History of the Society

It is with great gratitude that we publish here two detailed accounts of the founding and early history of the Goethe Society–one by Ted Bahr, Professor Emeritus of German at UCLA, and the other by Meredith Lee, Professor Emerita of German at UC Irvine.

Timely Observations: Early History of the Goethe Society of North America
By Ehrhard Bahr

Your invitation to contribute to the history of the Goethe Society of America is most welcome. In first place Christa Sammons should be mentioned as archivist of the Society. She has accepted and deposited files of the Society in the Speck Collection of Goetheana in the Beinecke Library at Yale University since 1997. The Society should inquire, if she will be able to continue after her retirement at the Beinecke Library. Some procedure should be developed with the Beinecke Library in order to obtain access to GSNA documents in the collection and to catalogue new documents. There should be a complete set available of Goethe News and Notes since 1980, when the first issue was mailed. The newsletter and Thomas P. Saine’s preface to the first Goethe Yearbook of 1982 are among the best sources for the history of the Society. See also the Newsletter Archive on the Internet.

The Goethe Society started with an ad that I (Ehrhard Bahr) had placed in the MLA newsletter in the late 1970s that invited scholars interested in founding a Goethe society in the United States. A sizable number of some forty prospective members responded, among them the late Thomas P. Saine. The major credit for getting the Society off the ground and running goes to him. He inserted an ad in The New Republic to invite a lawyer to donate her/his service to get the Goethe Society of North America incorporated in the state of California as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. It was Mr. Timothy Lundell, of Campbell, California, who volunteered his services. Together with Meredith Lee as the Society’s Secretary-Treasurer, they obtained tax-exempt status from the state of California and also from the Internal Revenue Service (see Saine’s “Preface” to Goethe Yearbook 1 (1982): vii-viii). The final name of the Society was chosen to avoid legal conflicts with the title of the American Goethe Society of Washington, D. C. that was founded in 1927, but did not pursue organized research.

Although the Goethe Society presented numerous sessions at ASECS, the German Studies Association and the MLA, it was touch and go between 1979 and 1982 to establish the Society’s status as a new member in the field of literary studies. There was only the newsletter Goethe News and Notes to keep the members informed. The impressive logo was provided by Elliot Offner who was printer at Smith College. The newsletter was edited at UCLA and mimeographed and mailed by Meredith Lee at UC Irvine. An additional inspiration was the 12-volume translation of Goethe collected works, published by Suhrkamp in New York between 1983 and 1988 with Victor Lange, Eric A. Blackall and Cyrus Hamlin as editors. In this context it was most beneficial to have Victor Lange as President. His endorsement as officer of the Society contributed to its international reputation.

With the publication of the first volume of the Goethe Yearbook in 1982 the insecure status of the society came to an end. The founding editor was Thomas P. Saine (1941-2013) who negotiated the contract with Camden House as publisher and edited the first ten volumes between 1982 and 2001 (the last volume together with Simon Richter). With the second volume of 1984 a review section, edited by Hans R. Vaget, was added. Saine provided the continuity necessary to a successful editorship. See Goethe Yearbook 21 (2014): xi-xviii and Meredith Lee’s moving obituary in Goethe Jahrbuch 130 (2013): 310-12.

For a conclusion to the early history of the Society, I suggest that the rumor of Cold War machinations involved in the founding of the Society should be put to rest. As executive secretary I had informed various international Goethe societies, including the Goethe Society in Weimar which in return offered space to report proceedings of the Society in their Goethe Jahrbuch. West Germans expressed dismay at the news, fearing that added international prestige was bestowed to an East German institution. The complaint was not based on facts. The Society was founded to provide a forum for Goethe scholars in North America. Obviously their research was to be primarily written in English, but also articles in German were to be accepted (see Goethe Yearbook I [1982]: vii). The membership of the Society voted to follow the example of the English Goethe Society which did not submit reports of its proceedings to Weimar.

For the tenth anniversary of the Society in 1989 I had approached Karl-Heinz Hahn, the president of the Goethe-Gesellschaft in Weimar, as speaker. He accepted the invitation, but was not able to come. He died in February 1990, highly respected and mourned in both East and West. The noted historian Peter Gay substituted to speak on his behalf x at the 1990 MLA convention in Chicago. His topic was “Goethe—Discovered and Recovered.” Then President Christoph E. Schweitzer endorsed the cooperation with the Goethe Gesellschaft in Weimar (see Goethe News and Notes, XI, Spring 1990).

