I spoke to Esther Peters, Associate Director of the Center for East European and Russian Studies at the University of Chicago and William Nickel, Associate Professor, Chair of the Slavic Department at the University of Chicago about the history of Czech-American ties and interest in Slavic studies in the present day.
William Nickell: The history goes back a long way and Esther may know it better than I do. Tomáš G. Masaryk came here at the beginning of the 20th century and gave a series of lectures at the University, where he was invited by Charles Crane, a Chicago businessman who was very interested in Russia and more broadly Eastern Europe. Masaryk then returned to Chicago in 1918. The relationship between Masaryk and the university continued to be important, as the University president was instrumental in introducing Masaryk to Woodrow Wilson.
Esther Peters: That’s my understanding as well. As far as I know, at the beginning of the 20th century, the University president helped connect Masaryk and Beneš to the US president and other political leaders here. He tried to create space for Masaryk and others to generate support in the US. So, I think that the University was a place that provided that kind of support both to bigger political leaders like Masaryk and eventually also to students that came to the US to study.
How long is the tradition of Slavic studies here at the University of Chicago?
William Nickell: It was actually the first president of the University, William Rainey Harper, who initiated this tradition by commissioning his son with learning Russian. His son started studying Russian here on campus and continued studying in Paris and Moscow. His name was Samuel Harper, and he became one of the first university teachers of Russian here in the United States. He continued to be a specialist not only in the Russian language but also in what we would now call Russian studies and what at the time came to be known as Soviet studies. He also wrote several books on the Soviet Union. Still, there was not really a department until after the Sputnik years. In the years until then there were a few people who taught Russian and had an interest in the region.
The Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures itself only came about in the 1960s. It was formed relatively quickly because of a newfound interest in what was going on in the Soviet bloc. In the very beginning, there were not only Russian specialists, but there was also a Czech specialist, as well as a Polish and Balkan specialist. So, that relatively long tradition of focusing on Czech studies in our department has continued to this day.
We also have the archive of Czechs and Slovaks abroad, which is housed in the University library special collections. As far as we understand, it is the richest collection of material on the Czech and Slovak diaspora and it is available here for scholars to come and work with. And we are really trying to continue to develop our Czech studies. We have some new connections to the community, and we are trying to build upon those and work with the community to keep Czech studies strong here at the University.
How much interest in Czech studies is there among students?
William Nickell: Well, it is never an extremely large group of students, but the students that do appear with an interest in Czech tend to be deeply interested. We just did a program this past spring through the University’s Chicago Studies Center, the program is called the Chicago Quarter. In it the students study the city of Chicago, and our theme this spring was East European immigration to Chicago. The case of Czech immigrants to the city is particularly interesting. The earliest immigrants who came in large groups were Irish and German in the mid-19th century. But by the end of the 19th century, because of improved rail transport and cheaper sea fares, people started coming from Southern and Eastern Europe.
The Czechs were a very successful group, as they integrated very well into the community, opened businesses, established themselves and had their own neighborhoods. Most of your listeners are probably at least somewhat aware of this story. Czechs have a tremendous history in Chicago. There is even the famous case of our mayor at the beginning of the 20th century – who I think was the first Czech mayor, and certainly the first Czech mayor of a city the size of Chicago – a very beloved and important person in this city’s history.
Esther Peters: George Halas, the original owner of the Bears, the local NFL football team, also has a Czech connection. There are Czech roots in some of the most beloved parts of the city, even if people do not know it.
What is your specialization?
William Nickell: I am a specialist in Russian literature and culture. But I have recently led the Chicago studies program, so I have become interested in the question of immigration. What we did in this program is that we looked at the case of the Slavic and Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who were initially seen as competitors in job places and as a threat. Sometimes they there looked down upon by the more established communities of Chicago. And I am interested in the question of how they assimilated, came to be accepted and eventually had great success in becoming part of the fabric of Chicago.
I think that is an important lesson for us to think about today when we have a lot of questions about immigration right now and about people coming to us from other parts of the world. All of us came from somewhere else, even the Native Americans at one point. This process of being rejected initially but then gaining acceptance is something that I think repeats itself and we have to recognize that new immigrants can go through that process as well. They have every right to be here, just as the Czechs did.
And your specialization?
Esther Peters: I specialized in Czech literature, predominantly Bohumil Hrabal, who was the main focus of my dissertation. My primary focus is now at the Center of Czech Studies, in administering the grant that keeps the Center going. So, these days that is more of a focus for me than my academic specialization, which I, unfortunately, don’t get as much time to focus on.
Esther Peters: I like science fiction, so I started reading R.U.R by Karel Čapek, and kind of kept going from there, I just kind of slowly kept reading and studying the language. And I fell in love with the language, the literature, and the culture. Robot is, after all, a Czech word and I was sold after I learned that.
Did you study the Czech language here at the University of Chicago?
Esther Peters: Yes, I studied here both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. I did my P.H.D here.
Is Bohumil Hrabal still your favorite writer, or do you now prefer someone from the new generation?
Esther Peters: It is hard for me to pick something else than Too Loud a Solitude (Příliš hlučná samota} as my favourite. Favourite is such a hard word with books of any kind, but that is a piece of literature that I often come back to. But I do also come back to Čapek’s feuilletons when I am just thinking about the world in general. Čapek had many interesting things to say and I find that he is more relevant as time goes on, not less. Whether it is his interest in new technology, the way that people interact and his way of thinking about civilizations. I go back to Čapek quite frequently, whether it is reading his novels, like Válka s mloky, or his smaller essays as well.
How difficult is it to find Czech literature in the English language here in the USA?
Esther Peters: I started reading in translation, and was then able to move to reading in Czech. You can find things in Czech mostly in libraries like the one we have here at the University of Chicago or going to the Czech Republic and bringing books back. I have certainly done that, and I am able to have a large collection thanks to stuffing my suitcases full of books and the like. It has also been quite a privilege, starting as an undergraduate student and having access to a library like the Regenstein library here, which has quite an extensive collection of literature on many subjects. In particular, it has quite an extensive collection in Czech literature. So, it has the big names that we were talking about, like Čapek and Hrabal. But it also has smaller collections and histories written in Czech by people like Mukařovský and things like that, so you can read not only the literature but also read about the literature by people who were studying it as it was being written. So that is not something that you can get access to in too many places outside the Czech Republic.
Esther Peters: It has been many years since I have been back. I lived in Nymburk right after college, in the early 2000s for several years. I taught English at a small school there and I think that I have been back once or twice since then, but it has been way too long since I have had a chance to go back. Since then I have mostly been teaching or working in Chicago, so I have not had the chance to travel as extensively as I would like.
William Nickell: I can tell a little story that might be of interest to your listeners. The other night I was invited to the Masaryk School, which is a school that teaches the Czech language and culture through Saturday classes to students here in Chicago. It is also a place where the community gathers and there was a book presentation by Renata Fučíková, who was presenting her book Bohemian Stories, with beautiful illustrations of Bohemians in America. It was beautifully done, but I just wanted to say that a large room in the school basement was packed with people standing in the back. It was hot and people came from all over to see this presentation. I just found that very impressive and I think that the Czech community is very strong in Chicago. There is a lot of interest in upholding Czech heritage in Chicago and again, it is just a great example of a community that continues to thrive as a part of Chicago.