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  • Outsiders' Perspectives in Dutch BiographyThe Year in the Netherlands
  • Hans Renders (bio) and David Veltman (bio)

In her contribution to the edited volume The Biographical Turn: Lives in History, South African researcher Lindie Koorts introduces Herman Giliomee's The Afrikaners: Biography of a People as "arguably the most influential contribution to post-1994 Afrikaner historiography" (150). The selection of "prominent individuals" who were honored with a short biography in this book was not based upon a canon of Afrikaner heroes but on a political theory outlined by the American scholar Michael Walzer. Walzer describes the "connected critic" as the individual who is bound to his community, although observing it from the periphery to remain critical of its injustices (xi). This concept of the "connected critic" offers insight into the question how biography can give shape to a community, including or excluding the way a subject criticizes society's policies and practices. Biographies of "connected critics" will focus on what makes these critics committed to their society. A biography on someone who has chosen to position themselves from an outsider's perspective will pay attention to the forces that drove the subject to choose a different path, without engaging in politics or opinion-making. Biographies of connected critics do not necessarily have to be about politicians: biographers choose to depict their subjects by underscoring their subjects' struggles as outsiders whose opinions are eventually celebrated by the public. It is our aim to show that this type of biography is gaining popularity these days in the Netherlands.

The Dutch book market is oriented internationally because a large number of foreign biographies are translated into Dutch. Examples include Simon Schama's The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits, Gareth Stedman Jones's Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Julia Bird's Victoria: The Queen, Victor Sebestyen's Lenin the Dictator, Laurence Bergreen's Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius, and Thore D. Hanssen's Brunhilde Pomsel: A German Life. The weekly newspaper Vrij Nederland featured in 2016 an [End Page 633] eight-page interview with noted biographer Richard Holmes (Renders and Vullings). But there is also a substantial subcategory of biographies of foreign people written by Dutch authors. Cas J. J. van Houtert, for example, wrote a biography of the German medieval emperor Friedrich II, and Jaap Verheul published a full-length biography of John Lothrop Motley, the nineteenth-century historian who made Holland popular among Americans.

Many contemporary Dutch biographers are positioning their Dutch subjects as outsiders with a personal perspective on Dutch society. On the first page of Graa Boomsma's Leven op de rand, his biography of Albert Alberts (1911–1995), this Dutch author is called a buitenstaander [outsider]. Alberts's work as a writer is difficult to classify: next to his novels and collections of literary stories, he wrote historical books, biographies, and memoirs. In his home village, Blaricum, Alberts was called a sfinx (sphinx) for his ability to speak out frankly and to be introverted at the same time. Working at the Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, the ministry of foreign affairs, in Den Haag, Alberts was able to do research for his historical novels during lunchtime: his office was right next door to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. These circumstances enabled him to live the life of an outsider who never wanted to draw attention to his own personal matters. Alberts was perfectly aware of the way he was representing himself and chose to keep himself far from political debate. His biographer, Boomsma, stresses Alberts's role as a journalist at the leftist-intellectual magazine De Groene Amsterdammer, a job he held from 1947 onward. Even before the Netherlands began their ill-fated "police actions" to restore law and order in the Dutch Indies, Alberts, as a former administrative employee, wrote critical articles about the role of the colonial regime.

Last year another biography of a "connected critic," in Walzer's sense, appeared in the Netherlands: Elly Kamp's book on Ferdinand Bordewijk (1884–1965). As the second biography of the same person, this kind of text is highly unusual in the Netherlands. The justification for publishing a second biography on Bordewijk may be that Kamp's...


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