Teaching American Literature in the Netherlands
In 1674 a hurricane destroyed the unfinished nave of the Utrecht cathedral, separating the Dom, its large bell tower, from the sanctuary. Some of the old stones leveled by the Renaissance winds are still stacked up against the transept, long ago sealed up with an artless wall of bricks. From the look of it all, you might think that the stonemasons had merely plugged the damage until they had time to repair the breach. But the breach has endured for more than three centuries and is now part of Utrecht’s mystique. The church corridor, decimated by storm, has been replaced by a civic plaza, shaded by elms and bordered by cafés, some with marijuana decals on their windows. Each hour scores of cars, bicycles and pedestrians rush through the portal of the tower that at one time welcomed worshippers. The Dom—the highest cathedral tower in the Netherlands—remains alone, a solitary sentinel over the medieval heart of town.
Last August, Arlyne and I moved within a few blocks of the tower, into a second-floor flat overlooking the Oudegracht—or “old canal,” a long twisting waterway that was once the bed of the Rhine. That fall I would begin teaching courses in American literature at the state university. Most of my students were pursuing their “doctoraal” in English, a degree roughly equivalent to an American master’s. When we arrived, an immense plywood image of an American Saturn rocket, as tall as the tower itself, was affixed to the front of the Dom. The two-dimensional facsimile was an advertisement for a space exhibit in town, and the promotional ploy had already made a stir. Prior to our departure for Europe, we had seen a photo of the rocket and tower on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. Throughout the fall, my students and colleagues turned the rocket into a Rorschach for their musings on American values. The plywood replica became an irresistible metaphor for American pretentions, whether it was Kennedy’s moon quest or Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. Whether or not they spent much time in sanctuaries, the graduate students and many faculty still tended to see the marriage of a modern American rocket with an old cathedral tower as a sacrilege, an affront to European tradition and identity.
Arlyne’s father was born in Holland, some forty miles from Utrecht, and he immigrated with his family during the Depression, settling among a community of dairy farmers in Southern California. He recalled for us an old childhood song about the Dom looming above the Holsteins and the marshy grazing lands west of town. As a tourist destination, the Dom has never rivaled the canals of Amsterdam, but the city has often seized the imagination of many Anglo-American prominent intellectuals. John Locke hid out there, in this largely Catholic town, while he waited for the Catholic king of England, James II, to flee to the continent. Thomas Jefferson recommended the city as a model of democracy to his friend James Madison. Nearly a century later the Bostonian scholar John Lothrop Motley praised the 1579 Union of Utrecht as the precursor to Madison’s draft of the Constitution. In 1986, as fireworks were exploding over the Charles River, the University of Utrecht swapped congratulatory telegrams with Harvard, one of the ceremonies marking the three-hundred-and-fifthieth anniversary of both schools.
Long known for its leftist leanings and linguistics programs, the University of Utrecht has become one of Europe’s premier institutions and is now at the forefront of the new Dutch interest in “American Studies.” For most of this century reading lists in English courses at Dutch universities and schools have sounded like guided tours of Westminster Abbey. Dutch gymnasiums—or high schools—commonly assign ten English-language books to their seniors, and only recently have a few headmasters conceded that one American text would not contaminate the mix. As I discovered over and over again, that single exception was usually Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, no doubt made popular by the Milos Forman/Jack Nicholson film. In many Dutch schoolrooms at least, the prototypical American male was neither Ishmael on the open seas nor Huck Finn on the Mississippi, but Randle McMurphy in an Oregon psychiatric ward.
The rise of American Studies programs in universities does suggest that the Dutch are eager to do a little closer analysis of American minds. If many of the English professors in the Netherlands are not quite ready to forgo James Joyce for William Faulkner, they are still interested in whether The Sound and the Fury can tell them something about the people who re-elected Reagan. My primary assignment at Utrecht was to teach a course called “Classical American Literature/American Mythologies.” When Hans Bertens, the director of the American Studies program, first called me in California to explain my charge, he urged me to help students canvass American literature for the nation’s core ideologies and illusions.
