Tobias Boes


On his book Thomas Mann's War: Literature, Politics, and the World Republic of Letters

Cover Interview of November 20, 2019

In a nutshell

My book tells the story of the German novelist Thomas Mann’s anti-fascist activities during the period of his American exile, which began in 1938. Mann had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929 and was one of the world’s most famous literary celebrities when he settled in the U.S. nine year later. At a time when many Americans still clung to the isolationist ideas that had governed U.S. foreign policy for the previous decades, Mann was adamant about the need to defend the ideals of liberal democracy against the threat posed by the Nazis. He wrote essays and op-eds, visited the White House, and embarked on lecture tours that reached hundreds of thousands of people.

On one level, then, this is a work about a forgotten chapter in the history of World War II. It’s also a book about the nature of literary celebrity, however. I’m very interested in how Mann came to be so famous in the United States. After all, the circumstances greeting him there were far from auspicious. During World War I, there had been a massive backlash against all things German, up to and including book burnings. And Mann was a difficult writer who barely spoke English when he first arrived in America. How did he become an anti-Nazi icon, an author who was not only followed by intellectuals, but publicly cheered by ordinary people?

To answer this question, I’ve documented in meticulous detail how Mann was advertised and promoted during the 1920s and 1930s. Doing so also forced me to engage with more fundamental questions, namely: what were Americans reading and what drove their choices? What, other than simple entertainment, did they hope to get out of books? As it turns out, the answers to these questions changed over time, and Mann’s American allies—foremost his publisher Alfred A. Knopf and his patron Agnes E. Meyer—were incredibly skilled in changing their marketing tactics to accommodate shifting demands.

Mann’s story forever changed the public role of the author in modern society. Americans came to believe that he represented the true voice of a great cultural tradition that Nazism had perverted. And this belief that literature can give us insight into foreign cultures that are struggling with war and authoritarian oppression is very much with us even today. It explains the success of The Kite Runner, for example, Khaled Hosseini’s novel about Afghanistan that was published in the wake of the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Ultimately, then, this is more than a work of literary history. I hope it will lead readers to reflect on the ways in which they use books in their everyday lives.