What can you say about a seventeen-year-old boy who died? That he was surly and thoughtful. That he loved his horse and his books. And he wrote a diary. From this diary, the authors of Child of Enlightenment have produced a most unusual biography, indeed a biography that breaks with the conventional rules of the genre. The astounding little fact beneath Baggerman and Dekker’s hefty tome is that their subject did not accomplish much in his short life. When he died, he had yet to vote or fall in love, compose a symphony, paint a picture, or see the world; he was not even much of a diarist. Yet the narrative of this unfortunate youth, Otto van Eck, captivates the reader. Or rather, Child of Enlightenment captivates the reader, because the life of little Otto provides more of a conduit than an endpoint to this book, whose real subject is the politico-cultural history of Holland in the 1790s and the Batavian Revolution of 1795.
The reason that this biography works as well as it does is that Otto van Eck was born into a most illustrious family which did make an enormous impact. His uncle and his father were intellectual firebrands, champions of a free press, and members of the enlightened avant-garde of their day, who would unfortunately be broken by the vicissitudes of political life. Otto’s uncle Pieter Paulus died of pneumonia at the apex of his career in 1796; his father Lambert van Eck died in 1803, a disillusioned man.
The story of these two men’s rise and fall is fascinating, dramatic, and ultimately provides a sad commentary on human nature that is not unlike some of the other commentary we’ve accumulated over the months on “A Revolution in Fiction.” As the authors note, commenting on Lambert van Eck’s imprisonment, “The ideal democracy presupposes an intellectually schooled and discerning reading public seeking detailed information on all aspects of any argument. This was not the case in Lambert’s day, nor is it ever likely to be” (394).
The challenge for the biographers, then, is to maintain their chosen focus on Otto and his narrow horizons during the six years that this diary records, all the while avoiding the temptation to plunge into the drama of his illustrious and more interesting parents. Up to you readers to judge if they meet the challenge. Or stand by for a book review, forthcoming, in Biography.
Arianne Baggerman and Rudolf Dekker, Child of the Enlightenment: Revolutionary Europe Reflected in a Boyhood DiaryTrans. Diane Webb. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009.