|September 12, 2002
Volume 33 Number
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
The Red Count Meets the Public
Historian Laird Easton recently published The Red Count: The Life and Times of Harry Kessler (University of California Press). In this interview, he discusses some aspects of the process of writing the book.
How did you decide to write a biography of Harry Kessler?
I first came across the name of Harry Kessler in the bibliography to Peter Gay's book Weimar Culture. I had just finished reading Barbara Tuchman's popular history of the late middle ages, A Distant Mirror, where she used the trick of following the peregrinations of an obscure but well-connected French count as a method of tying together the topics she addresses (the Hundred Years War, the Black Death, the status of women, etc.). I was looking for a similar figure to use as a way of exploring the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the period that saw the rise of modern mass politics, modern art, and modern science.
When I picked up a copy of Kessler's post-World War I diaries, I was sure I had found the person I needed. Not only did he seem to know everyone who was anyone in European art, politics, and culture, but his voice was very attractive, that of a perspicacious, analytic, but generous humanist. Then I received an extraordinary letter from the German National Literary Archives, which is the repository of Kessler's papers. They informed me that the missing 20 years of Kessler's prewar diaries had been discovered a few years earlier and were now accessible. So, besides all of the other papers and letters, there was this extraordinary document, a journal that Kessler kept religiously for 57 years, one of the greatest diaries ever written.
What is the contribution of your book to our understanding of both Kessler and his times?
In hindsight, I can see that Kessler's life embodied two powerful and occasionally contradictory tendencies, which one might call the centrifugal and the centripetal. It's the former, outward spiraling tendency, that first strikes one. Kessler's rich sociability, his almost limitless connections in the world of European art, theatre, literature, and politics during the four decades from 1890 to 1930 still astounds. Just the list of those with whom he was more than a passing acquaintance is a who's who of European art, society, and politics: from Albert Einstein to Josephine Baker, from Claude Monet to Isadora Duncan, from Otto von Bismarck to Friedrich Nietzsche, and so on. But Kessler was an active and passionate participant in his times as well. He was a great patron of the arts, an art critic, a museum director, a writer, a successful ballet librettist, a soldier, a secret agent, an ambassador, a diplomat, a politician, a publisher, and a prominent pacifist whose public support of democracy and international reconciliation after the First World War won him the enmity of the Nazis who eventually exiled him.
My biography also examines the inward-turning, centripetal tendency, which has been either ignored or given short shrift in other studies. I didn't expect necessarily to find this, but the more I delved into his life, the more I saw that Kessler's prewar aesthetic activities were linked, in a deep way, to his postwar political engagement -- they were all linked by a search for an "aesthetic state." As I point out in my book, the cultural activity always had a latent political content, and the political views were always informed by a certain conception of culture.
What was the most enjoyable part of your working on this book?
Walking through the old, medieval, walled town of Marbach an Neckar, up to the archives, located high on a bluff over a bend in the Neckar River, entering the austerely luxurious reading room, and opening the journal or rifling through the letters, never knowing who would show up or what intrigues would appear. My adviser had told me that writing a biography was like living on a desert island with someone -- sooner or later you would grow to hate each other. Well, I can't speak for Harry, but I never felt that way about him -- he always fascinated me.
How do you account for your book receiving such widespread media attention (reviews in The Washington Post Book World, Harper's, The New York Times Book Review, and The Economist with forthcoming ones in The New Republic and The New York Review of Books).
I feel very grateful for the attention my book has received because I know that many first-rate books that deserve a national audience never get it or receive unfair negative reviews and then sink from view. There is, frankly, a fair amount of luck involved. Beyond luck, however, I think my book was helped by the abiding interest among the educated reading public in the traumas of 20th Century European -- and especially German -- history. The fact that it is a biography of a sympathetic character helps as does the fact that the English translation of Kessler's diaries was reprinted two years ago to wide acclaim, thus making him better known to the English-speaking public. Finally, it didn't hurt that the publisher's designer did a first-rate job -- -it's an attractive book. This, of course, won't last -- I am steeling myself for when I first see my book on a remainder table -- so I am enjoying it while I can.
Laird M. Easton, is a professor of European history. The Red Count has recently been chosen a Reader's Catalog selection, a listing of the most important books in print as chosen by the editors and contributors of The New York Review of Books.
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