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Controlling Time and Shaping the Self.

Education, Introspection and Practices of Writing in the Netherlands

NWO Vernieuwingsimpuls

(© A. Baggerman, 2001)

Project leader

Dr. J.A. (Arianne) Baggerman


Copyright Gemeentearchief Dordrecht

The key question of the project is to what extent and in what ways the specific contents and forms of egodocuments as well as the increase in their number in the long nineteenth century were related to the emergence of a new sense of temporality, both on an individual level (projects 1 and 2), through the medium of pedagogical intervention (project 1), and in the public sphere (project 3).

The traditional wisdom concerning the links between autobiographical writing, growing introspection and individualization will be questioned. In my view, while writing to control temporal experience, the nineteenth-century autobiographers inadvertently reflected on themselves and shaped their own individuality.

Contact details

Dr A. Baggerman
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Faculty of History and Arts
Room L3-012
P.O. Box 1738
NL-3000 DR Rotterdam
The Netherlands
Phone Work: +31 10 4088724
Phone Home: +31 78 6314505

NWO Councel Area

For information on the NWO Vernieuwingsimpuls click here

Host Institution

Erasmus University Rotterdam
Faculty of History and Arts

Themes and scholarly objectives

The increasing production of diaries, autobiographies and other types of 'egodocuments' in the nineteenth century has thus far been mainly interpreted as a sign of growing introspection and self-questioning. This view was based on a limited canon of great writers, including Rousseau and Goethe. While searching for Dutch egodocuments written between 1814 and 1914, I found cause to doubt the prevailing view. Contrary to expectations, the number of factual diaries and impersonal memoirs rose more sharply than the number of intimate introspective texts. I found diaries with readers' comments in the margins, life stories which focused on historical events instead of the 'ego' of the author, diaries with indices and summaries added in different handwritings, and finally, pre-printed pocket calendars that were used as diaries, containing only factual jottings. Moreover, preliminary research demonstrated a marked increase in the number of printed autobiographies. This leads to the question whether the presumed rise in introspection and self-reflection among Dutch authors found its way into public (published) texts rather than into private (unpublished) ones such as diaries and manuscript autobiographies? If that is the case, how do we explain the paradox of the apparent 'privacy of publicity', and what is the meaning of the seemingly more impersonal 'private' texts?

Should we seek the explanation, following Peter Gay, in a 'preoccupation with the self, to the point of neurosis' or rather, drawing on Reinhart Koselleck, in an attempt by individuals to master temporality, in the increasing urge, after the mid-eighteenth century, to control experiences which had no historical precedent? The former hypothesis suggests explanations in terms of psycho-dynamic processes, the latter privileges an approach in terms of the rationalization of the self in a temporal framework. Without neglecting the introspective element, this project will focus on the second approach. Therefore we need to analyze not only the egodocuments themselves, but also other forms of nineteenth-century writing. An internationally comparative approach will identify which aspects of the development were typically Dutch. I propose an analysis from three different angles, each of which forms a project in itself:

  1. Diary writing and the control over time
  2. Changes in the perception of time and personal historical reflection
  3. The commercialization of autobiographical writing

I will relate these fields to a fundamental cultural change which set in around 1750: the change in the perception of time and historical reflection. Important to this period is the concept of 'the future' which only then became part of human thought (in the Dutch language the word 'toekomst' was introduced). The awareness grew that mankind could decide about its own future. People felt that their world was no longer a given, but an experienced phenomenon, replete with expectations, uncertainties, and possibilities for moulding both their personal lives and the society they were part of. The widening distance between the present and the future offered a greater freedom of choice, but also caused anxiety, which led to a permanent conflict between personal freedom and self-control. The gap between the past and the present also grew wider, causing new anxieties about maintaining a sense of temporal continuity. One way to bridge this gap was by creating public commemorations of the national past. Collective memory expressed in such rituals is now attracting historical attention. Thus far, the bridging of this gap on the personal level has not been studied. Here the proposed project will break new ground.

