Frederic Morton: At Home in Language

A conversation with émigré writer Frederic Morton: On mindless patriotism, Mark Twain, and finding refuge between words and places

Frederic Morton portrait writer Vienna

Frederic Morton at the Hilton Hotel café | Photo: David Reali

Writer Frederic Morton lives between two worlds: the Vienna of his birth and his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, part of both but at home really in neither. Having fled Vienna with his family in 1939, he arrived some months later in New York City, where he has lived ever since. And where he fell in love with the English language.

He was in Vienna on this visit to join in a group of readings in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001. He would be reading an Op-Ed piece he had contributed to the Los Angeles Times in September 2004, by which time the Bush administration had managed to alienate much of the world.

“… If this rainbow array of hopes [that is the idea of America] is dying now, it is not the terrorists, but the recent cumulative acts of the United States itself that are the slayers,” Morton wrote in the essay.

We met just before the 10th anniversary in the pleasing Executive Lounge on top of the Hilton Hotel “am Stadt Park”, with comfortable, quiet places to sit, good coffee and the full array of newspapers, a Kaffeehaus in everything but the name. Today, Morton’s feelings about post-9/11 America have changed little. Beginning with the mindless patriotism.

“It terrifies me when I’m there,” he said, shaking his head. In Hudson (New York) this summer, “it was a sea of American flags. I’m a very ungrateful immigrant, but it reminded me of my childhood in Vienna.

“Of course, I’m not equating the American flag with a swastika, but it couldn’t help bringing to mind the Mark Twain essay To the Person Sitting in the Dark, when he wrote about all those exotic peoples, ‘from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli’, who are being ‘enlightened’ with America’s democratic ideals. He ended the essay with, ‘I feel that the stars in the stars and stripes should be replaced by skulls.’ A startling image. He was so incredibly prescient – and this was Mark Twain, not an ungrateful commie immigrant!”

Conversation with Frederic Morton is wide and ranging, covering chapters when he trained and worked, very happily, as a baker (“work no Americans wanted to do any more”) to when he taught American Literature at a university (“again something an Austrian commie immigrant should never do!”)

The bakery chapter was a formative one, especially the Food Trades Vocational High School, where he trained. Founded by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (“the most socially conscious mayor New York City ever had, and the best”), it was staffed by young instructors who were part of the progressive Roosevelt Administration jobs program. Eighty per cent of the children were then called “negroes”, and Morton too was “very poor, my father lost everything.” What he remembers most is being around these young New Dealers.

“It was a very important education for me, morally,” Morton said. “The teachers, if they had been Hollywood stars, they would have all been blacklisted! They were very left-wing, very idealistic. I was one of the very few refugee kids, but they were just as nice to the young black kids, very helpful beyond their teaching responsibilities. I always remember this.”

Even today, he does not really feel at home in America. Part of it is “the ugliness of the architecture” and more, the lack of communal life, “where individualism has run amok.”

So why doesn’t he move back?

“That’s a question many have asked,” he said, pausing to formulate an answer. “I have more books in print here than in the United States, and would probably do better as an author.”

But he needs two things, he said. First, the daily immersion in English. (“This is extremely important to me. I can’t conceptualize in German.”) And the second, the perspective of seeing and understanding his homeland from the outside. He likes to quote Alfred Polger: An immigrant loses his homeland and receives in return two Fremden (alien ones).”

“I have come to feel at home in the division,” he said, “not wholly at home in either place, an interesting tangent between my two selves.”

Still, what Morton loves to talk about most is language, all language really, but most of all, English, its literature and its poetry, everything from Beowulf to T.S. Eliot.

“The only way I can ever explain my love affair with this language – how unlike the other immigrants of my generation, I never took to American culture, never really felt at home –  is that the language was my refuge,” he said. “I developed an interest in language, period; and this language in particular, against all traditions of my family, who were draftsmen rather than intellectuals.”

Language has been a tool for bridging cultural divides, and his own writing, a way of bringing Viennese and Austrian history and society to the English-speaking world. After completing a Master’s degree in philosophy at City College of New York in 1959, he started working for several American periodicals including The New York Times, Esquire, and Playboy, mainly as a columnist. In 1961, he published the family biography The Rothschilds, which became an international best seller.

His two books on Vienna, A Nervous Splendor from 1979 and Thunder at Twilight from 1989, have become what one could call cult classics. The latter follows the thrust of the earlier book 25 years later, capturing another peak year of 1913 to 1914, on the eve of The Great War. By then, the Austrian Empire had played its hand out to the very end, it seemed, and was unravelling at the seams. Both books remain in print today, decades later, lively reads as well as good history, and among the best introductions to fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Morton has made something of a study of Austrian-American cross-over literature. Thornton Wilder, most famous for the American classic Our Town, was captivated by Vienna and used a work of Johann Nepomuk Nestroy as the basis for The Merchant of Yonkers. “Written for (Austrian émigré director) Max Reinhardt, it was one of Wilder’s few disasters,” Morton said.

Wilder began reworking the play. It was completed after his death and became the perennial Broadway hit The Matchmaker.

Composer Jerry Hermann transformed it yet again into Hello Dolly!, that has now been for years in repertory at the Wiener Volksoper. From Vienna to New York, and back, at least for regular visits.

Just like Morton.

“And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”   – T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

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