GHDI logo

Friedrich Sieburg, "Worshipping Elevators" (1926)

While the terms “Americanism“ and “Americanization” were widely associated with the modernization of industry, technology, and the economy in 1920ies Germany, the phenomena of “mass society” and “mass culture” were considered characteristic for (North) America with regard to society and culture. In this text, journalist and literary critic Friedrich Sieburg (1893-1964) discusses the products of American popular culture and their – in his mind naïvely positive – reception in Germany. Thus it is both an expression of the anti-American cliché of a “cultureless” America as well as of the implicit claim of superiority of German bourgeois high culture (embellished as “Europeanism” by Sieburg).

print version     return to document list previous document      next document

page 1 of 2

Worshipping Elevators

Every day the resort towns on the California coast hold beauty pageants. Seventy-five virgins clad in scanty tricot show what God gave them. They arrive in long chains, lay their hands on one another’s shoulders, and march through the market square or along the boardwalk. Once the photographers have finished, powerful, square-shouldered men approach to fasten banners around the girls’ bellies, with numbers visible from a distance. The police maintain order (keeping special watch over the fiends on whom the display has some kind of effect) as a commission put together of film directors, girl traffickers, ministers, artists, and other specialists works to assess the limbs in particular and the overall impression in general. The Taylor system is used here too. One concerns himself only with the legs, the other with the line of the back, the third takes the face into account, a fourth measures bottoms, so that the result is achieved rather quickly. It turns out that Miss Williams from Salt Lake City wins first prize. The biggest of the square-shouldered men comes forward to wrap a starred banner around her middle, so that the tempting stomach muscles are no longer visible. The band picks up a patriotic tune. Old people who still remember the Civil War wipe away a tear. The minister congratulates the dear girl and entreats her to continue to bring her parents joy.

A man emerges from the crowd and pinches her on the fanny—the least he could do—and is seized by the indignant crowd, tarred, feathered, and thrown into the water.

Meanwhile, lyricists of all ages in Europe are writing their excited homages to the American tempo, how it finds its supreme expression in elevators, and to the American spirit, how it primarily appears in a quickly resolved attack and the lightning-quick conclusion of agreements. Moved, they celebrate the speedy performance of tasks in New York hotels—for example, when one sends a pair of pants away to be ironed. Almost sobbing, they praise the way traffic is managed and toss the old German God determinedly overboard from the decks of smooth-running Hudson River boats.

The American businessman, who dispatches several wagons loaded with cornmeal or railroad ties over the telephone, has worked a profound effect on German literature. He is characterized as “cold, hard, and unbending”; one idiot even speaks of Napoleon’s American traits. Because one does not understand these people’s language, because one sees that they do not wear moustaches, that they do not speak Yiddish, one believes them to be Caesars. Their dialogue as they discuss freight instructions is taken for economical, their padded shoulders appear monumental, their uniform faces, six of one, a half-dozen of the other, seem to be masks of iron. In short, in view of their own lachrymose sentimentality, verbosity, and inability to master a shipping schedule, writers import the American face into literature.

This is a disgraceful reaction to the alleged failure of the European tradition. For how does America represent itself in its own statements, to the extent that they even reach Europe? How does it present itself in its films, in its reporting, in its novels, in its politics, and in its illustration industry? Its relation to God is known from the Scopes Monkey Trial, its relation to women from films and novels, in which sexual intercourse can only appear in the form of a rape in the untamed forest or a bad neighborhood. The middle-class American brings his children into the world with a fade-out or by closing the chapter with an enticing “to be continued.” Then one day the children are suddenly there, and, late in an evening, the husband stops to knock on his wife’s bedroom door to discuss the household budget or announce the acquisition of a new automobile. On hot days women drive through the city streets of Chicago in bathing suits—one learns by watching that a contest for the prettiest legs is somehow bound up with the trip—but should the sight cause anyone to have impure thoughts, a policeman reads it on his face and drags him into court. As compensation the young men in films beat one another’s faces bloody with their fists while the pure young lady stands quivering in the background. The one who gets knocked out is, of course, the one who attempted a rape, because one day he had seen the young lady ride her bicycle down the street in a bathing suit. The victor takes her off to a minister, and, in some mysterious way in the intermission between the fifth and sixth acts, a child appears who will later grow up to be one hundred percent American—anti-Semite, football player, and virtuous husband.

first page < previous   |   next > last page