Arts & Culture

Adamo’s history of Augsburg showcases rich, complicated history

Lindsay Starck, English Professor & MFA Director

Some books are transformed into movies; others are reimagined as Broadway musicals. But if “Hold Fast to What is Good,” Professor Phil Adamo’s new history of Augsburg University, were to be adapted into a different form, it would have to be reincarnated as a museum.

The book is organized as a gallery that showcases ten objects from Augsburg’s archives: “a travel ad, a cartoon, a whale bone, a bracelet charm, a shovel, a mannequin on fire, a plaque, an altar painting, a lectern and a piece of clothing.” You are led through the exhibits by a guide who is both curator and storyteller; whose easy, colloquial tone invites you in and whose good humor feels genuine, even if not every joke soars.

While each object is framed within its own chapter, the stories it inspires spiral across centuries and continents. A description of the whale bones in Augsburg’s attic launches into the tragic tale of Augsburg Park and a meditation on the university’s attempts to flee from the urban neighborhood that it now claims as essential to its identity. The chapter on a shovel called Old Trusty digs into Augsburg’s housing shortage and the institution’s stint as a slumlord. The account of the fifty-foot Jesus touches on the tension between faith and reason and explores the university’s struggle to remain true to its Lutheran roots while embracing the “radical hospitality” crucial to its mission. If at times the objects feel disparate or random, connections and themes eventually emerge. The first chapter on the Norwegian advertisement for passage to America and the tenth chapter on the hijab, for instance, together underscore Augsburg’s enduring role as an institution of immigrants.

Throughout the book, Adamo highlights what literary historian Stephen Greenblatt calls “the embeddedness of cultural objects in the contingencies of history.” The silver charm bestowed upon women basketball players in the 1950s might now be considered sexist and demeaning. The gorgeous oak lectern of chapter five—“older than most of the buildings still standing,” writes—once symbolized the union of the secular (the Greek school) and the sacred (medieval scholasticism) in the original plan for Augsburg seminary, but a present-day reader could dismiss the lectern as pedagogically outdated. All ten objects are imbued with a new kind of significance now that they have been plucked from the archives, framed with glossy text and raised up for our inspection.

Of course one might well ask: Why these ten objects, and not others? Like any other narrative, this text is a product of its maker and its era. Adamo freely admits in the preface that the book is a “personal history because Augsburg is a personal place.” Like the objects it showcases, the book, too, will be subject to scrutiny and analysis now that it has become part of Augsburg’s history. In his writing, Adamo often refers to opinions published right here in “The Echo” (formerly known as “The Ekko”); perhaps the next history, written fifty years from now, will refer to what you’re reading right now.

Indeed: if there were a protagonist of this history, it would be “The Echo” itself, spirited and eloquent, appearing time and again over the course of these 150 years and 175 pages to remind us of the power of language, dialogue and debate. The title of the book is inspired by an early motto of this newspaper that cited the apostle Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: Hold fast to what is good. As we near the end of a turbulent school year, it is easy, honest and important to point out how the institution has disappointed us. And yet there is also something to admire in a place so stubborn and so scrappy; one that seems forever willing to battle the odds, to reframe its history and to remake itself over and over into something better.

This article was originally published in the April 26, 2019 issue.