A brilliant, witty and gracious host, Bertens earned his doctorate at the University of Kansas, and he knew far more than most of his colleagues about the life and manners west of the Appalachians. By his report, he was a free spirit from the ‘60’s who caught fire with literary theory, yet his conversation was as relaxed and unpretentious as it was panoramic. When he was not tracing the origins of postmodernism, he could turn semiotics on British punk, take a scalpel to American sports, and then hum a few California surfer tunes. A critic of American neuroses—whether Woody Allen or warmongering in Congress—he could also see great promise in the American experiment and was drawn to the interdisciplinary scope of the American Studies curricula that he encountered in the States. I asked him, during our initial phone call, which of the major American mythologies he had in mind for the course. “The major myth,” he responded. “America’s moral burden to the world.”
That came as no surprise: I had expected American foreign policy and philanthropy to be pressed under the microscope in Utrecht. Yet, after just a few days of teaching, I had a new understanding why the moral burden needed context. In the eyes of several of the Dutch collegians, American rhetoric about promoting and policing freedom leapt suddenly, even belligerently, on the international stage, mostly after World War II. Dutch students are remarkably familiar with American culture after Eisenhower and Elvis but only sketchy about the days before Woodrow Wilson. Many students at Utrecht could recount the main points in the Marshall Plan and hum the theme song to M*A*S*H but knew little of the Emancipation Proclamation or Second Amendment. What the Dutch youth commonly understand of American history, I suppose, is not unlike what most Americans know of Russia before Trotsky and the Bolsheviks toppled the czar. A nation commands our attention when it becomes a global force, and yet we usually remain in the dark about the genesis of its foreign policy and prevailing creeds.
So our two-term journey through American history, letters and mythologies loomed as an archeological dig, an attempt to unearth the sources of the nation’s moral agenda. And the rocket, I quickly realized, got weighted down with fears of American paternalism. Even though I can get dismayed myself by American saber rattling, my first impulse was still to see the plywood Saturn rocket as a benign stunt, a Vegas-style billboard for an exhibit about Kennedy’s “new frontier.” Indeed, several of the older Dutch that we met were grateful that American technological know-how bolstered NATO, helped rebuild Europe, and beat the Soviets to the moon. But my students at the university tended to see NASA as a thin cover for American military expansion, as if Reagan’s vision for Star Wars had been in Kennedy’s eyes from the start.
That skepticism was invigorating. I enjoyed the post-class luncheons and debates about our respective illusions. The sparing began almost the moment I stepped into the Institute, as some of the professors, students and neighbors pressed me about the American retaliation against Libya during the previous April. It was Syrian terrorists, they claimed, not Libya’s Kaddafi, who plotted the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that took two American lives. But the edge to the discussion was seldom about the identity of the culprits and almost always about the proportionality and ulterior motives of the American response. The American moral burden, I was told, was the combustible in many of the most volatile international affairs.
Many of these conclusions about American moral aggression seemed a bit hasty. When scouting American literature for overarching myths, it was all too easy for the European students to line up various characters—from Rip Van Winkle to the Terminator—in a prefabricated narrative about American naïveté and militarism. So often I heard that Americans lacked the capacity for self-reflection. True, American political idioms and pop culture can resort to cartoonish simplicities, though it is easy to miss some of the occasional winks to the audience that provide a little irony with the bluster. And most of the critiques I heard in Holland about American culture and ideals were already common fare in the American academy.
But my days in Utrecht did make me more aware that I carried an innate optimism about America’s role in the world, and I had more time to reflect on whether that resulted from some distinctive good will in American nature or from an insular chauvinism. It's both, of course. I come home with a richer appreciation for those Americans who understand that personal compassion and service are obligations of freedom, an essential corollary to any case for limited government. At the same time, in Holland you are continually reminded of your own linguistic isolation, especially when the Dutch students accept, as a matter of course, that to function in Europe they had to learn the language and histories of their neighbors, not just the U.K., France and Germany, but perhaps Spain and Russia as well. That linguistic virtuosity, so remarkable to Americans, was matched by their adeptness at reading postmodern theory, their savvy about international politics, and their discouragement about the current European job market. Since I was there with the Fulbright program, I heard frequent praise for the willingness of the United States to invest some of its war dividend in international exchanges and understanding, though I was occasionally reminded that the privilege I had to live and study in Utrecht came from the bounty of a war that still left Europe divided. For some skeptics, the Fulbright program was seen as part of the post-war headiness of American progressives, as the United States presumably sought to transform that war dividend into its own intellectual command of the world.
