Pandemic Rereads is one of my lockdown projects. Over the next few months I have set myself the goal of going through my study bookshelves in search of books that I have not read in a while. These are books I don’t regularly use in my research or teaching, and so they cry out to be reappraised. I do not claim to be an expert on these books, so I am sure that I am missing many of the nuances in the texts that have been picked up by real experts. Hopefully, though, there is value in casting a fresh pair of eyes over a text that we think we know.
Today I post my thoughts on rereading van Loon’s Lives. The last time I read this I was 15. It was the Summer that my family moved to the Netherlands, and the book was one of many from my parent’s bookshelves that I read during those first few months in a new home in a new country.
International Relations types reading this blog might be reminded of a recent edited book, Return of the Theorists, in which IR scholars imagined conversations with scholars from the past. I did ask one of the co-editors, Ned Lebow, if they had got the idea from van Loon, but he said that they did not. Still both books do, unwittingly, share a common approach.
A quick note for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians: I once found a copy of another book by van Loon (The Home of Mankind) in an antique store in St. John’s. The book had been owned by Joey Smallwood (for those outside the province, he was the first Premier). Sadly the owner wanted way too much money for it.
Page numbers in the text refer to the 1943 London version: Hendrik Willem van Loon, Van Loon’s Lives. Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as our dinner guests in a bygone year (London: George G. Harrap, 1943).
The illustrations come from the book and are van Loon’s own.
In the Summer that I turned 15 my family moved from Portsmouth on the south coast of the UK to the Netherlands. Jammed into a small rented house, the five of us shared the space with all our worldly belongings. This included my parent’s rather large collection of books. For want of anything else to do, I worked my way through a stack of these books. One, written by a Dutch-American in 1942, took place in a small Dutch town (not unlike the one were I was now living), and made cultural references to things (old town halls, working canals, polders, hutspot) that I was now quickly getting used to. That the book was written by someone living in both the Dutch and English-speaking worlds might also account for my interest. Equally, as a child with a keen interest in history, the premise of the book must have also been an attraction.
Although written in 1942, the book is set during 1932 and the first month of 1933. The author, Hendrik Willem van Loon, is living with his American wife in the small Zeeland town of Veere, where they have bought a second home. Among those with a second home in Veere is Frits Philips, a member of the Philips family of industrialists, who uses Veere as a weekend retreat from his work as a banker in Amsterdam. Van Loon and Frits become firm friends, and enjoy nothing more than discussing ideas and the state of the world long into the evening. Up to this point the story is factual and autobiographical.
In one of their late-night discussions Frits had said what a pity it was that they could not invite the old clock tower down for some pea-soup. It had been around for centuries, so imagine the stories it could tell. At this van Loon had responded that with the tower they would be settling for second best. Surely it would be just as easy to invite some of the great figures from history to their dinner table. It is then that they find a way to invite long-dead people from history to dinner. A slip of paper with the guests’ names is put under the stone lion guarding the ceremonial staircase of Veere town hall. The following Saturday at 7pm the chosen guests would arrive. (6-7)
Van Loon’s Lives is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, with each dinner party being carefully planned. Once Frits and van Loon had decided on their guests for the coming Saturday, van Loon would liaise with Jo the cook about what food and drink should be served. Orders for recorded music would also be put in at this time, and Frits would pay the bills. The final preparation would be the short biographies of the guests that van Loon would write, and then send up to Frits in Amsterdam. These biographies form the backbone of the book, and the book’s title is a clear nod to the ‘Parallel lives’ written by Plutarch, the first century AD Greek philosopher and historian.
The combination of the preparation for the dinner party, the biographies written for Frits, and the account of the evenings are designed to give a rounded appreciation of the guests. Each set of guests give the following dinner its theme, and while some are rip-roaring successes, others end in disaster. While the individual themes of the dinners often cover perennial issues associated with politics, ethics, and philosophy, a central theme that runs through the book is the current political situation faced by the world in 1932-3. As the main characters go through their daily lives, and prepare for the arrival of their guests, discussions often turn to the growth of totalitarianism, with particular reference to Hitler and the rise to power of the Nazi’s in near-by Germany.