Ehrhard Bahr
Professor Emeritus of German
University of California, Los Angeles


Personal Recollections: Early History of the Goethe Society of North America
 By Meredith Lee

The Goethe Society of North America (GSNA) has been a scholarly fellowship for over 35 years. I am pleased to share my recollections about its founding and earliest years. This narrative is deliberately informal and personal. I have integrated here some excerpts from my tribute to Tom Saine previously published in the Goethe Yearbook.

The four co-founders of the society are Thomas P. Saine (1941-2013), former professor emeritus, University of California, Irvine; Hans R. Vaget, professor emeritus, Smith College; Ehrhard Bahr, professor emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles; Meredith Lee, professor emerita, University of California, Irvine. There is a certain pattern to our academic titles that I am sure you have already detected. Gratefully, and a reason for celebration, the Society is today in the steady and creative hands of an impressive cadre of younger scholars.

The story begins at Yale University and quickly moves to the University of California, Irvine. Tom Saine became my colleague at UCI when he arrived from Yale University at the University of California, Irvine, in 1975 as an Associate Professor. I had come to Irvine from Yale a year earlier, fresh out of graduate school. We had barely known one another in New Haven. Tom had been an undergraduate at Yale, then a graduate student, Assistant Professor and, finally, an Associate Professor. With a young family and a demanding research agenda, he arrived in Irvine to join an expanding German Department in a university that had first opened its doors only ten years earlier. Within a year he was promoted to Full Professor and named the department’s chair. His academic ambitions dovetailed perfectly with the department’s press to establish a top-flight graduate program.

Tom quickly became a friend. Far more important than the Yale connection was our shared interest in the 18th century and in Goethe. He was generous in his invitations to join his family on weekends. He proudly shared volumes from his ever-expanding personal library – he was an avid collector — and he loved to talk late into the night about the intellectuals and theological radicals of the German Enlightenment. He happily introduced his friends to one another. Among the department’s steady and impressive list of guest professors are several whose professional relationships with Tom had been or would be transformed into personal ones, marked by mutual intellectual regard. I am thinking particularly of Hans R. Vaget, Uwe-K. Ketelsen, Hans-Wolf Jäger, and Bengt Sǿrensen, all guests in that first decade.

The Goethe Society of North America was born in this milieu, a product of heady evening conversations about the state of Germanistik, in general, and American Goethe studies, in particular. I suspect we were continuing a conversation that had its roots in New Haven. Tom’s closest academic colleague and friend at Yale was Jeffrey Sammons. In his seminars and informally, Jeff had repeatedly and persuasively advocated an American Germanistik with opportunities and obligations that did not merely duplicate contemporary German intellectual topics and conflicts, an issue of particular importance to him in the context of his Heine scholarship and its fractious disputes. On a visiting appointment in Cincinnati shortly before coming to Irvine, Tom had seen at first hand the early vitality of the Lessing Society and admired Ed Harris’s leadership. Now in Irvine the question of how best to stimulate research on Goethe and his age in the American university setting became a regular topic over dinner and extended evenings. Hans Vaget’s guest professorship at UCI in winter and spring 1979 proved a powerful catalyst. Ehrhard Bahr, a committed ally from our sister campus UCLA, happily joined the project as a founding member. It was decided to define a new professional society that would seek to chart an intellectual course apart from the cultural politics shaping much of the work on Goethe in East and West Germany, one that was arguably bolder and certainly less indebted to maintaining a national image. It would actively promote English-language Goethe scholarship and its Yearbook would become a prominent venue for fresh engagement with Goethe and his contemporaries.

As plans for the society took shape and its initial leadership was identified, the Yearbook editorship was claimed by Tom. He was serving a term as book review editor for the German Quarterly, which had moved to Irvine when our colleague Ruth Kluger (then Ruth K. Angress) became its editor. Tom clearly savored the challenge and the expanding contacts with Germanists across North America. In person Tom could be laconic, even gruff and dismissive. But in his written communications he was capable of extraordinary prose, compelling, clear and candid. Work began on the Yearbook, which would first appear in 1982. Hans Vaget became the founding book review editor, adding reviews in the Yearbook’s second volume (1984).

“Founded in 1979”? The new society made its first academic appearance at the 1979 MLA in San Francisco, not yet official. Papers were read by Ehrhard Bahr, Marlis Mehra and Hans Vaget. Meredith Lee chaired the session. Tom Saine convened a meeting about the proposed society, an idea that met a ready response.

