Recent (Southern) African Literary Histories: An Evaluation

By:
Prof. Hendrik Petrus Van Coller
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The historiography is a focal point, especially after the emergence of Hayden White’s questioning of traditional historiographical methodology more than two decades ago. It is commonly acknowledged that although the past cannot be seen as disconnected chaos (Carr, 1991:59) and even though the historian has to respect chronology and other forms of “evidence”, his account is a “story” which can only be partly “true”. This means that there is not (or need not be) only one account of the past. This viewpoint is also valid with regard to literary historiography. Any history of literature is therefore a glance of the past, a story that is told from a specific perspective. In the case of Chapman’s ambitious attempt to write a South African literary history, his perspective for example stresses the connection that exists between literature and social reality. Literary works are therefore continuously being evaluated on the grounds of their contribution towards political change: “I have granted most value to contents that is committed to what may be considered generally as democratic, non-elitist activity in Southern Africa” (Chapman, 1996:9). Christopher Heywood also attempts a synopsis of different literatures in South Africa in his A history of South African literatures. Ampie Coetzee (2006) writes relatively positively on Heywood’s periodization principles in his literary history and Annie Gagiano (2006) praised Heywood for the way in which he placed a “creolized history” on the map and resisted “separation and ghettoisation” in this history of literature. In a strong reaction Philip John (2006) regards Gagiano’s insight as insignificant and typical of the English tradition that places emphasis on a political ideology rather than on the aesthetic. John refers to a paper by Mike Kirkwood in 1974 in which he calls for the dimming of boundaries between “life” and “art”. He willingly could have involved the whole Staffrider –debate. According to John the equation of “life” and “art” is tenuous and leads to the imperfect conjuncted history of literature in which the aesthetic becomes inferior to ideology. John equates these points of view with Marxism in Russia and that of the German Democratic Republic. John’s final call is a passionate one for the restoration of the primary position of the aesthetic. It was initially J.C. Kannemeyer’s review (2006) of Christopher Heywood’s A history of South African literature (2005) that lead to the violent controversy. Critics like Kannemeyer, Coetzee (2006) and Etienne Britz (2006) point out many factual discrepancies in these histories of literature. In reaction to the controversies Chapman (2006) remarks that neither Heywood’s work, nor the literary history by Kannemeyer (Die Afrikaanse literatuur 1652 – 2004, 2006) can qualify as histories of literature. Chapman frankly states that Kannemeyer (and by implication all Afrikaans literary historians) entrench themselves in Afrikaans and shrinks away from a contextual approach to literature. In Chapman’s approving citation of Degenaar’s statement that we should not build a nation but a democracy, it is clear that he views the writing of a history of literature in ideological terms. Kannemeyer’s literary history received spurred reactions and is regarded as on the one hand, of the utmost importance (Britz, 2006) and on the other hand as merely a reading report that can in no way lay claim to the term “history” (Van Coller, 2006). In this paper these literary histories will be evaluated and read contextually.


Keywords: Literary History, Comparisson, Reception Theory, Literary Field
Stream: Books, Writing and Reading
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Recently Published South African Literary Histories


Prof. Hendrik Petrus Van Coller

Professor, Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, German and French, University of the Free State
Bloemfontein, Free State, South Africa

Prof. Hennie van Coller (born 1949) matriculated at the Florida High School, and obtained a B.A. (Law) and Honours degree (with distinction) at the University of the Witwatersrand. He obtained a Drs. Litt. In Science of Literature and Dutch Literature at the Rijksuniversiteit of Utrecht in 1975, and a doctorate (D. Litt et Phil) on Etienne Leroux at the Rand Afrikaans University (1981). He lectured at the Durban and Pietermaritzburg branches of the University of Natal, and was appointed as senior lecturer in the Department of Afrikaans and Dutch, UFS, in 1979, became professor in 1984, head of the department in 1988, and professor with special merit in 1997. He was guest professor at the Catholic University of Louvain on three occasions, and was also guest professor at various universities abroad, among others for a month at the Rijksuniversiteit of Groningen.

Prof. Van Coller has wide managerial experience to his credit. Outside university context he served on the Raad van die Afrikaanse Taalmuseum en -monument for eight years, was chairperson of the Afrikaanse Letterkundevereniging (ALV) for two terms, member of the HSRC’s specialist committee, national executive member of the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring and Suid-Afrikaanse Vereniging vir Neerlandistiek and is currently a panel member of the National Arts Council. He is currently a member of the literature commission of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns, chairperson of the Faculty Board and vice-chairperson of that organisation, national executive member of the Afrikaanse Letterkundevereniging (ALV) and executive member of the Noordelike Kennisnetwerk vir Neerlandistiek. He is also member of international associations such as the International Comparative Literature Association, the African Literature Association and the Maatskappij der Nederlandse Letteren. In 2005 he was elected as chairperson of the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns.

In university context, Prof. Van Coller was member of the Faculty Committee and Research Committee of the Faculty of Arts for many years, chaired a number of ad-hoc committees (such as the Language Committee), and is currently a member of the University’s Research Committee, Honorary Degree Committee, Committee for Quality Control, and the Executive Management. In the Faculty he is also a member of the Malherbe Memorial Lecture Committee, chairperson of the Personnel Evaluation Committee, a member of the Faculty Committee, and secunde dean. Prof. Van Coller is also a member of the editorial staff of several accredited journals: he is the editor of Stilet, member of the editorial staff of the Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe and editor of the 2005 edition of Perspektief en Profiel.

Prof. Van Coller is the author of 80 articles in accredited journals, 35 chapters in books, numerous popular publications, and various reviews, and is the author, co-author or editor of 18 books, among others the three-part history of literature Perspektief en Profiel. Since 2003 he writes a column in Volksblad. He presented 40 papers at national and 20 at international congresses. Apart from bursaries such as the Seba Cuyler Bursary, the State Bursary and NZAV Scholarship, the HSRC/NRF bursary for established researchers was awarded to him on three occasions. In 2000 he received the Gustav Preller Prize for Science of Literature and Literary Criticism from the S.A. Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns. This was consequently followed by him being awarded the Elisabeth Eybers Bursary by the S.A. Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns in 2002. He received both a Centenary Medal and a Research Medal from the University of the Free State in 2004.

Prof. Van Coller acted as supervisor and examiner of several honours and master’s degree mini-dissertations, 10 dissertations and 6 theses. He was also external examiner of several dissertations and 11 theses, and is currently moderator for UPE, PU for CHE, and Qwaqwa.

As direct result of his initiatives, an exchange agreement was entered into with the Catholic University of Louvain and a partial agreement with the Rijksuniversiteit of Groningen. The Committee for Title Registrations was established on his proposal in this regard in the early nineties.

Some of his creative writing were selected for Die bruid en ander verhale, Kort-kort and Lyfspel and his poetry was published in, among others, Literator, Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe and Tydskrif vir Letterkunde.

Prof. Van Coller’s hobbies and interests include wine tasting and maturation, cooking and reading. He is married to Elsa van der Straaten, and is the father of three daughters.

Ref: B07P0041