Anne Wertheim, Director, John Adams Institute
This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground: studying American culture, from Amsterdam.
ANNE WERTHEIM: We see CNN and we see the Europe Disney Center and we see the McDonald’s
shops, the fast food is coming our way, and it runs a risk for the arts which get undersnowed
and underattended. They receive not enough attention. And I think that without having this as
our primarily goal, is our goal to give a more intellectual vision on America and to inform
people in a better way about what American culture is like.
PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
The Dutch West India Company was, if nothing else, one of the midwives, present at the birth
of what would one day become the United States of America. Back in Amsterdam, the headquarters
building of the Dutch West India Company still stands. It’s here that the decision was made
to found New Amsterdam and purchase the island of Manhattan. Today the building, known as
West India House, is largely occupied by a catering service. But tucked into one corner is a
little organization devoted to helping the modern-day Dutch understand American Culture.
WERTHEIM: The idea came forth out of this building where we are in now.
PORTER: The organization is called the John Adams Institute and Wertheim is the director.
WERTHEIM: In this building from the beginning of the 17th Century and in it in about
1625 the West India Company, who started trade with the East Coast of America and decided to
have their offices in the West India House and started to construct a few more wings to it.
Because of the unique history of the building, which represents a beginning of trade which is
still going on between American and the Netherlands, and because of this history, we decided,
or a group of people—group of individuals—decided to exploit a building, restore it, and see
if we could make an American cultural center in it. So the idea was the building actually,
the rich history between the Netherlands and the United States.
PORTER: And that was where, looking over this courtyard here in the building there’s
the statue of Peter Stuyvesant.
WERTHEIM: Peter Stuyvesant was appointed Director General of New Amsterdam, which was
a settlement on Manhattan Island. They decided, the 19 masters of the West India Company,
decided to construct a fort on Manhattan Island which was named New Amsterdam. And eventually,
they also, or one of them also bought Manhattan for 60 guilders which was I think, about $24
which was not too bad, even at that time.
PORTER: Every American school child learns that figure, yes.
WERTHEIM: Oh yeah? Well, the funny thing is you know about Peter Stuyvesant and about
buying for $25, $24 but what we don’t know about is about Hans Brinker, for example, in the
Netherlands. Nobody ever heard about Hans Brinker. Now we do more or less, it siphons
through or the information gets through to us, but Rip Van Winkle we never heard of. It was
the British author, Malcom Bradbury, who was here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the
John Adams Institute. It sounds a bit controversial, but he’s British, but he is the expert
on American literature and culture, and he started to mention Rip Van Winkle and how it came
from Eastern Germany all the way to the United States in the Hudson River area. And all the
Dutch, you know, were sitting on the point of their chair, because they never heard about
this and Rip Van Winkle, I mean to us unknown person.
PORTER: That’s fascinating.
WERTHEIM: Actually, it’s an East German.
PORTER: Well, let’s talk about the John Adams Institute. Since we’ve already talked
about the house a little bit, what about the man, John Adams? Why is it named after John
WERTHEIM: Well, John Adams was the first ambassador of the United States or official
representative of the United States in the Netherlands and eventually he fought for it and he
became ambassador and then moved from Amsterdam to The Hague. Actually John Adams lived
around the corner and he was a man of letters. His, all the books he bought in the
Netherlands, are now in his, you know, his personal collection, is now in the Boston Library.
He was a man of letters and he had a very interesting correspondence with his wife. Abigail
Adams was a woman very ahead of her time. She even told him that if he, if Adams, who was
putting up the Declaration of Independence and making the Constitution of the United States,
she said if he would not put in any rights for women in the Constitution of the United States,
she would start a revolt. She was quite a lady.
