Theodor Adorno, Dagobert Runes, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism: The Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Part III)

On Saturday, November 15, 1941, Theodor Adorno began his journey westward to join Max Horkheimer in Los Angeles and begin the collaboration that would produce Dialectic of Enlightenment. His final days in New York were busy ones, capped by the meeting with Dwight Macdonald that provided the impetus for my trip to Yale in March. While there I spent some time examining the “lost” manuscript of Adorno’s translation of his Philosophie der neuen Musik, which turns out to have been one of the manuscripts that he sent to the composer/critic Virgil Thomson.

The first post in this series discussed the manuscript itself and the second explored the unlikely relationship between Thomson and Adorno. This post will raise some questions about the genesis of the translation and Adorno’s efforts to have it published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. A final post, which will be available shortly, will discuss the strangest aspect of Adorno’s relationship with Thomson: Adorno’s attempt to become a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune.

Dagobert David Runes, Philosophical Entrepreneur

About six weeks before leaving for Los Angeles, Adorno sent Horkheimer the following telegram:


The “Journal of Esthetics” was, in fact, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (hereafter JAAC). It was founded by Dagobert D. Runes in the spring of 1941 and would go on to become the official organ of the American Society for Aesthetics (hereafter ASA), which had been established in 1939 by Felix M. Gatz.2

Ganz was an émigré philosopher and musicologist who had studied with Georg Simmel in Berlin and established a reputation in Europe as a champion of the music of Anton Bruckner.3 He came to the United States in 1934, where he became director of the music department at the University of Scranton. Runes was born in Romania, trained at the University of Vienna, and came to the United States in 1926, where he embarked on a long, successful, and now largely forgotten career as an editor and publisher of philosophical texts.4 The most successful of his ventures was The Philosophical Library, a still extant publishing house that he founded in 1941. It served as publisher of the Journal of Aesthetics until 1945, when Runes surrendered editorial control to a committee composed of members of the American Society for Aesthetics.5

Dagobert D. Runes

Dagobert D. Runes

Adorno first came into contact with Runes in May 1941, when Runes solicited an article from him on popular music for a projected “Dictionary of the Arts”.6 Shortly thereafter, he invited Adorno to assume editorial responsibilities for all of the dictionary’s musical articles. A letter from Adorno to Horkheimer written in early June indicates that Adorno was more impressed by Runes’ list of potential contributors — which included the American philosopher and art historian Thomas Munro, the philosopher and theologian Theodore M. Greene, and the architect Walter Gropius — than he was by Runes himself, who Adorno described as “an entrepreneurial Eastern Jew who has the advantage of not even pretending to have any knowledge of the subject [einen geschäftigen Ostjuden, der den Vorzug hat, keinerlei Sachkenntnis zu prätendieren].7 After consulting with Horkheimer to confirm that accepting Runes’ invitation would not interfere with his work for the Institute, Adorno agreed to write a total of nineteen articles on musical topics for Runes’ dictionary.

It is unclear when Adorno submitted the manuscript of his “Philosophy of Advanced Music” to the JAAC, though it appears that he did so with Runes’ encouragement. The manuscript begins with a “Preface” — dated “September 1941” and not contained in the original German manuscript — that explains

This treatise has been written without any thought of publication. It aimed solely at self-understanding … within the framework of the Institute of Social Research at Columbia University. The basic considerations appertain to the joint work with Max Horkheimer. The initiative to the present publication is due to the editor of the Journal of Aesthetics, Dr. Dagobert Runes.

It is all the more seemly to the author to thank for this initiative [sic] since he is only too well conscious of the provocative features of his attempt.

The telegram Horkheimer sent in response to Adorno’s report on the article’s acceptance indicates that he was under the impression that Adorno’s text still required translation:


In his October 7 letter to Horkheimer Adorno explained that the journal had agreed to proof “my rough translation of the music article” and that he expected that the article would appear in the Spring-Summer issue of 1942.9

A letter to his parents dating from January 1942 provides further information about the progress of the translation. It reports that, at that point, Adorno had completed the nineteen articles he had promised to write for Runes’ dictionary (which he dubbed “the 19-teat pig”) and went on to explain that these articles were “unrelated to the translation of Philosophie der neuen Musik,” which he describes  as having been completed in December.10

On the basis of these scattered reports, it seems likely that Adorno and Runes discussed the possibility of publishing a translation of Adorno’s Philosophie der neuen Musik in the course of their negotiations regarding Adorno’s contributions to Runes’ proposed dictionary. An initial version of the translation (presumably the basis for the annotated manuscript in the Thomson Papers) was submitted sometime it the journal sometime after September 1941. This translation was then subjected to further proofing and (perhaps) editing after its acceptance, a process that was completed — assuming Adorno’s letter to his parents is correct — in December 1941.

 Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

This chronology, however, raises a number of questions. If it is reasonably accurate, it casts some doubts as to when (and by whom) the extensive annotations were made on the copy that Adorno sent to Thomson. Some of them (e.g., minor corrections and rewordings on the first page of the Preface) might conceivably have been made by the JAAC’s copy-editors. But others (e.g., the removal of certain passages and extensive reformulations that one finds on page 64) must have been made by Adorno himself. The resolution of these issues is best left to those with more expertise in the interpretation and archiving of Adorno’s papers than I possess. But the condition and size of the manuscript prompts a more troubling question: is it even remotely plausible that a text of this sort could actually have been accepted by the JAAC?

 Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A. Miscellaneous Writings by Others, Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

Philosophy of Advanced Music (1941), 106, MSS No. 29A, Series XI.A.  Box 191, Folder 1, Virgil Thomson Papers, Yale Music Library.

An Entrepreneur Cuts His Losses

Adorno closed his lengthy letter to Thomson of October 21, 1942 with the unpleasant news that

Mr. Runes withdrew from his obligation to publish my ‘Philosophy of Advanced Music’ in an almost incredibly rude and ill-bred manner.”11

It is, perhaps, worth noting that Adorno describes what has transpired not as the rejection of an article by a journal but instead as a violation of an individual obligation. He appears to have assumed that Runes had made — and could deliver on — a promise he had made to publish Adorno’s article in what — at least in the Spring of 1941 — still appeared to be Runes’  journal.

But, as Lydia Goehr has documented, the relationship between the JAAC and the ASA wasScreenshot 2015-05-19 09.22.23 complicated, troubled, and would only be resolved in 1945 when Runes finally surrendered control of the journal to the ASA.  The inaugural issue of the JAAC had listed Runes as Editor, with Thomas Munro, the émigré art critic Lionello Venturi, the historian Adrienne Koch, and the philosopher George Boas as Associate Editors. At this point Gatz — who had difficulties getting along with both Munro and Runes (who accused Gatz of exercising dictatorial control over the society) — was still president of the ASA. But in April 1942 Gatz was replaced by Munro, who now found himself faced with the problem of resolving the relationship of the ASA to a journal that remained under Runes’ control.13

Goehr’s examination of documents in the ASA and JAAC archives indicates that Munro was “perplexed and worried” by the society’s relationship with the journal and that his colleagues regarded Runes as “a complete mystery” who might, at best, be “useful” for the society but whose management of the journal left much to be desired.14 Shortly after taking over the presidency of the association, Munro wrote to a colleague that

our relation to Runes and the Journal of Aesthetics presents a difficult problem. I am anxious as you are to see that the Society neither is nor seems to be dominated by Runes or his special circle of friends.(Goehr 104)

Munro’s problems with Runes would finally be resolved in 1945, when he replaced Runes as editor and responsibility for the printing and distribution of the journal was shifted to Waverly Press.12  But the difficulties that plagued Runes’ brief tenure as both editor and publisher of the JAAC may not be irrelevant to the fate of Adorno’s article.

There are good reasons for doubting whether Adorno’s article had, in fact, ever been formally accepted for publication. The copy in the Thomson papers is 109 pages long. The longest article appearing in the first volume of the Journal of Aesthetics runs 23 pages and the average length of the articles is 11 pages. It is difficult to see how Runes’ fellow editors could have agreed to the publication of Adorno’s article without requesting substantial cuts. Further, the translation itself contains various lacunae that remain unfilled (e.g., spaces have been left to insert the translation for German words that remain in the typescript). Even if we ignore the difficulties that Adorno’s argument would have posed to reviewers, it is inconceivable that a manuscript in this condition could have been accepted by an American academic journal.

But at this point the JAAC was not a normal academic journal. Its peculiar status granted its editor/proprietor a latitude in dealing with contributors that subsequent editors would not possess. Runes’ interest in publishing Adorno’s manuscript on “advanced music” was likely bound up with his plan to have Adorno contribute articles on music to his projected dictionary of the arts. And while Runes may, as Adorno’s Preface indicates, have encouraged the translation of the Philosophie der neuen Musik during their May discussions, it could hardly have escaped Runes that it would be difficult to find a place in the JAAC for the manuscript he received in September.

It would, of course, help to know how Runes — in his “incredibly rude and ill-bred manner” — delivered the news to Adorno that the JAAC had decided against publishing the “Philosophy of Advanced Music.” But we do know that the decision not to publish Adorno’s article had ramifications for the “19-teat pig” as well. When the Philosophical Library published the Encyclopedia of the Arts in 1946, the only article it contained by Adorno was an entry on jazz.

