An obituary by Prof. Dr. Astrid Böger
With Herwig Friedl’s passing on March 15, 2022 following a severe illness, we have lost a truly great member of our American Studies community as well as, in my case, an astute mentor and a good friend. Everyone who knew him will have their own cherished memories, and many will agree that being in Herwig’s presence tended to be, well, life-changing. As for myself, I came to Düsseldorf University at just around the time Herwig became chair of American Literature and History of Ideas there, in 1988, coincidentally the same year the university adopted Heinrich Heine as its namesake. As I tended toward contemporary American culture in my initial selection of courses, it took me a semester or two to find my way into Herwig Friedl’s lectures and seminars. And I have to admit that at first I was drawn less to the subjects at hand, often focusing on 19th century American literature and philosophy, than to the sheer intellectual force of this new professor who did everything in his power to infect us with his seemingly endless enthusiasm for the American experiment in thinking that no one better represents, in Herwig’s view, than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the quintessential American Scholar to whose work he dedicated much of his life as well as his own, prolific scholarship. Moving in Herwig Friedl’s orbit, then, inevitably meant being drawn into the intellectual force field of American Transcendentalism and Pragmatism as an anti-foundational and radically open-ended pursuit of American thinking. And this, in turn, meant that we were moving in rather uncertain terrain without a steady footing or safety net. But we had the best guide one can wish for: one who knew the territory unlike anyone else; who was always beaming with cheerful optimism that our excursions would eventually lead someplace worth the effort; and, perhaps most importantly, one who taught us to rely on ourselves in finding our own paths wherever they might take us. Indeed, in truly Emersonian fashion, Herwig had no interest in making disciples; rather, he delighted in our choosing and pursuing our own fields of interest and, later, expertise, even if they had at first glance little in common with his own. What ensued was an invigorating space for intellectual exploration, based on mutual respect and the recognition of one’s many differences, often resulting in heated discussions among the group of younger academics who had the privilege of being and working in the presence of Herwig Friedl over the years, one of whom was moved to meditating upon learning of his passing, “where would we be without him?” Impossible to say, or even imagine.
As to the question where Herwig Friedl came from before arriving in Düsseldorf, I have to rely on official sources as well as personal anecdotes shared by Herwig and Bettina, his dear partner for life (in fact, their marriage in 1972 happens to be the only event Herwig chose to list on the curriculum vitae following his birthdate and preceding the requisite parts on education, teaching positions, research projects, publications and so forth, which says a lot about their union as the sine qua non). Thus, he studied American, English and German Literatures and Languages and Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, where he earned his Dr. phil. in 1970, served as Assistant Professor from 1970 until 1979, and as Associate Professor, following his Habilitation in 1979, until 1986. His appointments were interrupted by various extended research stays, funded through prestigious fellowships, at Cornell and Yale Universities, as well as a visiting professorship at the University of New Mexico (the latter would make him occasionally nostalgic about the unspeakably beautiful skies of the American Southwest). During his long tenure at Düsseldorf University, Herwig held more than his share of academic offices including Head of Department, Vice Dean and then Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and it was always my impression that, while he had no particular inclination for those offices, he was extremely adept at performing them, which is no doubt why he was implored by his peers to accept them, somewhat in spite of himself, again and again). He also served as member of the Advisory Board of our own association from 1989 to 1993.
With Bettina, Herwig shared everything including a lifelong passion for American Studies. Together, they went back and forth between Düsseldorf and their ‘other home’ in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Herwig returned as a Visiting Scholar to the Center for the History of American Civilization at Harvard University over a number of years, and where he and Bettina were part of a lively circle of friends and fellow Americanists. Truth be told, back in Düsseldorf we sometimes feared that we would lose them both to their other home entirely; instead, we gained so much through their ongoing participation in American intellectual life, which they generously shared with us whenever the opportunity arose.
When Herwig’s 60th birthday approached, we were faced with a certain dilemma, namely, of how to honor our dear teacher and mentor who had little taste for academic rituals such as Festschriften, alas. As usual, Bettina offered her indispensable advice and helped us design a conference that would put Herwig not on a pedestal but rather at the podium of a conference that turned out to be a wonderful meeting of minds practicing Dialoge zwischen Amerika und Europa. Transatlantische Perspektiven in Philosophie, Literatur, Kunst und Musik at Düsseldorf University in May 2004, which was later turned into a book publication by the same title, edited by Georg Schiller, Nicole Maruo-Schröder and myself, and which Herwig, fortunately for us, gladly accepted as our gift. His opening contribution on “Kunstvoll einfache Denk-Bewegungen: Ein amerikanistischer Prolog zu einem Dialog zwischen Europa und Amerika“ serves as a brilliant introduction to Herwig’s take on the open-ended conversations between America and Europe via philosophy, art and literature. In a similarly transnational spirit, he chose to give his farewell lecture in 2008 on “Der amerikanische Pragmatismus als fröhliche Wissenschaft” – an event that I remember as both cheerful and sad, as I thought we had to say goodbye to Herwig as our teacher for good. However, in the years following his departure from university life, Herwig returned to his great art – inspiring others – on numerous occasions by giving much sought-after lectures in Germany and abroad. It must have been deeply gratifying for Herwig to finally be able to focus on his own scholarship after decades of academic service, which eventually materialized in what would become his opus magnum, entitled Thinking in Search of a Language. Essays on American Intellect and Intuition and published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019, for which Herwig was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award by the Emerson Society in 2021.
Thankful for all that he gave us, we will greatly miss Herwig’s guidance, his encouragement, and his friendship. Our deepest sympathies go out to Bettina, whose loss is difficult to fathom.
Astrid Böger (Hamburg)