uwe Johnson’s collected works.

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