The first comprehensive history of the Frankfurt School in its American exile: A Q&A with author Thomas Wheatland

Thomas Wheatland, who once worked in editorial acquisitions at Harvard University Press, is an assistant professor of German history at Assumption College. This year, Wheatland published The Frankfurt School in Exile, a book with pioneering research on the influence of German intellectuals on postwar American thought, with University of Minnesota Press. He recently answered a few questions from UMP with regard to the hugely influential Frankfurt School; its leader, Max Horkheimer; and Wheatland’s own experiences shaping this book.

Q: What is perhaps most generally misunderstood about The Frankfurt School? What about the school and the Horkheimer Circle did you hope to make people more aware of in conceptualizing this book?

A: In a letter of June 29, 1940, Max Horkheimer eloquently developed one of the metaphors that became central to the history of critical theory in America. Writing to actress and screenwriter Salka Viertel, Horkheimer despaired: “In view of everything that is engulfing Europe and perhaps the whole world, our present work is of course essentially destined to being passed on through the night that is approaching: a kind of message in a bottle [Flaschenpost].” This trope of the Flaschenpost has been taken literally by many of the historians and scholars of critical theory and has helped to reinforce the illusion of the Frankfurt School’s “splendid isolation” in the United States. The traditional account further proclaims that if critical theory was cast (like a message in a bottle) into a dark and angry sea during the 1930s and 1940s, it was spectacularly found and uncorked on the beaches of the U.S. by New Leftists, hippies, and flower children in the 1960s. The image of the message in a bottle underplays the interactions between critical theory and American intellectual life during the Frankfurt School’s years in exile, and it simultaneously helps to overplay the relationship between the Horkheimer Circle’s legacy and the American New Left. That is why this metaphor of the Flaschenpost, as much as I find it poetic and powerful, needs to be broken and discarded. This book has been an attempt to do just that.

Q: You have put an abundance of original research into this book. Can you talk about some of the difficulties you ran into during your research? Did you run into any startling facts that altered your outlook on a particular chapter, section or topic (an “a-ha” moment, if you will)?

A: The research was plagued by difficulties because so much of it felt like searching for needles in haystacks. The first archival research was conducted in Frankfurt, where I had access to the papers of Max Horkheimer, Friedrich Pollock, Leo Lowenthal, and Herbert Marcuse. From examining these papers, I was able to uncover only half of the story that I wanted to tell. I was able to learn what academic and public intellectual networks the Frankfurt School encountered in exile. The more time-consuming portion of the research took place in America when I tried to follow up on as many of these leads as possible. I wanted to see what the papers of the Americans who encountered the Frankfurt School had to tell me about the Horkheimer Circle and the impressions that it made on these new American “colleagues.” The most dramatic moment in my research took place when I began to go through the archival records of Students for a Democratic Society, as well as the numerous underground newspapers that arose from the American counter-culture. Based on everything that I’d ever read about Herbert Marcuse, I assumed that I would find countless discussions and writings about his work—trying to make sense of them and their relevance to the student movement. It took me weeks of finding almost nothing to realize that this discouraging development was actually an incredibly important story in and of itself. If the students hadn’t embraced Marcuse as a “guru,” how did I need to re-think Marcuse’s complex relationship to the New Left? After wrestling with these findings for several months and conducting numerous oral historians with people that had been at the center of the American New Left, I came to see Marcuse quite differently. I hope that others will find this re-assessment of his late work to be as exciting as I did.

Q: How long has this book been in the making? What part(s) of your book have been altered from the original manuscript and/or from your initial intent?

A: This project began as a dissertation. From the moment I began work on the dissertation to the time it was published by Minnesota, I think nearly a decade had passed. I did spend four years of that time working in acquisitions at Harvard University Press. After helping many first-time authors transform their dissertations into books, the experience that I’d gained made it a more focused and pleasurable process to re-write my own dissertation into The Frankfurt School in Exile. After telling people for years about my work and attending several interdisciplinary conferences where I discovered a broader breadth and depth of the interest in the topic than I had expected, it became clear that I wanted the book to appeal to these different audiences. This meant that it needed to be more accessible to a wider readership than was originally intended, and it also meant that I had to deliver the goods to readers that I hadn’t originally envisioned as part of my target audience. Thus, I re-shaped the book to make it useful to not only intellectual historians, but also sociologists, philosophers, media theorists, political scientists, and the devotees of literary and cultural theory who were primarily familiar with only the aesthetic theories of the Frankfurt School.


Thomas Wheatland is assistant professor of German history at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“The Frankfurt School played a major role in the vast intellectual migration to the United States, yet most accounts focus largely on its prewar and postwar activity in Europe, much less on the important years of its American exile. With exemplary clarity and illuminating research, Thomas Wheatland’s book fills in some missing chapters in this institutional as well as intellectual history, including the Frankfurt School’s crucial sojourn at Columbia University, its relationships with the wider world of the New York intellectuals, and its impact on the New Left. He also stresses the influence of these American years on the Frankfurt critics themselves. This is a momentous, valuable, and highly informative book.”
—Morris Dickstein, Graduate Center, City University of New York

“No one has made the case that there is such a profound resonance between the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectual scene with the detail and depth that Wheatland applies to the topic. There really isn’t another book in the same ballpark.”
—David Jenemann, University of Vermont

“An unusually thorough blend of intellectual and institutional history. [Wheatland’s] book ought to bring new attention to this highly suggestive part of the Frankfurt School’s story.”
—Adam Kirsch, Tablet

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