Written in the middle of the Second World War, soon after the entry of the United States, the coming conflict is never far below the surface of the 1932-3 narrative. The book itself is dedicated to the future Queen Juliana of the Netherlands – then the crown princess living in exile in Canada – and to the men of Zeeland who had died fighting to preserve Dutch freedom since the German invasion. Van Loon had himself been a part of the Dutch war effort since the invasion, broadcasting on Allied radio to the occupied Netherlands under the name Oom Henk (‘Uncle Hank/Harry’). Attitudes towards modern France reflect disappointment since the French surrender of 1940 (Britain is often criticized for being insular), and pessimism about the future of Europe is matched by an optimistic hope that the United States will be able to save humankind from its worst impulses. (638)
Van Loon’s own politics is self-consciously centrist. A strong supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, he is critical of the extremes of both left and right. This is underscored by the choice of their first guest: Erasmus. Erasmus is praised for his good sense, learning, and his refusal to take sides in the bitter Catholic-Protestant schism that defined the politics of his time. (ch. I, 48) Van Loon’s Erasmus comes close to a self-portrait of van Loon himself: trying to combine Lutheran ways of thinking with Catholic ways of living. (586). The same might be said of van Loon’s politics, which tried to fuse leftist ideas of progress and improvement with an appreciation for traditions associated with the right. This political stance is fleshed out in the final chapter, where Thomas Jefferson is portrayed as having these qualities of patrician progressivism. (ch. XXI)
Skepticism about knowledge, and the importance of learning is also central to van Loon’s political philosophy, and are epitomized by his lionizing of Montaigne. Eternal doubt is presented as the price of spiritual liberty, while truth once accepted can become a tyrant. (514-5). Similarly, simple but magnificent sounding phrases are seen as causing more harm than all of the clear deep thinking of the philosophers. (170)
I have more to say on van Loon’s politics later, and especially his blind spots towards figures like Jefferson, but before I do that I want to give a sense of the progress of these dinners with major figures from history.
The first dinner with Erasmus is a great success, but both van Loon and Frits realize that not all of their guests are going to be as learned and pleasant, so they decide in the future to invite two or more for most of the rest of their dinners. Each dinner had a loose theme, so, for example, at one Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Moliere came representing the great writers of the past. Incidentally, it was at this dinner that they discovered that writers were fated (cursed?) to live with their literary creations for eternity. This allowed van Loon to indulge his sense of humour. Cervantes’ Don Quixote tries to tilt at Veere’s windmills, only to be stymied by the frequent canals. At the same time Moliere’s malade imaginaire and Shakespeare’s Hamlet seem to enjoy long hours of complaining to each other. (ch. V)
Artists generally were good company, as shown by the summer festival with the Bachs and the Breughels, (Ch. IV) the slow-burn evening with Emily Dickinson, Chopin and Rossini, (ch. XVIII) or the never dull but oddly successful line up of St. Francis, Hans Christian Andersen, and Mozart. (ch. XI) Dinners with political leaders could go either way, but those with statesmen that put the community before themselves (eg: William the Silent and George Washington in ch. II) proved the best. The dinner with the Empress Theodora and Queen Elizabeth I was entertaining, but showed the limits of van Loon’s ability to write about women characters. (ch. VIII) Sadly, the dinner where Peter the Great and Charles XII of Sweden were invited proved that, even after death, famous people were not able to forget their political differences. (ch. XV)
Some dinners proved to be disasters. When they decided to go potluck & invite ‘the greatest inventor of all time’ they were confronted by a hominid with a stone knife. (ch. XIII) Two bishops from opposite sides in the Council of Nicaea get into a fight, and have to be led away to gaol by the local Veere policeman. An evening with Robespierre and Torquemada underscores the banality of evil. The reality of their violent crimes is matched by how boring, self-absorbed, and humourless they are as dinner guests. (ch. IX)
