McQueen's Research Looks at German Literary Journalism about Science

30 Jan 2017 6:26 PM | Dane Claussen (Administrator)

(Editor's Note: Kate McQueen presented her paper, “Zeppelin in the Arctic: How Mass Publishing Influenced Early Twentieth Century Scientific Exploration” during a Research-in-Progress session at the 2016 AJHA Convention. The Intelligencer asked McQueen to tell us more about why she is researching this topic, what it means and why it's important.)


By Kate McQueen

University of Illinois—Urbana/Champaign

As a scholar of literary journalism, I'm fascinated by borders. Those heavily policed edges of disciplines, which, though controversial, regularly inspire innovative and meaningful bodies of work. 

Literature and journalism share a famously contended border. So do journalism and science. The place where these three disciplines meet, however, is an under-charted territory.(1) I'm particularly interested in how the literary has been harnessed for science writing historically, and in what sort of journalistic platforms such innovation can thrive.

This topic provides a rather nebulous context for the research-in-progress paper I presented at the 2016 AJHA Conference, titled “Zeppelin in the Arctic: How Mass Publishing Influenced Early Twentieth-Century Scientific Exploration.”

As far as narratives go, few plots have been more valuable to publishers—of novels or newspapers— than the “exploratory voyage.” This was particularly true in the 19th century, when the mass press sponsored all kinds of exploration, from Henry Morton Stanley's search for David Livingstone in Africa to Frederick Cook and Robert Peary's race to the North Pole. 

These trips were more sport than science. But in the early 20th century, the emphasis shifted, away from easily sensationalized exploration-for-exploration’s-sake and towards scientific inquiry. The basic question driving my paper is: Did mass newspaper publishers continue to play a supporting role in scientific exploration, and if so, in what ways?

I chose as a case study the airship Graf Zeppelin's only Arctic flight of 1931, which was conceived and funded in large part by two mass publishers, William Randolph Hearst and the German Ullstein Verlag.(2) 

The Graf Zeppelin made the seven-day round trip from Friedrichshafen, Germany, to the North Pole, carrying a group of scientists and explorers from Germany, the Soviet Union, Sweden, and the USA. The goals of the trip were threefold: to map the poorly charted Arctic areas, to take meteorological measurements, and to monitor the earth’s magnetic field in the Arctic region. 

What makes this particular trip interesting is that scientific inquiry was such an intentional goal. It didn’t have to be. This was not the case for any other Zeppelin voyage, or for any other contemporaneous attempts to cross the Arctic by airplane, airship, or by boat. The flight alone would have attracted intense interest, for the Arctic was one of the few remaining unexplored corners of the earth. In fact, Hearst’s original vision for the voyage was a highly fantastic, less science-centered plan that involved the rendezvous of the Zeppelin with a submarine carrying Jules Verne’s grandson. 

When the polar retrofit of his decommissioned navy submarine proved impossible, Hearst abandoned the Arctic voyage altogether, leaving Ullstein Verlag to fill the gap. The Ullsteins bought the exclusive coverage rights, and placed on board the writer Arthur Koestler, then the science editor for the their flagship newspaper, the Vossische Zeitung

In many ways Ullstein’s role was no different than Hearst’s; they supplied financial backing, and they promoted the event across a wide spectrum of papers. With their choice of Koestler as the sole onboard reporter, however, they also guaranteed an usually explicit coverage of the actual science underway. Koestler’s importance to the scientific impact of this trip cannot be overstated. He was a 26-year-old, university-trained engineer who had acquired one of the most prestigious journalism positions in Germany, due to his ability to combine lucid scientific explanation with imaginative narrative prose. Koestler’s talent was also his mission. He actively cultivated a poetic vision of science, and ran his news section with the near spiritual desire to
“shift the emphasis in popular education from stale humanities to a lively comprehension of the mysteries of the universe and life.”(3)

Based on my survey of the relevant clips from The New York Times and the Vossische Zeitung, Koestler delivered on his literary skills here too.(4) In addition to a great sense of drama and an eye for detail, Koestler put the science fully on display. He humanized the on-board professors and shared details of their experiments. Little was known about the weather conditions of the North Pole, whether magnetic or gyro compasses would work in the area, or how accurate existing maps actually were. Koestler provided context that allowed a lay reader to understand what was at stake in—for example— the otherwise unstimulating collection of data from atmospheric balloons. Koestler’s narrative also captured the utopian vision that drove the exploration— the sense that through human innovation all things are knowable.

