De publieke man. Dr. P.H. Ritter Jr. als cultuurbemiddelaar in het interbellum

Translated title of the contribution: The public man. Dr. P.H. Ritter Jr. as a culture mediator during the inter war period

A. Rutten

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisThesis 1: fully internal

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    Despite his former fame and influence, the Dutch critic, journalist and writer DrP.H. Ritter Jr (1882-1962) is no longer a household name in his home country. The decline of his reputation might be partially explained by the rather narrow focus of conventional literary historiography, which has generally neglected the roles that literature and literary reviews played in ‘non-canonical’ media and organisations. Inspired by the emerging field of Middlebrow Studies, this dissertation sheds newlight on the cultural history of the Dutch interwar period by analysing five aspects:the rise of cultural mediators; the tenacity as well as the revision of nineteenth-centuryvalues and ideas; the growth of the public, in particular of the so-called ‘newmiddle groups’ (e.g. civil servants, teachers, office workers, store employees); the expandingbook market; and the development of cultural hierarchies.These five aspects are addressed in the four main chapters, each of which chartthe impact of a specific medium or organisation: newspaper reviews, popular universities(‘volksuniversiteiten’), radio reviews and film lectures. In doing so, thesechapters reconstruct the audiences which these media and organisations reached,the discussions that they caused and the methods that facilitated their function ascultural mediators. Ritter’s career serves to weave these threads together: he wasthe first professional book reviewer on Dutch radio, wrote countless newspaper reviews,taught at multiple popular universities and presented film lectures at cinemasand other organisations.The central research question of my dissertation is: how did Dr P.H. Ritter Jr develop,formulate, practice and legitimise his views on Dutch literature and culturein his interactions with different media and institutions between 1918 and 1940?Ritter is primarily regarded as a cultural mediator and a ‘public man’, someone whowants to engage with but also shape the desires and opinions of the general public.This dissertation does not study Ritter’s interwar career in isolation, since thecomplex interplay between actor and context is paramount to my analyses. I want toaddress this interplay by looking at Ritter’s ‘ethos’, which can be defined as a modeof living that can be both deliberately fashioned as well as subconsciously adopted,and which derives from (internalised) ideas about how to live and act. Such viewsare generally shaped by (idealistic) conceptualisations of one’s self as well as by socialconventions and expectations. More specifically, I study four aspects of Ritter’sactivities and texts: his institutional position, the function of stereotypes, his reputation or ‘prior ethos’, and the verbal strategies that he used to presents specific imagesof himself and his public.The aforementioned introductory remarks are discussed in Chapter 1. Chapter 2deals with the rise of newspaper criticism. After he became the chief editor for theUtrechtsch Provinciaal en Stedelijk Dagblad in 1918, Ritter was able to create his own sectionfor literary reviews. He used these reviews for different, somewhat conflictingpurposes. In line with his social and scientific views on criticism, he wanted tochampion popular Dutch authors and propounded a constructive and objectivemethod of reviewing. As a case study, I compare Ritter’s review of Alie Smeding’spopular yet controversial novel De Zondaar (The Sinner) to those by other critics. Troubledby the contentious subject matter of this book – it depicts, for example, extramaritalrelationships and abortion – Ritter struggled to uphold his objective ethosand journalistic conventions, whereas other newspaper critics were often more forwardin giving their personal opinion.Chapter 3 focuses on popular universities. First, I lay out the complex backgroundof this new organisation that grew out of earlier initiatives and internationalexamples. The first popular university was founded in Amsterdam in 1913,and many were established across the country in its wake, attracting a sizeable audience.Archival data shows that the aforementioned new middle groups attendedthese universities in great numbers, whereas the working classes – which were oneof their target audiences – were only represented to a smaller extent. Furthermore,courses on literature are shown to have attracted a largely female audience. Many ofthe women who attended these courses were housewives or had middle-class professions.The courses on literature were often the most popular subjects on the curricula.They fostered a budding lecturing circuit that enabled critics and writers to talkabout literary works – including their own. Like W.L. Boldingh-Goemans, HermanPoort, Romano Guarnieri and Annie Salomons, Ritter was one of the lecturers inliterature who campaigned actively for various popular universities. Ritter wantedto collaborate with colleagues to professionalise the organisation, which, he believed,could play a leading role in creating a new national community. Unfortunately,barely any course materials have survived. As a case study, I analyse a lecturein which Ritter discusses two contemporaneous political and religious essays byMenno ter Braak and Anton van Duinkerken. As a teacher, Ritter explained difficultconcepts, showed empathy towards his audience, used the personal pronoun ‘we’to bolster communal feelings, and repeatedly schematised the different viewpointsthat he discussed.Chapter 4 is an interlude that addresses a crucial period in Ritter’s career. Afterpublishing fake documents in his newspaper and thereby causing an internationalcontroversy, his image as a serious journalist was severely