The key question of the project is, to what extent and in what ways, the specific contents and forms of egodocuments, as well as the increase in their number in the long nineteenth century were related to the emergence of a new sense of temporality, both on an individual level (projects 1 and 2), through the medium of pedagogical intervention (project 1), and in the public sphere (project 3). The traditional wisdom concerning the links between autobiographical writing, growing introspection and individualization will be questioned. In my view, while writing to control temporal experience, the nineteenth-century autobiographers inadvertently reflected on themselves and shaped their own individuality.

Scope, relevance and approach

The proposed project covers the period 1750-1914 in the Netherlands. This period includes the age in which the modern consciousness of time took shape (1750-1850), as well as the long nineteenth century (1789-1914) in which this had a continued effect.

The project is relevant because, for the first time, the history of the perception of time and of historical reflection will be studied in relation to one another, as well as in relation to two other important cultural changes taking place around 1750: the revolution in reading, writing and publishing, and the birth of modern pedagogy. Thus, the project will have an exemplary function for an international audience. It will, moreover, contribute to discussions about the history of individualization.

The results of this research will be placed in a European perspective using literature on England, Germany and France for each of the topics we explore. Influences from these countries on developments in the Netherlands will be taken into account. Since an interdisciplinary approach is indispensable for this project, our analysis will incorporate insights and methods current in cultural history, history of mentalities, literary studies and literary history, history of pedagogy and, the history of books. The results of the inventory of Dutch egodocuments, both in print and in manuscript, covering the period 1500-1914 will be used. This NWO-project is now being carried out by the applicant for the period 1814-1914. Selections from three relevant text types will be made: (a) a list of manuscript diaries, (b) a list of manuscript autobiographies, and (c) a bibliography of printed and commercially published autobiographies. They will be taken from the already published database for the period 1500-1814, and from the almost completed database for the period 1814-1914 . Only in the Netherlands have autobiographical texts been made systematically accessible on such a large scale. This cutting-edge position offers an excellent point of departure for the proposed project.

Description of the projects

Project 1: Diary writing and the control over time, a new pedagogical tool
Project 2: Changes in the perception of time and personal historical reflection
Project 3: The commercialization of autobiographical writing

Project 1: Diary writing and the control over time, a new pedagogical tool

Recently, the applicant drew attention to a type of autobiographical writing which had escaped the attention of historians: children's diaries. Likewise, in pedagogical treatises a directive was found that had escaped the attention of the historians of pedagogy: parents should instruct their children to keep a diary. Writing a diary would help a child to develop its control over time and stimulate self-reflection. Parents in turn should read their children's diaries regularly.

In a preliminary article based on the diary of Otto van Eck (1791-1797), the applicant has discussed the new possibilities for research offered by such diaries, of which some thirty were found. Along with these diaries, further study should include pedagogical treatises, encyclopedias, 'spectator' and other journals in which this new insight was popularized. The influence of French, English and German (the Philantropines) pedagogues in the Netherlands should also be taken into account. The reception of these new ideas can be traced in Dutch children's literature as well. Most extant children's diaries have been preserved in family archives, and will be studied together with related texts, including occasional diaries written by parents. Such texts will add a new perspective to our analysis. The children's age, gender, class and religion will also be taken into consideration, enabling us to study the spread of this new practice. Special attention will be given to the reading practices of children and ways and means of parental control. The children's response to what they read will be studied and their reactions will be compared with the original texts, a method developed by the applicant. This approach will clarify how children appropriated what they read.

The theory and practice of diary writing by children will be discussed against the background of the efforts to raise the level of civilization by newly founded societies like the Maatschappij tot Nut van 't Algemeen. It will also be related to the discussions about 'control and freedom of the press' and the debate about 'immoderate reading'. These discussions were about freedom and control in general, and about writing, reading and publishing in particular, and are therefore relevant to the development of the theory and practice of the use of diaries in education.

Children's diaries were not private, because relatives and teachers read them. Despite their relatively public character, however, children's diaries could have an intimate character. Paradoxically, pedagogues and parents encouraged children to write intimate diaries. There may be a development towards more private and intimate children's diaries in the course of the nineteenth century. We will test and adjust current ideas on the dichotomy between private and public spheres (in the work of Jürgen Habermas and Roger Chartier).