Some other early steps should be recalled:

A letter went out from Tom inviting founding sponsors to launch the society and its Yearbook. The list of those who responded, each donating $100, is found in the first five volumes of the Yearbook. Tom kept a handwritten ledger recording donations, which he soon handed over to Meredith Lee as Secretary-Treasurer. The founding members are:

  • Ruth K. Angress
  • Ehrhard Bahr
  • Gustav Beckers
  • Frederick Beharriell
  • Jane K. Brown
  • Gisela Brude-Firnau
  • Gloria Flaherty
  • André von Gronicka
  • Mary Gies Hatch
  • Robert R. Heitner
  • Robert Helbling
  • Victor Lange
  • Meredith Lee
  • William J. Lillyman
  • Ulrich Maché
  • Gerwin Marahrens
  • Heinz Moenkemeyer
  • Hugo and Herta Mueller
  • Charlotte S. Neisser
  • B. Puknat
  • Frank Ryder
  • Thomas P. Saine
  • Jeffrey L. Sammons
  • Hans-Jürgen Schlütter
  • Christoph E. Schweitzer
  • Ingeborg Solbrig
  • Robert Spaethling
  • G. Steer, Jr.
  • Roger Stephenson
  • Rita Terras
  • Frederick Ungar
  • Hans Vaget
  • Wolfgang Wittkowski
  • Erich O. Wruck
  • Heinrich Henel (in Memoriam)
  • Heinz Politizer (in Memoriam)
  • Carl F. Schreiber (in Memoriam)
  • Oakland University
  • William A Speck Collection of Goetheana, Yale University
  • Two Anonymous Donors

The society needed a name and a logo. The first thought was American Goethe Society, conceived as a complement to the English Goethe Society. We soon discovered that the name was already in active use by a small circle of scholars and friends of Goethe in Washington, D.C. The problem proved to be a fortunate prod to more careful thinking about membership and audience. The name Goethe Society of North America was chosen with deliberate recognition of the larger American-Canadian scholarly community who would become its core. Hans Vaget arranged for sculptor and typographer Eliott Offner to design the logo for the society.

The new society needed to be established as a non-profit organization in California. Tom placed an ad among the personals in the New Republic: “Seeking California attorney, preferably acquainted with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Margarethe, Faust or Mephisto to undertake medium-size task as labor of love for perpetual recognition. Intrigued?” The ad was answered by Timothy Lundell, an attorney in Campbell, CA, who proceeded to draft Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws. They were filed and approved. In October, 1980 Tom Saine and Meredith Lee signed the documents that officially established the GSNA as a non-profit organization in the state of California, with tax-exempt status.

Tom reviewed publishers for the Yearbook and identified James N. Hardin and Günther J. Holst and the new imprint of Camden House. They both offered him good advice as he negotiated a publishing contract and brought the first volume into print. A beneficial relationship was established that continues to be one of strong support. Ten Goethe scholars, all teaching in US and Canadian universities, were named to the first Editorial Board:

  • Stuart Atkins, University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Max L. Baeumer, University of Wisconsin
  • Peter Boerner, Indiana University
  • Mark Boulby, University of British Columbia
  • Jane K. Brown, University of Colorado
  • Liselotte Dieckmann, Washington University
  • Hans Eichner, University of Toronto
  • Heinz Moenkemeyer, University of Pennsylvania
  • Albert R. Schmitt, Brown University
  • Hans R. Vaget, Smith College

An administrative structure was needed. Adopting the Lessing Society model, the new society was to be directed by an Executive Secretary who would be responsible for its administration and growth. A Secretary-Treasurer would handle dues and other financial matters, including memberships. From among prominent North American Goethe scholars a president and vice president would also be sought, with the idea that their actual administrative engagement would be kept minimal. Ehrhard Bahr became the first Executive Secretary, administering the fledgling society. Meredith Lee was elected the first Secretary-Treasurer.

The other founding officers were also named. Victor Lange, Princeton University, agreed to serve as the founding president and Christoph Schweitzer, University of North Carolina, as the first vice-president. They would each serve eight years in these founding capacities, with Chris Schweitzer succeeding Victor Lange in the presidency in 1988.