compromised. In addition,he became preoccupied with other activities during this period, such as hiswork for the Dutch radio broadcasting company avro, which put further pressureon his position as chief editor. In the end, he was forced to quit his job as a chief editor,but he kept writing weekly book reviews for the Utrecht newspaper. Hetried to obtain a position as a professor at a regular university, but failed to do so. Hewas, however, able to expand and strengthen his position as a radio reviewer, whichgreatly contributed to his national fame.Chapter 5 deals with the rise of the radio in the Netherlands. This mass mediumwas seen as a threat to national health and as a commercial enterprise, but peoplewere also fascinated by its seemingly endless possibilities and wanted to employ itas a cultural mediator. The latter consideration led various broadcasting companiesto create their own cultural programmes and Ritter was assigned as the coordinatorof a weekly book reviewing segment that aired on Sunday afternoons. Ritter’spersonal views were not so different from the conventions of the medium, i.e. thedemand for constructive, neutral and objective reviews. In order to explore the differentelements of Ritter’s work as a radio critic, I analyse three different types of radioreviews: a review of a novel, a review of poetry and reviews in which he discussesmultiple books. When talking about novels, Ritter was mostly analytic and didactic.When talking about poetry, Ritter focused on contemplation and stressed the socialmeaning of poems, thus attempting to make this relatively marginal genre moreaccessible to the general public. In his reviews of multiple books, Ritter tended tomake more jokes, acting like an entertaining book seller and keeping up the pace.Throughout his career, Ritter remained rather ambivalent about the meaningand value of radio as a vehicle for ‘high’ culture. This also applies to his stance towardsfilms and movie theatres. Chapter 6 deals with these new media and organisationsthat quickly became a central part of Dutch culture at the start of the twentiethcentury. During the interwar years, cinemas attracted large, heterogeneousaudiences. The films that were shown were generally regarded as ‘half-fabricated’products: they required the addition of sound or had to be embedded in a larger varietyprogram to become more attractive. So-called ‘filmexplicateurs’, film lecturerswho provided (dramatic) commentary and sound effects during the film, were hiredto convey the effects and meanings of films to the audience. While this professiondeclined over the course of the twenties, spoken and written commentary remainedprevalent throughout the interwar period. Even when movies became longer andfeatured more elaborate narratives, many people still thought that such additionalcommentary (in written or spoken form) was necessary. Film lecturers could thusremain active, but sometimes their activities were limited to general introductionsthat preceded the actual screening. These kinds of film lectures were organised byinstitutions such as school cinemas, popular universities and the Dutch Filmliga.In this chapter, Ritter’s film lectures are placed in the tradition that has beenoutlined above. His scepticism about the capitalist roots of the cinema initially ledhim to keep some distance from the new medium of film. In the late thirties, however,he came to embrace the medium and started to give film lectures. By referringto Ritter’s film lectures on Shakespeare adaptations and a lecture on a Louis Pasteurbiopic, I demonstrate how he operated as a film lecturer. Ritter explained the plotextensively, thus structuring the viewers’ experience and ensuring that they would not get too distracted by highly dramatic scenes. He provided encyclopaedic knowledgeand stimulated the audience to read the original text if the film that they wereabout to see was an adaptation. Ritter thus tried to pull films out of the realm of‘low’ culture and commercialism and place them in a more serious, educational andliterary context. By doing so, he fostered a fruitful interplay between literature andfilm and developed a more positive view on the latter.In Chapter 7, the final chapter, I reassess Ritter’s problematic status in literaryhistory. Even during his career, Ritter already noticed how he was being pushed tothe margins of the literary canon. In counterpoint to that obscurity, this dissertationshows that Ritter was an influential, famous and versatile cultural mediatorduring the interwar period. Moreover, the fields in which he operated – as discussedin the four main chapters – were key aspects of literary history as well. Ritter was anintegral part of a growing group of mediators who used new media and organisationsto spread knowledge (of literature) among a large audience. Especially the newmiddle groups seemed to be attracted to and profit from these activities, since theycould use them to climb the socio-cultural ladder. Mediators adopted nineteenthcenturyideals about civilisation and cultivation, but transformed them in an ongoingdialogue with twentieth-century developments. This stance fostered stronglinks with the expanding book market and related modes of commercialism. As aresult, Ritter and mediators like him were often perceived to be bending down to‘lower’ culture by both contemporary as well as later critics and historians, becausethey supposedly indulged themselves too much with the general public throughtheir use and adoption of mass media.
    Translated title of the contributionThe public man. Dr. P.H. Ritter Jr. as a culture mediator during the inter war period
    Original languageDutch
    Awarding Institution
    • van Boven, E.M.A., Supervisor
    • Sanders, M.P.J., Co-supervisor, External person
    Award date8 Jun 2018
    Place of PublicationHeerlen
    Print ISBNs978-90-8704-730-6
    Publication statusPublished - 8 Jun 2018


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