Folly from a Loon

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1260)  Nineteen books after The Fall of the Dutch Republic (1913), The Rise of the Dutch Kingdom (1915), and The Golden Book of the Dutch Navigators (1916), which incidentally had three different publishers, he wrote An Indiscreet Itinerary or How the Unconventional Traveler Should See Holland, by one who was actually born there and whose name is Hendrik Willem Van Loon (1933) for another.  In between he had eight more, one of which having brought out The Story of Mankind (1921; winner of the first Newbery Medal) proceeded to Tolerance (1925) and The Liberation of Mankind: the story of man’s struggle for the right to think (1926); yet another, Multiplex Man, or the Story of Survival through Invention (1928).

Twenty-two books after Itinerary Simon & Schuster published as its fourteenth Van Loon’s Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year (1942), and in 1942 the great reprint house Walter J. Black, Inc., may have been the original publisher (I know no other) of The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, with a short life of the Author by Hendrik Willem van Loon of Rotterdam who also illustrated the Book.

I hear a 1946 ed’n of Roget’s Int’l Thesaurus is dedicated “To the memory of Hendrik Willem Van Loon [1882-1944], who month after month, year after year, sent additions and changes for this edition”.  I haven’t seen but am willing to believe in C. Van Minnen, Van Loon: Popular Historian, Journalist, and FDR Confidant (2005; F.D. Roosevelt 1882-1945), all which appellations I understand to be correct.

Since one speaks of Rembrandts, or Cézannes, it might be tempting to call his illustrations Toony Loons, but his name rhymes with hone, not moon; he told people to think of loan.  So much of him resonates with us that it might be tempting to say It’s a proud and Loonly thing to be a fan.

His Folly is J. Wilson’s 1668 translation, with L’s eighty-page Life.  I could quarrel with him.

He says “stuffing the book full of learned notes…. might have caused … resentment [when] the erudition of the professor became the real center of interest” (p. 86), leaving readers with no help for Endymion, Momus, Priapus (just to take p. 116), nor perhaps realizing e.g. that in “the Musitian with all his division” (p. 127), division was a technical term of music in the 17th Century.

With “the burghers of Erasmus’ day were completely provincial” (p. 67), “Erasmus [1466-1536] and Luther [1483-1546] were bound to dislike each other….  dressed differently…. laughed at a different kind of joke…. for one of them was a Dutch burgher and the other, a German peasant” (pp. 70-71), he seems to have forgotten explaining “the Middle Ages were … cosmopolitan … in the matter of a common culture and a common code of manners” (p. 56).

Folly is dedicated to Sir Thomas More; alas, Van Loon says M’s Utopia (1516) “represents … England … ruled on a basis of justice and enlightenment” (p. 62).  Utopia is a satire.

The 1993 Penguin Classics ed’n has the 1971 B. Radice translation with A. Levi’s introduction, notes including discoveries since R died in 1985, and markings of E’s revisions through 1532 (E seems to have written Folly privately for M in 1509, rev. for publication 1511 which was faulty, the first ed’n E authorized was 1512, then several more — I couldn’t resist; E’s own title Moriás ’Encómion is a Greek pun [the book is mostly in Latin] on M’s name and anóitos, fool), also E’s 1515 letter to Maarten van Dorp.

The 2015 Princeton Classics ed’n has a foreword by A. Grafton with H. Hudson’s 1941 introduction, translation, outline, notes, and index of proper names (incidentally, both H & R avoid division, H p. 29, R p. 36).  I find Levi’s notes more (shan’t apologize) helpful, and they’re at the feet of pages, where notes belong.  His introduction, which does give the scholarly ground on which E stood, is perhaps a little heavy-handed and Hudson’s better.

But who can set aside Van Loon?  If you know the players without a program, if you know 17th Century English (which he chose “because in [W’s] revaluation of the original Latin he seems to have caught a great deal of the liveliness and vigor of the Erasmian text”, p. 86), if you know the issues of the day enough to catch the jokes, if you can tell when a satirist’s editor has his own axe to grind (meaning all these folks), get him.

Is The Praise of Folly worth your taking up Hudson, then Levi & Radice, then Van Loon & Wilson?  You jes’ betcha.


Looney Tunes, Warner Bros. 1930-1969; toon, apparently Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (R. Zemeckis dir. 1988).  “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan”, R. Bloch’s “A Way of Life” (1956, the pun already circulating in fanzines; “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a man”, W. Macfarlane’s “To Watch the Watchers”, 1949 [Quis custodiet ipsos custodes {Latin, “Who shall guard the guardians?”; Juvenal’s Satire VI, ll. 347-48, about the year 100} had already appeared, brilliantly, in Heinlein’s Space Cadet, 1948]).

1 thought on “Folly from a Loon

  1. Seconded on Van Loon.

    Note that Project Gutenberg has illustrated editions of The Story of Mankind, Ancient Man: The Beginning of Civilizations, The Golden Book of the Dutch Navigators, and The Rise of the Dutch Kingdom, as well as the charming Here and Now Story Book by Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a book of stories and verse intended to be read to children, with Van Loon’s illustrations.

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