A disaster of a different kind occurs when they decide to invite Napoleon. (ch. XII) To round out the guest list they include Beethoven – someone who had admired Napoleon, but had then broken with him – and van Loon’s great-great-grandfather – who remained fanatically loyal to his Emperor, despite losing fingers and his business through service in the 1812 campaign in Russia. Napoleon dominates the conversation, spouting obvious half-truths and lies as he uses various household objects to demonstrate why his military and diplomatic decisions had been right (and why the only reason they had failed is because he had been let down by fools and traitors). While van Loon concedes that Napoleon ‘got things done’, he points out that what that usually meant was getting people killed. (353-4)
I must admit that, as I take a more Beethoven approach to Napoleon, I had some sympathy with van Loon’s interpretation. There is no doubt that, like Caesar, Napoleon was a gifted and intelligent man (unlike Trump), but like Caesar (and Trump) he was also driven by a self-interest that seemed incapable of limits. Like Beethoven, van Loon could see behind the Napoleonic façade, which is something van Loon’s great-great-grandfather could not do. Here van Loon explores the fascination of these charismatic leaders, and in so doing he tries to understand the ongoing fascination people have with the great totalitarians of his own time.
Better success was had with the great minds of the past, who often provided rich discussions coupled with answers to big questions. Confucius and Plato explored the big question of political authority, (ch. XIV) while Descartes and Emerson provided two different ways of approach big questions. (ch. VII) Sadly, the Buddha sent his regrets. (ch. X)
At the end of the day, though, the best guests were those who van Loon also praised the most. These were the polymaths who dabbled in many areas, and whose expertise were founded on a broader base of knowledge about the world (528): Erasmus, who stayed with them throughout the series of dinner parties, Thomas More, (ch. III) Dante and Da Vinci, (ch. XVI) Montaigne and Rabelais, (ch. XVII) Nansen and the leaders of the Barents expedition, (ch. XX) and Benjamin Franklin invited for the special lost children of history Saint Nicholas party. (ch. XIX)
Through delightful discussions with these polymaths and dilettantes van Loon constructs a philosophy of life built around two principles. The first is love thy neighbour as thyself, (532) or as he later puts it “Without a real love for our fellow man [sic] then nothing we do is of earthly use’. (619) This is, for van Loon, a universal ethic that we can all embrace.
The second is directed to the leaders and heroes, and further explains van Loon’s antipathy for Napoleon. Leaders need to sacrifice their self-interest for the good of others. Here the reason for the dinner party for the great explorers is revealed. Leaders of a polar expedition (whether Barents’ or Nansen’s) need to live ‘consecrated lives’ where ‘the idea of self had been completely repressed that they might devote themselves entirely to the task of looking after the happiness and well-being of those entrusted to their care.’ (622) For van Loon the same logic applies to politics.
Here van Loon was critical of the failure of contemporary leadership. While we have successfully explored physical worlds, we still behave brutally towards each other. (587) Our expeditions into ‘applied politics’ have failed because they have been entrusted to the ‘wrong kind of commanders.’ (600). The youth, he claimed, need heroes, and if we don’t offer them good ones, they will choose the bad ones that are to hand. (587)
Yet, van Loon’s politics has its own blind spots. The dinners, with only three exceptions, were all male panels. Indeed, at one point both van Loon’s wife and their friend Lucie criticize them for the lack of women. (223) While van Loon praises both Theodora and Elizabeth in his biographies, their characters at dinner contribute little to the broader theme of the book, although at one point he argues that Theodora’s abilities are needed in modern America. (238-9)
The women of contemporary Veere fair better. Jo the cook comes to represent the egalitarian directness of Dutch society, while Lucie van Dam Isselt (a famous Dutch artist and resident of Veere who was a close friend of van Loon’s) encapsulates an older pro-French traditional world. Jimmie van Loon, his wife, frequently joins Lucie in criticizing the two men for their poor decisions, and provides what van Loon sees as a New England directness to the proceedings. Yet, even the contemporary women, while critical of how men have messed things up, do not see politics as a world that women need to take part in.