Early on, I had expected that their anxieties about the moral burden might lead to some grief over the Puritans’ famous “errand into the wilderness.” Americans often do attempt to give religious sanction to their current political goals by lifting quotes from early Protestant settlers like William Bradford and John Winthrop. Yet to my surprise, the students, mostly indifferent to religious practice, were actually grateful to see a little Calvinism. If anything, students were struck that Winthrop’s famous allusion to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a “city on a hill” differed from the “great shining city on a hill” that our president has invoked to bolster American pride. Winthrop’s famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity,” probably given just prior to or during his Atlantic crossing, was not a celebration of his freedom from England, but a reminder to the immigrants that the eyes of Europe were on them, especially should they fail in charity and fall into sin. If the class did not buy all of Winthrop’s views—especially his explanation of God’s purpose for poverty—it was at least reassured that the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was not out to “negate” the European past with a prophecy of American purity.
That was a recurrent theme at Utrecht—that American freedom was too often the “negation” of European heritage. Negation would only breed insularity. When we arrived in the Netherlands, a team of Dutch academics had just returned from a tour of American universities. During a reception in The Hague I listened to many sidebar editorials insisting that the study of history and literature in the United States was far too nepotistic. American students, presumably, read too much of their history apart from the theatre of international events, insuring that another generation of Americans will be bewildered when their European allies refuse to follow the suit played by the United States in foreign policy. The Fourth of July may strike many Americans ancestral rite, a tribute to the “founders,” but many Dutch think of the American saga as an onslaught of new beginnings, attempts to erase the past, escape their ancestors, and start over on empty soil. With that lens, some students in Utrecht were quick to see Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as a spark for self-righteous individualism rather than as an Enlightenment call for equality or justice.
Jefferson had his admirers among my Dutch students and colleagues, though he often did have a rough go of it in our class discussions. In their History of American Literature, Bertens and Theo D’haen—his friend and frequent collaborator, the chair of the American Studies program at the University of Leiden—attribute to Jefferson the “static” version of the American dream. Troubled at the prospect of crowded cities and the chance that the young nation might escape a limited monarchy only to embrace an imperial presidency, Jefferson had argued for the decentralization of power and the distribution of land among a citizenry of small farmers. Bertens and D’haen set that vision against the “dynamic” American dream of Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin, who, as his own story goes, once entered Philadelphia with little more than a “Dutch dollar” in his pocket and began to transform his rags into riches. Hamilton had amplified Franklin’s personal tale of success into a plan for a self-reliant nation, with a vigorous agenda for a strong chief executive, a robust national bank, and the expansion of industry. Given his taste for industry, it would be Hamilton, you might think, that would get linked to the big rocket by the Dom, yet, according to many students in Utrecht it was Jefferson’s pastoral vision, far from undermining Hamilton’s Federalism, that reinforced the sanctity of private property, making wide latitude for the titans of industry. Some students even pushed Berten’s and D’haen’s thesis toward Marxist ends, contending that the Virginian president left us a bourgeois capitalism that masqueraded behind Enlightenment rhetoric about liberty.
I did get warned that I might also run into some trouble when I got to Walden Pond. Americans often embrace Henry David Thoreau as an environmental sage, but in Europe, according to Bertens, he can often be seen as the “the village idiot,” not the least because his famous retreat into the woods took him only two miles from the center of Concord and his mother’s cooking. For our syllabus, I had chosen Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” his landmark essay in opposition to the Mexican War. That work inspired Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and it did impress many of the students at Utrecht, who applauded Thoreau for repudiating “manifest destiny,” the cry launched during the Polk administration’s campaigns to seize territories from northern Mexico, presumably so that the land could be opened for slavery. As usual, I tried to set the stage for our class session by leaving the students a question to ponder as they read. “Would Thoreau’s ideas lead to a more just and honorable society,” I queried, “or would they merely promote anarchy?” In American classes, that question had always provided enough flint to spark sufficient debate, but at first my class in Utrecht was uncharacteristically silent. One of the most articulate students soon explained the impasse: “You have begged the question,” he gently asserted. “You have assumed that anarchy is not just and honorable.”
