- The Land of Letter-LoversThe Year in the Netherlands
In comparison with the US and the UK, the term "life writing" came to the Netherlands rather late. It wasn't until the first years of the twenty-first century that it was introduced to Dutch readers in publications like Marijke Huisman's 2008 book Publieke levens: Autobiografieën op de Nederlandse boekenmarkt 1850–1918 and in Dutch journals like Biografie Bulletin and De Gids. Yet the term is still being contested by Dutch biography scholars Hans Renders and Binne de Haan of the University of Groningen. Renders sees "life writers" as idealistic therapists who want to offer "retrospective justice" by sustaining "overwhelming attention for the deprived in history" ("Biography in Academia" 172) like "women, coloured people, homosexuals, victims of the Holocaust, and so on" (170), in order to "show that the authors of these autobiographical documents were victimised by their social context" (169). "Life writing," De Haan writes, thus can only be described as "subjective identity politics" (194), in which "Life Writers" use documents and other texts as "vehicles for emancipation" (186). However, most Dutch scholars find no problem in using "life writing" as an umbrella term, i.e., in the sense Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson have defined it in their renowned book Reading Autobiography: "a general term for writing that takes a life, one's own or another's, as its subject" (4).
Outside the academy, the term "life writing" is still largely unknown to the general reading public in the Netherlands. Moreover, the catalogue of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB), the National Library of the Netherlands, which holds copies of all books published in the Netherlands, does not use "life writing" as an index term; searching the KB website for "life writing" only turns up book titles containing the words "life" and/or "writing." This doesn't help to popularize "life writing" as an umbrella term. Therefore, to assess the lifewriting publications that hit the Dutch book market in 2019, one must search the KB catalogue for all the different genres that one would consider part of life writing, such as biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, diaries, and collections of letters. [End Page 137]
To start with "biography" as a search word, the KB catalogue shows no more than ten books published by Dutch and Flemish authors in the Netherlands in 2019, which does not reflect the actual number. The KB catalogue does not categorize as "biography" one of the most interesting and enjoyable Dutch biographies published last year: Verhalen van de drakendochter by Willem Gerritsen, a book about the life and work of internationally renowned Dutch literary scholar and the second Dutch professor of Celtic Studies, Maartje Draak (1907–1995), of whom Gerritsen was a student. Instead, the book is categorized as "levensbeschrijving" (literally, "life description"), an outdated term, which is also used for several biographies of male politicians, like Chris Hietland's dissertation about Dutch socialist politician André van der Louw, Mathijs van de Waardt's biography of nineteenth-century liberal politician Dirk Donker Curtius, and the biographies of famous prime ministers, Joop den Uyl and Wim Kok, by Dik Verkuil and Marnix Krop, respectively. Also listed as "levensbeschrijving" are the biographies of two male scientists: a life history of R. P. Cleveringa by sociologist Kees Schuyt, and a biography of Franz Joseph Gall by Theo Mulder.
In the "stories of the dragon's daughter" ("draak" is Dutch for "dragon"), Draak's self-fashioning, self-presentation, and representation as one of the very few Dutch female professors in the fifties and sixties of the twentieth century take center stage. In this regard, the biography complies with the elements of what Dutch historian Mineke Bosch calls the "new biography" in her article "Persona en de performance van identiteit," published in the unfortunately no longer existing biography journal Tijdschrift voor biografie in 2012. Bosch writes, "In de nieuwe biografie wordt afscheid […] genomen van het zoeken naar de crux van een leven in termen van (jeugd)trauma's en geheimen onder invloed van het twintigste-eeuwse psychoanalytische complex" [The new biography takes leave of searching for the crux of a life in terms of (youth) traumata and...