Book review – Peter de Haan and Kerst Huisman, eds. Famous Frisians in America

We Frisians feel left out. As a group, our numbers in America are so small that we flat-out never get mentioned in history texts. That a book attempting to remedy this appeared at all in time for the 400-year Dutch American anniversary celebrations must be a sign of Frisian stubbornness and resolve. I don’t know what the contributors were asked when the Province of Friesland decided to support the project, but it must have gone something like this: “Write anything, no matter what length or style, and be sure to find good pictures, but, by Jupiter, just write.” Although some of the individual contributions are quite good, and come from scholars of note, the final result is a rather disorganized collection of 62 major and 42 minor articles about people who are both Frisian and famous.

            Who is a Frisian? According to the authors it is anyone who was either born in Friesland, or is a first or second generation descendant thereof. There is little discussion about what makes a Frisian unique. And a “famous” Frisian, if the content of the articles is any indication, is one who has shaken hands with a U.S. president.  Presidents Nixon, Carter, Eisenhower, G.W. Bush, and both Roosevelts find mention, as do Bill Clinton (four times), and Barack Obama an astonishing seven times! And this in a book on Frisian history!

            Early articles include a clear overview of Frisian-American immigration by Annemieke Galema, and a personal look at the biography of Peter Stuyvesant provided by Jaap Jacobs. The bulk of the book is devoted to writers, politicians, professors, and a significant number of entertainers who made their mark in America.  The articles are not divided alphabetically or into any discernible themes except (perhaps?) a loose chronology. The length of the articles varies from 1 to 16 pages, and no less than 25 of them were written by the editors themselves. The language of many a translated article shows the need for a native English speaker’s red pen. Most troubling are numerous speculative references (for example, the Obama-Obbema link) which often do more harm than good and perpetuate falsities. On the bright side, the hardcover book is aesthetically pleasing, presents some new material, is full of high-quality pictures, and comes at a fair price, $14.

One wonders, however, if the story of Frisians in America is so piecemeal? Perhaps it is, and we can hope for no better than a hagiographic work. In the late nineteenth century, amateur historians, often second or third generation immigrants themselves, rose from their provincial communities and boasted the collective accomplishments of their particular ethnic groups in an attempt to justify their place in American society. What does it tell us about Frisian-Americans that we are still doing this in 2009?

(note: this is a review I wrote in 2009 but never published. I think the editor of the journal where I sent this piece thought it was too harsh.)

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