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Stanford professor examines 1926 in new book of essays

As he sat in his office during a recent sabbatical year at the Stanford Humanities Center, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht says he occasionally lost touch with his immediate surroundings.

"There were many days when I forgot I was living in 1994," says Gumbrecht, the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature. "I had a calendar from 1926 on the wall and I would listen to music from that year, and I had an admittedly naive desire to just be in that period."

As he jotted down thoughts about and references to topics that kept surfacing from his study of the year 1926 ­ from boxing and ocean liners to revues, mummies, jazz, hunger artists and cremation ­ Gumbrecht's stack of file cards began to grow. When he had recorded more than 10 entries on a file card, that topic became a candidate for a chapter in an emerging book.

The recently published In 1926: Living at the Edge of Time is described in the April issue of Lingua Franca as "a droll pastiche of literary criticism, sociological statistics and historical anecdotes." Gumbrecht says he wrote the book, his 10th to date, for the sheer pleasure of doing it.

"It's a good thing I am a full professor because it is not the kind of book you would write for tenure," he says. "But I thought, I may as well do something just because I enjoy it.

"I'm very, very happy that people enjoy this book or find it fascinating, but I also have to admit that if they don't, I have no way and no argument for persuading them to read it. I cannot pretend that this book will make them better citizens or will help them to pass an exam."

Gumbrecht writes in the book that "the claim that 'one can learn from history' has lost its persuasive power," and that "history as a subject and as a discipline remains unchallenged in most Western systems of education." Instead, he presents his new volume as "an essay on historical simultaneity," and he argues that it reflects contemporary society's obsession with being in the moment.

"Why do we have this museum boom today?" he asks. "Why are people fascinated by Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland? Because you want to be in the past, not necessarily because you think it's better, but because it's fascinating."

Why did Gumbrecht focus on 1926? Although it was the year of publication of Martin Heidegger's book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), he says he chose the year largely for its unremarkable nature.

"I wish to emphasize that it neither fulfills the classic requirement of being a threshold year nor anticipates any forthcoming public anniversary," Gumbrecht writes. "I first chose it as an emblem of randomness because it seems to be one of the very few years in the 20th century to which no historian has ever attributed specific hermeneutic relevance."

As a result, he argues, readers are encouraged to think less about the historical significance of the year and are more likely to allow themselves to engage with and enter into the "historical immediacy."

"If somebody had told me at the beginning of my sabbatical that I would ever have an entry on elevators or roof gardens, I would have thought, 'This is stupid,' " Gumbrecht says. "And I'm not claiming that these are the 50-plus most important topics. I just tried to let the material surprise me."

The entry on "polarities," for example, roams from a discussion of the Italian-built dirigible Norge that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen piloted over the North Pole in May of 1926, to the parody that A. A. Milne penned in Winnie-the-Pooh, "In Which Christopher Robin Leads an Expotition to the North Pole."

Another entry devotes four pages to "elevators."

"In this case, I'm not interested in the meaning of elevators, but rather how elevators function and how people felt in elevators," Gumbrecht says.

"I find it interesting, and kind of strange, that people thought that elevators would be a place of crime. Because what worse place would there be for a thief than an elevator, where he would be locked in, with no escape?

"Nevertheless, people thought elevators were super-dangerous places. I have no clue why they thought it, but I think it's interesting."


By Diane Manuel

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