Ehrhard (Ted) Bahr in his role as Executive Secretary worked quickly and successfully to affiliate the new Goethe Society with the MLA and ASECS as Allied Organizations. A long-standing proponent of interdisciplinary work, Ted also assured ties with the German Studies Association (until 1984 the Western Association for German Studies). The society’s business meetings were established as part of MLA programming. Ted created and published Goethe News and Notes, the society’s newsletter, which appeared twice yearly on the buff/yellow paper that became its signature. He also created promotional pamphlets and actively worked to expand membership. To profile Goethe scholarship in the US and Canada, Ted, together with his former student Walter K. Stewart, then an assistant professor at California Lutheran University, created a North American bibliography of Goethe dissertations that appeared over several installments in the Goethe Yearbook. Outreach to younger scholars was a priority.

Do we remember how new computers were back then? Tom set a great deal of the Yearbook text himself, delighted by the new possibilities he was discovering in word processing. After 1984 Meredith Lee computerized the membership records, using a data program that Gerry Kleinfeld, Executive Director of the German Studies Association, recommended to her. All this was done on floppy disks. The actual distribution of the Yearbook became a UCI German departmental group undertaking. Boxes of the newly printed volumes arrived at the loading docks and had to unpacked, repackaged into padded mailing bags, labeled and sent off.

Very soon after the society’s launch it became evident that some changes were needed. Tom struggled with the publication schedule. He loved the process of editing, which he tightly controlled. He would repeatedly slow down the appearance of Goethe Yearbook volumes, if necessary, to guarantee the quality to which he aspired. He would not be hurried under any circumstances. The Yearbooks he produced were distinguished by their quality and intellectual breadth. The first appeared in 1982 and after that at roughly 2-year intervals. Meredith Lee, on the other hand, was tasked with collecting dues even in those years when no Yearbook appeared. And, indeed, the modest dues were not capable of sustaining the costs of an annual publication. Members, on the whole, were generous in their understanding. Uwe-K. Ketelsen, professor for Germanistik in Bochum and UCI visitor in the early 1980s, became the society’s treasurer in Europe, an indispensable role in the attempt to bridge the gap between two very different banking systems and understandings of professional society membership. (In later years when the account was no longer needed and subscribers were far fewer, the account’s balance was donated in the name of the GSNA to the fund established for the rebuilding of the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar after the disastrous 2004 fire.)

The founding of the Goethe Society of North America and its first decade coincided productively with two other important scholarly initiatives to strengthen Goethe’s profile in the American cultural landscape and academy. The first was the UCI Focused Research Program on Goethe, created by UC-Irvine colleague William J. Lillyman, an amazing administrator as well as a serious scholar. After his first year as UCI German department chair he was appointed Dean of Humanities in 1973 (and in 1981 he became the campus’s Executive Vice Chancellor). Never serving in a GSNA-leadership function, Bill nevertheless promoted its development by providing significant support to the fledgling society and its Yearbook, as well as research funding for UC Goethe scholars. Adapting a shared-research model widely used in the natural sciences in the University of California system, he won multi-year funding for Goethe research in California. Supplemented by an NEH grant that he also secured, Bill mounted a major Goethe conference on the Irvine campus in 1982 marking the150th anniversary of Goethe’s death. When the conference proceedings appeared in 1983 as Goethe’s Narrative Fiction: The Irvine Goethe Symposium, they showcased the vitality of North American Goethe scholarship, in general, and confirmed Irvine as a site where new Goethe scholarship was a priority.

The second was the decision by Siegfried Unseld, the head of Suhrkamp Publishers, to expand into the North American market. For Goethe scholarship the most important result of this comparatively short-lived venture was the twelve-volume English-language edition of Goethe’s Collected Works (1983-88; with the signature Andy Warhol portraits of Goethe adapted from Tischbein commissioned by Unseld on their covers). An editorial board led by GSNA president Victor Lange, Eric A. Blackall, and Cyrus Hamlin headed the project; an impressive group of North American Goethe scholars edited the individual volumes.

After the establishment of the GSNA and the successful appearance of the first two Yearbooks, administrative priorities shifted. Now the question was how to stabilize the society, assure a steady growth, prepare for the first major shift in leadership in 1988, and, after that, renew both programming and membership. The original constitution and by-laws proved to be too clumsy for effective governance and membership participation. The original notion that the president and vice-president would not need to be activists in the society’s governance yielded rather quickly to greater engagement as the individuals filling the positions embraced the new leadership opportunities. Meredith Lee rewrote the by-laws and shepherded the membership’s review and vote, creating the governing structure that is the basis for today’s executive committee with elected officers and at-large members. Sustaining the early excellence of the Yearbook remained a top priority.

