Patriotism and not quality ensures a position in the Dutch literary canon

Patriotism and not quality ensures a position in the Dutch literary canon

The Dutch literary canon, which contains such great names as Hooft, Vondel and Cats, is not the result of an assessment based on quality but rather a selection that matched the ideals of the first literary reviewers. This is the conclusion of NWO-funded researcher Francien Petiet based on her analysis of journals and literary histories from the first half of the nineteenth century. Literary historians considered patriotism to be more important than the ability to write well. Petiet defended her PhD thesis on 15 December at the University of Amsterdam.

The roots of the modern Dutch literary canon were established at the start of the nineteenth century, when the first historical literary anthologies and guides to literature were published. Literary scholar Francien Petiet investigated how the literary past was converted into a literary heritage. Literary historians chiefly had an ideological objective: the restoration of a nation that in their eyes had fallen into decline.

The selection criteria used to distinguish masters from the lesser gods were very much a product of the time (the Kingdom of the Netherlands was just being established following French occupation). There was a longing to restore the glory of the Golden Age and a restoration of the national identity was deemed vital for the country’s recovery. According to Petiet, a considerable emphasis was therefore placed on the national character of the literature and the writers, far more so than on the aesthetic qualities of the texts. One of the first professors of Dutch, Cornelis Fransen van Eck, said in 1817: ‘A real Dutch head and a real Dutch heart are best obtained by reading the writings of real Dutch men.’

In view of this national objective, considerable efforts were made to ensure that everybody could become familiar with early Dutch literature. Dozens of works were published aimed at a diverse public of young and old, academics and non-academics, men and women and even soldiers.

Literary historians expected the authors to be virtuous, tolerant, homely and pious (read: protestant). Men and women who did not fit this ideal image of the ‘patriot’ were literarily renounced. Initially medieval literature was not valued either. At the start of the nineteenth century, Karel ende Elegast was still described as ‘nauseous’. In the 1830s and 1840s the regard for medieval works increased. In this period people started to appreciate the beauty of these old texts.

Francien Petiet reveals that the works we nowadays still regard as the most important literary accomplishments of our early writers obtained this status in the nineteenth century. The ‘canon’ as it was compiled then has scarcely changed since.

Literary scholar Petiet studied various sources from the period 1797-1845, such as journals, forewords of new editions of older works, competitions held by societies, and guides. Her research was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

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