Upon assuming editorship of the journal, Murno offered the following advice to potential contributors:

To the potential author with a vague idea for an article taking shape in the back of his head, the Editor counsels, “Write it now! Make it brief! Send it in promptly!” Notices of acceptance or rejection will be sent as speedily as possible.15

The notice conveying this advice carried a title with that made it clear to both Dagobert Runes, philosophical entrepreneur, and Theodor Adorno, student of the culture industry, the transformation that had taken place: “The Journal under New Management.”

A Last Try

As late as the spring of 1949 Adorno still had hopes of publishing an English version of his Philosophie der neuen Musik. In a letter to Horkheimer he reported that he had met with an editor at the New York publisher Duel, Sloan, and Pearce (the publisher of Lazarsfeld’s Radio Research volumes) and discussed the following projects:

  1. A book based on his various writings on radio, i.e., something along the lines of the book he had tried unsuccessfully to place with Oxford and, with the aid of Thomson, at William Morrow.
  2. A translation of Dialectic of Enlightenment, which would be undertaken by Heinz Norden, a fellow émigré who had just completed a translation of Alexander Mitscherlich and Fred Mielke’s Doctors of Infamy, an account of Nazi medical experiments.
  3. The English translation of Philosophie der neuen Musik
  4. A collectively written book on anti-Semitism, which would draw on the Studies in Prejudice series that the Institute was publishing with Harper and Row.16

Nothing came these plans and, by the end of the year, Horkheimer had decided that Institute should return to Frankfurt.

Adorno, of course, would return as well. Among the documents he left behind was the edited version of the Philosophy of Advanced Music that he had sent to Thomson, apparently with the hope that he might make use of it or, perhaps, aid Adorno in finding a home for it. Abandoned as well was one of the most unlikely of Adorno’s American projects: his attempt to carve out a new career as a music reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune.

To be continued

  1. Adorno, Telegram to Max Horkheimer of October 2, 1941 in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003) 251.
  2. For an exhaustive account of the complex relationship between the ASA and the JAAC, see Lydia Goehr, “The Institutionalization of a Discipline: A Retrospective of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and the American Society for Aesthetics, 1939-1992,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51:2 (1993): 99–121.
  3. For tributes to his services on behalf of Bruckner, see the collection of documents available on the Bruckner Society of America site.
  4. A WorldCat search produces 278 hits for Dagobert Runes as author (which includes various edited volumes) but none for Dagobert Runes as subject. His papers have not been archived, though some materials related to his career as an editor may remain in the possession of the Philosophical Library.
  5. The change was announced in the September 1945 issue; see The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism II:1 (1945) 1-2.
  6. Runes’ interest in Adorno may have been stimulated by Adorno’s article (co-authored with George Simpson), “On Popular Music,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science IX:1 (1941): 17–48. As discussed in a previous post, Adorno sent a copy of the issue to Thomson on April 24.
  7. Letter to Horkheimer of June 4, 1941, in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003 II:132-3.
  8. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969, II:251.
  9. Adorno Letter to Horkheimer of October 7, 1941, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969 262.
  10. Adorno, Letter to his Parents of January 22, 1942 in Theodor W. Adorno, Letters to His Parents: 1939-1951, ed. Christoph Gödde and Henri Lonitz, trans. Wieland Hoban (Polity, 2006) 83. The letter also mentions that Adorno had also “translated one of my longer past essays for Virgil Thomson”. This essay (which is described as “unknown” by Adorno’s editors) must have been his essay on Sibelius, which accompanied his letter to Thomson of December 19, 1941.
  11. Letter from Theodor Adorno to Virgil Thomson of October 21, 1942 in MSS 29, Series 3, Box 19, Folder 22, Virgil Thomson Papers, Music Library, Yale University. 
  12. These changes were announced by Munro his “Editor’s Comment: The Journal under New Management,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 4:1 (1945): 1–2.
  13. Goehr 104
  14. Goehr 105. As one example of problems in the production of the journal, Goehr notes that the inaugural issue of the journal listed an article in its table of contents that never appeared in the journal itself (104)
  15. T. M., “Editor’s Comment: The Journal under New Management,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 4:1 (1945): 1.
  16. Adorno letter to Horkheimer of April 12, 1949 in Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Briefwechsel, 1927-1969 243.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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2 Responses to Theodor Adorno, Dagobert Runes, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism: The Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Part III)

  1. Pingback: Unbottled Manuscripts: On the Curious Relationship of Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson | Persistent Enlightenment

  2. Pingback: Adorno Considers a Career Change: The Curious Relationship between Theodor Adorno and Virgil Thomson (Conclusion) | Persistent Enlightenment

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