Project 2: Changes in the perception of time and personal historical reflection

After 1750, both a new sense of the past, and a new sense of the future developed. The general perception that the western world was modernizing very rapidly, had a great impact on the perception of time, and resulted in a growing urge to control and structure the past, present and future. One way of doing so was through writing. The past was structured in diaries, the future was controlled by agendas (meaning pre-printed pocket diaries). Both forms of writing reflect the tension between freedom and control on the personal level. The Dutch word agenda first appeared in the Dutch language in 1769. Prefabricated, mass-produced agendas appeared early in the nineteenth century.

The changing perception of time will be studied in diaries selected from a database of 350 texts covering the period 1750-1914. Both the material and textual form of these diaries will be analyzed. The following questions will be addressed: Did the introduction of modern writing equipment such as the already mentioned agenda, iron pen (1805), ballpoint pen (1885) and typewriter (1891), influence writing practices? How did diaries structure time? Were they ordered by the day, or even by the hour? What was the influence of age, gender, religion, and class of the authors? Entries relating to time will be analyzed to gain insight in temporal aspects of daily life. We will also look into items such as the separation of work and leisure, and sleeping patterns.

The new sense of the past that arose from 1750, will be researched on the basis of autobiographies and memoirs. Some aspects of what has been called the 'historizing of the world view' , have been well studied, namely the birth of modern historiography and the popularity of the historical novel. Historical reflection at the personal level - never studied before - is the focus of this part of the project. Successive generations in the nineteenth century witnessed great changes (the coming of industry, trains, steamships, factories, the electric telegraph). These made autobiographers aware that their own lives had become part of the past, or, metaphorically, a closed chapter. Autobiographers began to realize that in their youth they had lived in a 'world we have lost'. This idea contributed to the growing need to record the personal past, which in turn led to an increase in self-reflection. The 'historization' of the world also found expression in an increasing interest in human memory, not only as an object of scientific study but, as has been recently suggested, also in personal observations by autobiographers.

Manuscript autobiographies will be analyzed, concentrating on passages on time, memory, technology, education, language, customs and daily life. Special attention will be given to summaries at the end of the text, a growing trend it seems, and 'second thoughts' in which an author, or his/her descendants, commented on earlier writings.

The manuscripts to be researched will be selected from a database of about 400 autobiographies compiled by the applicant. Texts will be selected to include male and female authors, various classes and different religions. By comparing different texts, answers to specific questions, such as whether there was a widening gap between time perspective in secular and religious autobiography, should become available. Priority in the selection will be given to about thirty authors of whom both an autobiography and a diary have been preserved. By comparing two texts written by the same author at different moments in life, a possible change in his or her sense of time, and the function of memory can be studied in practice.

The diaries and autobiographies will be subjected to close reading, looking for signs of intimacy and introspection. We will look for specific remarks made by authors about the character of their texts; we will also look at the occasions upon which intimate or introspective remarks were made, such as birthdays, New Year's Eve, or periods of illness. Some authors confessed their disability to express themselves in intimate writing. On those occasions, author and researcher are both confronted with the borderline between privacy and publicity. The conflict between intention and practice, which authors confess, may turn out to be a fundamental paradox of the genre.

Project 3: The commercialization of autobiographical writing

By the late eighteenth century publishers were flooding the market with agendas, calendars and books containing pedagogical advice. They now added to their stock lists an increasing number of memoirs and autobiographies. How personal memories became a popular literary genre, thereby contributing to the processes of changing time consciousness and individualization, is the theme of the third part of the project. We have made a selection of texts from the bibliography of printed Dutch egodocuments, which includes 800 printed and commercially published autobiographies. The final selection will be limited to writings which, according to the intention of the author, and also in the judgement of the reviewers were regarded as authentic. In such cases there was, in the words of Philippe Lejeune, a 'pacte autobiographique' between author and reader.

