Stanford German studies scholar Kurt Mueller-Vollmer dies at 91

Stanford German studies scholar Kurt Mueller-Vollmer was most known for his scholarship on Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Prussian philosopher, diplomat and linguist who founded the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Kurt Mueller-Vollmer, a professor emeritus of German studies and humanities at Stanford University, died Aug. 3 at the age of 91.

Professor Emeritus Kurt Mueller-Vollmer began teaching at Stanford in 1962. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / L1b3rtas 4E)

Mueller-Vollmer was a scholar of German, European and American thought. His areas of focus included European and American Romanticism, German-American cultural relations, comparative literature, translation studies and theory, as well as hermeneutics and the history and methodology of the humanities and human sciences.

Mueller-Vollmer joined the German studies faculty in 1962 after having earned his PhD from the department that same year.

During his tenure at Stanford, Mueller held a variety of administrative roles, including directing the graduate program in humanities from 1982 to 1985 and the Bing Overseas Program in Berlin from 1978 to 1979. From 1985 to 1987, he chaired the committee responsible for the graduate program in humanities. He remained a member until his retirement in 1995.

After his retirement, Mueller-Vollmer continued to lead graduate seminars and advise graduate and postdoctoral students, including Barbara Buchenau, whose research project he supervised from 2004 to 2005.

Inspiring mentor

“Professor Mueller-Vollmer was a generous and spacious thinker who invited his mentees to think along with him and to explore the intricacies of the Romantic age,” said Buchenau, chair of North American Cultural Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen. “He was very polite and also personally shy, thus enabling and inspiring junior thinkers who did not have the bravado of some of their more vocal peers. Intellectually and personally, he was a man whose mentoring impact became clear slowly, gradually.”

Mueller-Vollmer had a keen interest in German literature from the 18th century, particularly the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), the Prussian philosopher, diplomat and linguist who founded the Humboldt University of Berlin. Humboldt’s unpublished papers were once thought to be lost, but Mueller-Vollmer rediscovered them and oversaw their publication.

Mueller-Vollmer wrote several volumes about Humboldt’s work and served as editor-in-chief of an interdisciplinary series that featured international scholars who critically examined his writing. These scholarly accomplishments earned him recognition from the Wilhelm von Humboldt Foundation, which awarded him its inaugural prize for contributions to the study of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

In 2000, Mueller-Vollmer received the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the highest tribute the Federal Republic of Germany pays to individuals for their service to the country.

Discovering connections

Mueller-Vollmer was also interested in how German philosophy influenced American thought during the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly on transcendentalism, the social and political movement led by early 19th century New England philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

In 1995, Mueller-Vollmer organized an international conference at Stanford, “Translating Cultures, Translating Literatures.” In 1997, he was a Fulbright senior scholar for research and graduate teaching at the University of Göttingen.

“His sense of the connectedness of various movements of cultural rebellion deserves to be reiterated and strengthened,” said Buchenau.

Mueller-Vollmer’s recent publications include Transatlantic Crossings and Transformations: German-American Cultural Transfer from the 18th to the End of the 19th Century (2015) and The Internationality of National Literatures in Either America: British America and the United States (2000), co-authored with Armin Paul Frank.

In addition to serving the Stanford faculty, Meuller-Vollmer was also a visiting guest professor at various institutions in the United States and abroad, including the University of Washington, Seattle; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Bonn; and the University of Göttingen.

Mueller-Vollmer was born on June 28, 1928, in Hamburg, Germany. He attended the University of Cologne, where he studied history, philosophy, German and Romance languages.

Mueller-Vollmer was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Brown University, where he received his MA in American studies in 1955. He received a Ford Foundation fellowship that brought him to Stanford University for his doctoral work, where he earned a PhD in German studies in 1962.

Mueller-Vollmer is survived by his wife, Patricia Ann, and sons Jan David and Tristan Matthias Mueller-Vollmer.