The most obvious blind spot in van Loon’s genteel politics comes in his attitude to race and slavery. Two of his heroes – Washington and Jefferson – were slave owners. Yet, to call it a blind spot is to give him too much credit. He is well aware that slavery as an institution was present at the founding of the United States. In his biography of Washington, for example, he breezily mentions that Washington’s marriage to Martha brought 150 slaves to their household. (89) Similarly, Washington’s role as a surveyor glosses over that this meant stealing the land of Indigenous people, while he also engaged in the ‘buying and selling’ of slaves. (86)
In a discourse with Franklin van Loon recognizes that slavery is a blot on the early United States. He has Franklin criticize the patronizing attitude of those Founding Fathers who owned slaves (Jefferson is mentioned as an exception). Yet, even here van Loon reflects an at the time common New England attitude to the South that, while critical of the institution of slavery and Jim Crow rules, was itself racist. Southern white society was criticized for the way that slavery (and later segregation) created a white upper class that expected deferential treatment. Rather than showing sympathy for an enslaved and then free but oppressed population, this patrician New England attitude criticized Southern Society for creating a deformed and deferential white society (I have found the same attitude in a letter written by the Harvard Geographer Derwent Whittlesey, for example). African Americans are rendered invisible in this discourse, much as racial injustice in the United States is invisible in van Loon’s book.
This underlying racism is also present in what should be one of the more uplifting moments in the book: the Saint Nicholas party for the lost children of history. Here Frits, who always loved children, blacks up to play Zwarte Piet. While Dutch traditionalists, in the face of recent criticisms, have argued that Zwarte Piet is a positive character unrelated to race, van Loon’s description of the party suggests otherwise. He states that Zwarte Piet is Saint Nicholas’ ‘black slave’ (564), and Frits plays him with the full menacing effect that is associated with the character in 1932.
Thus, there is a racism here that van Loon is not able to escape, and this works against his genuine anti-fascism and humanitarianism. While van Loon speaks for a more humane world, this message is undermined by the partiality of who he sees as humanity’s champions. He rightly condemns the crimes of fascism and other forms of fundamentalism; but is blind to the crimes of American slavery and of the racism and colonialism present in Dutch society.
That said, though, there are glimmers in the book of a different attitude to race, where van Loon does burst the bubble of white supremacy and racial prejudice. He praises the civilization of the darker skinned Spanish Moors against the barbarism of the Christian Spanish Reconquista. (306) He uses the settling of Spanish Jews in Northern Europe as an argument for immigration, and the lack of importance we should attach to differences between immigrants and the host society. (311) Finally, he is deeply critical of racial ideas associated with a superior Herrenvolk. (269) While van Loon sometimes slips into lazy national stereotypes, he never sees this as genetic. Rather culture (and sometimes environment) are the shapers of character.
While the lack of diversity in the guest list and the glossing over of slavery are important failings, van Loon’s strength remains his consistent anti-fascism. The book is peppered with reminders of the impending threat that fascism represents. Confucius, for example, brings along a recently dead descendent as a translator. A graduate of Cornell, the translator had enlisted in the Chinese Army to oppose the Japanese. “I’m afraid I was not a very good soldier’, he admits as he describes his untimely and unnecessary death. (422)
The magical element of the dinners with the dead is woven throughout with the realities of a world becoming more intolerant and brutal. The climax of this intrusion of the outside world comes during the last dinner with Thomas Jefferson in January 1933, when the telephone rings (‘a most unusual occurrence’). It is Frits’ business partner in Amsterdam who has just heard that Hitler will shortly be sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. (640)
This news breaks the magic. Soon after, van Loon returns to the United States. Although he is back in Veere five weeks later, neither he nor Frits feel like going on with their dinner parties. The final scene is dominated by Jo, the working class Veere cook. “The music has gone out of our lives” she concludes. “Whatever we do, let us never despair… here is to hope.” (642).