The titles of these books will be analyzed to get an impression of their diversity. We will concentrate on key words such as 'autobiografie', which as far as we know was used for the first time in the mid-nineteenth century. Further analysis will focus on approximately 80 works published with a foreword. Forewords, usually written by the author or publisher, shed light on the motives for writing and publishing. They also tell us something about the intended audience. Where possible, the printrun will be traced. This should give us an indication of the popularity of these books. The public reception will be studied by analyzing reviews in selected journals. This will contribute to a better understanding of the interaction between reviewing, reading and producing autobiographical texts.

Words of these 80 books will be combined with their actual contents, focusing on claims of intimacy, introspection and authenticity. The results of this investigation will shed more light on the previous question to what extent autobiographical texts have a more intimate and introspective character than most of the hand-written texts I found in family archives. The information about authenticity could corroborate the suggestion that Dutch bourgeois culture began to value this attitude more highly in the second part of the nineteenth century. This growing appreciation could have had an effect on the character and status of published autobiographical writing. The author's age, class, religion and in particular gender will also be taken into account. Was the contribution of female authors as great in the Netherlands as in other countries? Did the popularity of these public autobiographical writings about the private sphere contribute to a new definition of the boundaries between the two spheres of life?

Finally, the growth of the genre will be set against the background of the general development of the book market in the nineteenth century. Technical innovations, which contributed to the spread of printed matter, such as the steam press and woodbased paper, will also be taken into account. The final goal of this project is to gauge the influence of printed autobiographical writing. If this type of literature, as I assume, acquired an educational function, the autobiographical impulse became self-propelling well into the twentieth century.

Institutional context

The Faculty of History and Arts of the Rotterdam Erasmus University provides an excellent institutional context for this project. The NWO-project 'Samenstelling van een repertorium van egodocumenten van Nederlanders in de negentiende eeuw' is located at the faculty and supervised by dr. R.M. Dekker. The faculty is an internationally recognized centre of expertise in this field. The proposed project is also linked with the project 'Tijd en historisch besef', concerning collective memory in the nineteenth century, directed by prof.dr. M. Grever. Several members of the faculty will act as advisors, in particular prof.dr. S. Stuurman. The two Ph.D. projects will be supervised by prof.dr. M. Grever and dr. R.M. Dekker.

The project accords with the existing cooperation between the faculty and the Instituut voor Nederlandse Geschiedenis (The Hague); dr. H. de Valk will be advisor. Furthermore the project is embedded in the Huizinga Institute (Research Institute and Graduate School), in particular in the research group 'Cultuurprocessen in context' (prof.dr. M. Gijswijt) and the research group 'Intellectuele geschiedenis' (prof.dr. N. van Sas). The project will be regularly discussed in the meetings of the interdisciplinary working group on biography and autobiography of the Huizinga Institute and the SISWO. Dr. G.J. Johannes and prof.dr. J.J. Kloek (both University of Utrecht) have agreed to act as advisors with regard to the literary aspects. Prof.dr. W.Th.M. Frijhoff (history of mentalities) (Free University Amsterdam) will act as an advisor.

International context

Contacts with scholars from various countries, established during the NWO-internationalization project 'De ontwikkeling van autobiografisch schrijven en persoonlijke identiteit' (Huizinga Institute) will be intensified. The existing cooperation between the Faculty of History and Art of the Rotterdam Erasmus University with the Max Planck Institut für Geschichte in Göttingen (prof.dr. H. Medick) and the University of Basel (prof.dr. K. von Greyerz) will be developed further. As comparisons will be made with developments in France, Germany and England, specialists from these countries will be in regular contact with the applicant and the Ph.D. researchers. Prof.dr. R. Habermas (Göttingen), prof.dr. M. Mascuch (Berkeley), and prof.dr. Ph. Lejeune (Paris), experts on German, English and French (literary) history respectively, will act as advisors.


Dr. A. Baggerman
Dr. R. Dekker (project 1)
Drs. E. Grabowsky (project 2)
Drs. M. Huisman (PHd. project 3)
Drs. M. de Jong-IJsselstein (project 2)
Drs. J. Kuyvenhoven-Broek (project 2)
E. Moraal (student-assistent project 1)
Drs. G. Schulte Nordholt (project 3)
Drs. J. Blaak ( project 2)