5 Questions with Dr. Robert Abzug

One of our favorite features here at AMS::ATX is our 5 Questions series, where we sit down with faculty members in American Studies and talk shop. Today we are thrilled to share a recent interview with Dr. Robert Abzug, Audre and Bernard Rapoport Regents Chair of Jewish Studies, Director of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, and Professor of History and American Studies here at the University of Texas, Austin.

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What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

I would say two projects, of course. How can you have just one? I wouldn’t call it exactly my favorite, but it was the most compelling one, and that was the book I published in 1985, about the liberation of the concentration camps. I did oral history work with G.I.s and it was all from the point of view of American soldiers, and I used diaries and letters from the time. What do you do with this shock of recognition? It was so compelling, and so unnerving, that everything else since seems like artisan work. This just was right down to the bone. It was an amazing transformation in me, just thinking about what was important.

My favorite project, that makes me happy and expansive, is the one I’m just finishing right now. It’s a biography of Rollo May, the American psychologist. A lot of people over 60, over 50 even, will remember him as one of the psycho-gurus of the sixties and seventies. Really his history goes way back. It was actually an accident that I got into the project, and that’s always fun. I had to become literate in continental philosophy, I had to become literate in modern Protestant theology, as well as psychology, certainly. And I knew Rollo for the last eight years of his life, so it was this challenge of writing dispassionately about somebody whom I had gotten to know face to face. It’s all about psychology and religion, and where people seek spiritual guidance. So that’s been really compelling. Also, the people I’ve met—I’ve never known so many psychotherapists in my life, and it hasn’t cost me fifty, or a hundred, or a hundred and fifty dollars an hour, either. They are happy to talk to me, which is an unusual role for them, of course. They usually like to listen.

But that project’s almost done—I’m hoping that at the end of my leave it’ll be done and in print in 2015. I’ve done other work in Pre-Civil War America, all of which has been important. But when you write about dead people, it’s not quite as interesting as this mixture of history and living people, and its not quite as hairy, either. There aren’t people from the 19th century who could potentially sue you for what you’re saying.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations within academia or within society as a whole?

I think I’ve always been interested in one question that is always there, but rarely comes to the fore, because its usually chopped into different parts: essentially, the ways that a changing society understands its moral and ethical commitments and comes to understand them in new ways. For instance, the Rollo May project is really about the interpenetration of American religious life and spiritual seeking with psychotherapy. And the United States is just about the only country where this is a major cultural phenomenon. In most countries, even in the West, psychotherapy is a medical issue. That’s changing a little in Europe, but the United States, with its peculiar religious culture, is quite interesting that way.

Of course, to the degree that the liberation of the camps, and the newsreels and the photographs that it created, is, along with the atom bomb, a kind of watershed in consciousness about human destructiveness, this was a very compelling thing to me. Potentially, what I study fits into just about any dialogue, but usually doesn’t fit into any one dialogue. With my earlier work, which was all about reform, and initially about abolitionism, it would have been simpler to answer that. I think my frame of historical thinking has gotten more philosophical, or academics have gotten more specialized, or something like that. I see this question of the formation of moral consciousness hovering over most topics as a metafield, and folks do read my work. But I’m not involved in any of the au courant debates at all, though they very much inform my thinking. For instance, gender issues are central to the Rollo May book, but it is not a book about gender per se.

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