This is the “story” of the GSNA up to the mid 1980’s. Tom continued as editor of the Yearbook until 1999, coediting his final volume 10 (2001) with his successor Simon Richter (University of Pennsylvania). Tom became Vice President of the GSNA 2001-02; health problems prevented his succession to the presidency. After 1985 Hans Vaget passed on the book review section to Jane K. Brown (University of Washington), who held the position 1986-91. Hans served as Director-At-Large 1989-91 within the revised organizational structure. He was elected vice president 1998-2000 and served as president 2001-03. Chris Schweitzer acceded to the presidency after Victor Lange’s service, assuring that the important first transition in leadership was seamless. An enthusiastic supporter from the very beginning of the GSNA, Chris proved a solid anchor. Ehrhard Bahr served as Executive Secretary 1980-88, then vice president 1992-94 and president 1995-97. As Executive Secretary he was succeeded by Frederick Amrine (University of Michigan). Meredith Lee served as Treasurer 1980-93, Executive Secretary 1994-98, vice president 2003, and president 2004-06. She worked together with Ehrhard Bahr to expand the society and create openings for younger scholars by supporting regional MLA and ASECS programming. In the 1990’s they also organized several regional Southern California Goethe symposia at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (with the assistance of its director, UCLA historian Peter Reill), which soon attracted national and even international participants.

Jane K. Brown, although not one of the four GSNA co-founders, was an early and essential contributor to the GSNA’s growth and stature: a member of the first Editorial and Advisory Board of the Yearbook; the second book review editor, succeeding Hans Vaget, 1986-91; the second vice president, succeeding Chris Schweitzer, 1989-91; president 1992-94. A guest professor on the Irvine campus in 1986, Jane shared Yale roots with Tom Saine and Meredith Lee. In her undergraduate years at Radcliffe she had forged special ties with Harvard Goethe scholar Stuart Atkins, who in the intervening years had relocated to the University of California, Santa Barbara. In summer 1990 she and Yale scholar Cyrus Hamlin, who then served as a GSNA Director-at-Large (1989-91), led an NEH-funded summer institute at UC-Santa Barbara on “Goethe’s Faust in the Humanities Curriculum” from which the idea for the 1992 international conference on “Interpreting Goethe’s Faust Today” emerged. The GSNA joined the multiple sponsors of the conference and published the revised proceedings as a special issue of the Goethe Yearbook. The volume proved to be the first of several publishing projects that the GSNA would sponsor, including a collection of Stuart Atkins’ essays and the GSNA book series, where Jane later succeeded founding editor Astrida Tantillo (University of Illinois, Chicago).

In 2005, at the 25-year anniversary of the official founding of the Goethe Society of North America, its early history was recalled on an MLA panel chaired by Meredith Lee with Tom Saine and Hans Vaget as speakers.  Meredith created the summary of officers posted on the GSNA website and maintained since 2005 as the society’s record by Webmaster Burkhard Henke (Davidson College; a UCI Ph.D.). She also created the record of GSNA programs at national meetings (MLA, ASECS, GSA) from the beginning to 2005. It, too, is on the website. In celebration of the GSNA’s 25th anniversary, both of these documents were shared with leadership of the international Goethe Gesellschaft in Weimar, where Meredith served 8 years on the Board of Directors. A collegial relationship between the GSNA and the Goethe Gesellschaft, begun even before the re-unification of Germany, continues today; however, like the English Goethe Society, the GSNA remains an independent entity without formal ties to the Weimar-based institutions. Most of the GSNA newsletters and governing documents have been preserved in digital form on the society website. Some other materials from the first 25 years have been moved to New Haven, where Christa Sammons, at Ted Bahr’s request, agreed to evaluate them and archive documents of significance.

I would like to add a concluding comment: The long and happy career as a teacher and a scholar that I have enjoyed at UCI has included a significant number of administrative positions, capped by 11 years as the university’s Dean of Undergraduate Education. Alongside my work as co-founder of UCI’s award-winning Campuswide Honors Program, the time and effort invested in the founding and nurturing of the Goethe Society of North America has brought me the greatest satisfaction. Institutions truly matter and leadership within them takes effort and imagination that is not immediately rewarded. I hope you all know how enormously valuable a gift to our profession you are making, as you sustain and enhance the GSNA over the next decades with your service and leadership.

Meredith Lee
Professor Emerita of German
University of California, Irvine