The initial reception of the voyage was powerful. Massive crowds greeted the Zeppelin at its layovers in Leningrad and Berlin. Across the Atlantic, the New York Times praised the voyage, for its science in particular. Their editorial team wrote, “the world learns little after reading the old tale of mists that obscure the ocean and make its crossing something like a miracle.” But “the German scientific mission... in a few hours discovered more than could be expected from years of painful footwork.”(5)

The lingering impact of this coverage, at least in Europe, was equally substantial. The expedition’s physician, Dr. Ludwig Kohl-Larsen, wrote a popular narrative account of the trip, in 1931, called Die Arktisfahrt des Graf Zeppelin (The Arctic Voyage of the Graf Zeppelin), which explained the science of the trip in much greater detail. And Koestler became an overnight celebrity. For months he gave speaking tours about the trip all over Europe, and upon his return was promoted to assistant editor-in-chief for the Ullstein’s largest paper, B.Z. am Mittag. Koestler’s own account of the Zeppelin tour, called Von weißen Nächten und roten Tagen (Of White Nights and Red Days), was published in 1933. 

My tentative conclusion about the role of the mass press in promoting scientific exploration, like the Zeppelin Arctic voyage, is this: such voyages would not have been possible without the commercial support of mass publishers. But the most important factor for success was the ability to sell the story of the science. Here specifically, the work was done by a writer who was uniquely able to synthesize the literary with the science. This pairing made atmospheric science —for one— accessible as it had never been before. It also placed upon the science the heavy burden of symbolic meaning. Citizens of many countries cheered the triumph of the Zeppelin's scientific exploration, but Germans identified deeply with this German-funded, German-operated, and German-narrated mission. The technological achievement of the airship in particular was taken as a representation "of the measure of the German soul.”(6) 

I don't think it would be wrong to see in the Zeppelin the lingering shadow of the geopolitical ambition that drove the exploration of the Imperial era. Which leads me to the question whether scientifically motivated exploration is much different from the exploration of earlier centuries.

As wildly successful as the Zeppelin’s scientific voyage had been, it remained a solitary enterprise. Economic crisis was in full swing by the early 1930s, closing newspapers and stripping funding for scientific research. The rise of the Nazi Party caused further disruption to the media and the scientific establishment. The Zeppelin was coopted as a political machine, and after the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937, fell out of fashion completely, its full potential as a tool for scientific inquiry never to be fully realized. 

The partnership between the Ullstein Verlag and Koestler followed a similar course. The mass publisher took a risk by promoting a form of science writing that departed radically from the conventions of the day, with the best possible outcome. It seems that Koestler’s lyricism and poetic vision played an important role popularizing scientific discovery in Germany in the early 1930s. 

This poetic approach did, however, pose a challenge to the accepted dichotomies of science/art, secularism/mysticism, even specialist/layperson, and ultimately prevented Koestler from gaining acceptance within the established journalistic and scientific communities. Koestler wrote in his memoir, in spite of the fact “that I was competent in my work... In spite of my outward success, nobody took me really seriously... My colleagues felt there was something false and basically unsound about me…”(7)

Koestler quit his position at Ullstein Verlag in 1932 to work for the Communist Party, an experience he creatively mined in his bestselling political novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940. He never returned to science journalism, although his postwar work takes up similar strategies and themes. His book-length studies, such as The Sleep Walkers (1955), are genre-bending works of speculative science that were simultaneously praised and denounced by scientific professionals.

Going forward with this project, I hope to discern whether the pushback Koestler received was in response to his personal style, or if it signaled a discomfort with poetic science writing generally. One possible approach to addressing this issue was suggested by the research of another participant on my AJHA panel. Prof. Susan E. Swanberg of University of Arizona presented on The New York Times’ William L. ‘Atomic Bill’ Laurence, another popular and controversial mid-century science reporter who wrote outside the traditional boundaries of objective science writing. While Laurence and Koestler seem to have very different styles, a comparison of the reception of these writers’ works could provide insight into not only the strengths but also the limitations of the literary approach for science journalism. One of the most promising outcomes of the conference, for me, was the opportunity to meet Prof. Swanberg and discuss possible collaboration in the future. 


(1) See Andreas W. Daum, “Varieties of Popular Science and the Transformations of Public Knowledge. Some Historical Reflections,” Isis 2009 v. 100: 319-332.

(2) My account of the voyage has been pieced together from first-hand accounts, Arthur Koestler, Von weißen Nächten und roten Tagen (Vienna: Promedia Verlag, 2013), and Ludwig Kohl-Larsen, Die Arktisfahrt des “Graf Zeppelin” (Berlin: Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1931) and from secondary sources, Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Critic (New York: Random House, 2009) and Guillaume De Syon, Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2002).

(3) Arthur Koestler, Arrow in the Blue (London: Hutchinson, 1969), 284.

(4) The New York Times ran 13 articles and Vossische Zeitung ran 16 articles during 24-31 July 1931. All Vossische Zeitung articles were written by Koestler. The New York Times coverage was a mix of Koestler’s reports in translation and in-house commentary.

(5) “An Aerial Contrast,” The New York Times, 31 July 1931, 16.

(6) De Syon, Zeppelin!, 168.

(7) Koestler, Arrow in the Blue, 284.

Kate McQueen is a master’s degree student in journalism at Illinois, where she is studying literary journalism, and an instructor in Illinois’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She holds a Ph.D. in German Studies from Stanford University, where she specialized in Central European literary and press history.

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