My question undoubtedly reaffirmed the students’ impression that most Americans are dead-set conservatives—or at least no more than intractable moderates. Political opinion in the United States, according to my friends in Utrecht, was narrowly confined to a prudent center, with artistic and sexual mores restrained by prudish bureaucrats. Sure enough, Democrats and Republics could quarrel over policies and personalities, but their partisan differences covered only a small span of the ideological scale in European parliaments or media. In the United States, I was reminded, you would never see Communists or Arian skinheads given airtime on television, nor could prostitution, heroine and euthanasia ever receive government sanction, even for the most humane reasons. One thesis of some of his work, Bertens told me, is “that the United States was once the protector of civil liberties, but in recent decades has abandoned that mantle to Western Europe.” Presumably, it is not simply that the States lack Europe’s liberal instincts for individual rights, but also that modern Americans lack Europeans’ tragic knowledge of tyranny. The most compelling Dutch fiction that I read during our days in Utrecht was Harry Mulisch’s 1982 novel The Assault, a tautly crafted mystery exposing the struggle of modern Holland to escape the memory of its occupation during World War II. Only in an isolated America, some students suggested to me, would I not be inclined to see that anarchy, especially in the face of fascism or genocide, could be a moral option.
Neither Jefferson nor Thoreau, however, was as effective in stirring conversation as the Marlboro Man. The Dutch students were enamored of the open road, the mythical West, and its potential for bravado and recklessness. A block or two from our flat, we would pass an old postcard with the tobacco-lipped cowboy, now banned in American magazines, taped to the window of the local “Head Shop,” above the assortment of hemp bags and hand-painted bongs. It’s been nearly fifteen years since the theme of The Magnificent Seven soared behind the image of the Marlboro Man on American television, and smoking is in decline in the States, unlike in the Netherlands, where students often sent me cues about the need for a break by rolling their cigarettes in class. More than once, I was reminded that two of the models for the Marlboro ads had contracted emphysema, a story supposedly hushed up by Phillip Morris and Madison Avenue so that they did not expose the self-destructiveness of nicotine or life on the range. Somehow, the idea that the Marlboro Man could succumb to cancer revealed that the cowboys were counterfeits and the frontier rash and debilitating.
Many of my friends and students in Utrecht did like those tales about dissimulation—even anarchy—on the open road. You do learn much about how the United States is perceived from what other people choose to read about it. Other than for a handful of students seeking admission to American Ph.D. programs, grades seemed to matter less to the doctoraal candidates than to most American collegians, and many of the brightest students at Utrecht covered just the basics for the course and saved considerable free time to pursue their own reading choices, especially since they, as in most European universities, did not have general education duties. The most acclaimed interpreters of the American middle class—John Cheever, Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Anne Tyler, among others—did not get much traction among Utrecht’s readers. Instead, I heard several recommendations for Wright Morris’s In Orbit, a short novel about a draft dodger who strikes out on a rape-filled, murderous motorcycle ride into the American west. Jack Keroauc’s On the Road was a favorite, as was Don DeLillo’s new novel White Noise, which depicts an apocalyptic chemical spill on the Midwest plains and the search for drugs to offset the fear of death. As the capstone to my mythologies course, I was asked to teach Paul Theroux’s Mosquito Coast, the satire of a fanatic who fashions himself as the “last American” and who uproots his family from the “dope-peddling” suburbs of Massachusetts to replant American idealism in the wilds of Latin America, where there was still “nothing but an outline of emptiness.”
Theroux’s novel has echoes of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, which we spent a few hours turning over in Utrecht. In 1893, Turner, a young Wisconsin historian, redirected the course of American scholarship with a disarmingly simple notion that American social and political institutions grew out of the promise of an unbounded West. Forget the Civil War-era debate between New England and Virginia about their founders’ values. Forget even the prevalent late nineteenth-century theories about the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon seeds of American idealism. According to Turner, the great issues in American life, even the slavery controversy, were shaped most profoundly by the relentless push to occupy the vast spaces between the Mississippi and the Pacific. Advanced during a decade when the frontier was officially “closed” by the U.S. government, Turner’s thesis implies that the existence of a seemingly endless Western territory had guaranteed opportunities for all Americans, enabling democracy, which had stagnated in the cramped corridors of Europe, to flourish in North America. However, most of my students in Holland had been encouraged to think of the westward expansion as an endless Houdini act, a perpetual flight from domestic and civic responsibility. When Americans ran out of real estate, they presumably chose to head out into the “emptiness” of the developing world. Apparently the Marlboro Man, whether he knew it or not, was an imperialist.
Of course, the image of the United States as a “dynamic” nation thriving on its industry clashes at times with the myth of Americans as a people eager for the freedom of the frontier rather than submission to urban life or tradition. I suppose this paradox reveals a tension in both the Dutch analysis and American thought. American occupation of international territories in the last hundred years has not been due singularly to the implosion of its renegades at the end of the frontier. In many ways, it is actually very much like the acquisitive habits that defined much European colonialism during the past couple centuries. No doubt, we learned some of our paternalism from the British and the Dutch.
