Joseph McVeigh, professor of German, has stirred up a bit of controversy with the publication this month of his book Die Radiofamilie, which includes editions of radio plays by Austrian poet and writer Ingeborg Bachmann that aired on the United States Occupation radio station in Austria in the early 1950s.
In the years following World War II, the young Bachmann, who would become one of the most famous female writers in German-speaking lands, penned a series of controversial radio plays called Die Radiofamilie while working as a scriptwriter at the Allied radio station Rot-Weiss-Rot (Red White Red). The soap opera-like series was about a typical middle-class Austrian family struggling to survive the difficult postwar years.
“The program was part of a U.S. propaganda offensive to counter programs on Soviet radio in Austria extolling the virtues of the Soviet way of life,” explains McVeigh. Die Radiofamilie, which aired on Saturday afternoons, became a hit among Austrian listeners, and was referred to as Strassenfeger (street sweeper) because when it aired it swept the streets clean of people, who remained inside listening to the series.
McVeigh’s book, published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag, includes 15 of Bachmann’s radio scripts discovered by McVeigh in the late 1990s, along with an extensive introduction to the texts.
“These texts are causing a bit of a sensation because they are radically different from anything she had ever written,” says McVeigh. “I make the case in the book that the poetess had a humorous, playful side to her in those early years. But this side is downplayed by conventional scholarship on the poetess because many of the sources I used, such as letters and other documents from her family, were not previously known.”
Bachmann, who lived from 1926 to 1973, is known for her poetry, short stories and novels exploring themes of existentialism, truth and language. She also wrote opera libretti during her years in Rome.
“She was personally a tragic figure,” says McVeigh of Bachmann, “who was shaped in her view of existence by the trauma of the war years.”
Several German public radio stations have come to campus to interview McVeigh about Die Radiofamilie since its release on May 23, and reviews have run in newspapers across Germany, including one in Die Welt by Ruth Klueger, a former visiting professor at Smith. On Thursday, June 9, he will appear at the Literature House in Vienna during a special evening about his book, with comments by McVeigh and a panel discussion.