And a few Dutch professors who remembered World War II did admit that the mythic West had a romantic lure in a continent nearly dismantled by Hitler. Despite distaste for some recent American military ventures, Dutch faculty spoke respectfully about the Marshall Plan as an effort to export the optimism of the American Dream. American independence is not entirely unattractive to those who worry about melting facelessly in NATO, even losing their guilders to a common European coin. Eventually, I wrote letters to support a student’s successful admission to a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas, where he looked forward to the desert terrain and Longhorn football games. On the way to the train station we would walk by one record store that often cranked up Bruce Springsteen’s open-road romanticism, especially “The Promised Land” and “No Surrender.” By late fall the store was playing Springsteen’s live version of what he called “the greatest song ever written about America”—Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
It is no wonder why that folk song might have appeal in Holland’s cloistered streets. The use of space in the Netherlands—the most densely populated country in the world—requires an elaborate civic geometry. Dairies and windmills dominate in the large green fields between towns because city residents are strategically stacked in high rises, many of them allowed a small garden plot alongside the urban railroad trestles. New green space consists mostly of the polders reclaimed from the sea, not unlike the uncanny ability of Dutch midfielders to discover passing space in the tightest regions of the soccer pitch. Many Dutch would resonate with Guthrie’s populism, though they lack that wide, open continent as a source for their optimism—that land apparently made for you and me between the New York island and the redwood forest.
Manifest destiny still does have its lure: among foreign investors, only the British own more property in the United States than the Dutch. One of the most popular items at the nearby stationers was a Dutch version of Monopoly; Arlyne and I spent a couple evenings scheming to bankrupt each other by securing the Kalverstraat, the Dutch Boardwalk. Each day thousands of tourists or gem experts stroll through the actual Kalverstraat in Amsterdam, where at the Diamond Center they can buy jewels mined in South Africa under “apartheid,” certainly the most embarrassing word in the Dutch language, a remnant from a time when the Dutch also believed that God had set aside for them some of the far-reaching edges of the world.
The rocket came down in mid-October, before the first snow and soon after hasty Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Iceland, widely perceived in Holland as a failure. By the time of the summit, it was quite clear that the promotional gimmick had been there too long. Graffiti covered the rocket boosters. Few students saw the exhibit, though many were quick to note that Star Wars had been the prime obstacle to any treaty at Reykjavik. I was fortunate that the rocket was gone when my Dutch colleagues first broke the news to me of the Iran-contra scandal. In the end, I was relieved to see the dismantling of all the scaffolding and the plywood facsimile, if for no other reason than it revealed the beauty of the Dom itself, with its three tiers and octangular crown. I wanted a glimpse of that European heritage—an image of the church as the center of town without the shadow of expansion or aggression. It is, after all, nearly impossible to talk about America’s moral vision without acknowledging that many of its people see themselves sustaining European Christianity, whether that is the individualism of the Reformation or the communalism of Catholics. Before the autumn skies turned gray, we could now observe, more beautifully and sadly, the great hole in the church itself, as the Saturn dynamo no longer rivaled the splintered cathedral for preeminence on the city skyline.
But I will always be nostalgic about that plywood rocket. On our first Friday in Utrecht, just minutes before noon, Arlyne and I left a nearby doctor’s home with news that we were expecting our first child. A sudden rain fell, as we fumbled our umbrella, smiling over our new instructions to find a midwife. Once past the stroke of twelve, the bells in the tower began to play “Fly Me to the Moon.” It was a buoyant moment—the August rain, the Sinatra tune, the freedom of living abroad. It was for us a new beginning, not a negation, but the first imaginings of parenthood dreamt up over the cobblestones on ancient streets. For Arlyne maternity would bring visits to her father’s childhood farm, the discovery of distant cousins, talks with students about their job anxieties, and theories from our neighbors about the future of marriage. As we prepared to leave, friends and students gave us French wine, Dutch children’s books, and even a sketch of the Statute of Liberty dressed for her centennial in a tiara of MX missiles. Someday, I suppose, I will show a photo of the Saturn rocket alongside the majestic Dom to Bradford, our newborn son. And I will say that you, too, were there, within the splendor of those cathedral bells, and beneath the shadow of that fearful symmetry.