WERTHEIM: And she, funny thing, was she visited Amsterdam when now the first lady,
Hillary Clinton was in Amsterdam, she was giving a speech in the Oula of the University, which
is the main hall of the University of Amsterdam. It’s an old church, old Lutheran Church and
preceding her, there was no other first lady preceding her ever at that very site and so they
had, I don’t call, I don’t know the American name, the head of the University, who introduced
her, he said, “I have to go, I had to go as far back as Abigail Adams who visited Amsterdam
in 1785, which is quite some time ago of course. And I recall that Abigail Adams said about
the Dutch and she wrote to her daughter in America who stayed behind to milk the cows and take
care of the land when Abigail was having a visit in Amsterdam to visit her husband and her
sons and she’s, she wrote back saying the Dutch seem well fed, well clothed, and well smoked.
That’s funny, isn’t it because it’s still the same. It hasn’t changed.
WERTHEIM: She had a sharp eye and Hillary Clinton was good lady though., by the way.
PORTER: Did she say anything as biting as that? Hillary Clinton?
WERTHEIM: No, she was, no, she didn’t talk about the Dutch. She probably does it now,
now that she’s safely back home, but she didn’t talk about the Dutch while she was here of
course. But she must find them well smoked, although nobody dared to smoke. We all went on
a trip on a boat through the canals in Amsterdam which was very fascinating. A few people, a
few directors of museums, a writer, a theater, an actor, and the, well Princess Margite, I
have to call her first of course, and a few people, official people and little me was there
too. We had a lunch on the boat and people were cheering on the sides of the canals and there
were two big black limousines who had been flown over, I heard that later. They were
following us, you know, on the road, you left and right from the canals, it was like Queensday.
You know how the Dutch behave, you know. We are all a little bit skeptical about royalty and
nationalism and so on, you know, don’t exaggerate, that kind of thing. But Queensday, the
Dutch go out of their way of having fun. That’s the 30th of April. They just go out of their
minds and everybody is dressed in orange and they’re waving and shouting and drinking and
dancing and music and, you know, everybody’s having fun, floating on the canals. So I felt
more or less like it was Queensday and I was on the boat with the Queen, somehow, I mean
everybody was cheering for Mrs. Hillary, Mrs. Clinton.
PORTER: Now, we know about the house, we know about John Adams. But what is it you do?
What is the programming that we expect from the John Adams Institute?
WERTHEIM: Well, the programming is bringing American culture, which is our vision,
which makes it easy to define it a little bit and we do this by organizing lectures for
American authors, men and women of arts and letters. So, thought, ideas, also, you know, a
fiction and a non-fiction lecture series. One is called “American Literature Today” and the
other one who started two years after the first one is a non-focus series, a non-fiction
series, “American Focus”, which can branch out to politics, biology, I mean science, social
issues and you name it.
PORTER: Who have been some of the recent authors?
WERTHEIM: Well, recent authors, or speakers were Steven J Gould in the Fall last year
and Harry Wu, he’s an American human rights activist, Harry Wu, which was very fascinating to
have him and you could hear a pin drop in the hall. It was, I’ve never heard the hall so
silent and quiet. It was impressing. We’ve had William Hardy McNeil, the historian, and
David Levitz, Joe Sobrosky, Derrick Walcott, Gore Vidal, Joseph Heller, yeah, many great
American authors and you wonder if, if there will still be enough people left to continue the
series, but I think there is still a lot to do. What we think is that what we see of America
in the Netherlands is the media hypes, the soaps, soap operas, or the soap stories, and you
see the commercial activities, left and right. We are, the Dutch are one of the main
investors in the United States. But our contacts grow more and more commercial and that is,
has a risk in it because this is also forming the European’s ideas about America. Media hypes,
and power of the attorneys, and the law suits and the commercial activities, meaning we see
CNN and we see the Europe Disney Center and we see the McDonald’s shops, the fast food is
coming our way, and it runs a risk for the arts which get undersnowed and underattended. They
receive not enough attention. And I think that without having this as our primarily goal, is
our goal to give a more intellectual vision on America and to inform people in a better way
about what American culture is like. And we are doing well because the average attendance is
300 people. We’ve run from 100 to, I mean from unknown, people that we, that are more or
less unknown in the Netherlands. They draw an audience of 100 people and people who are very
known and very, very popular, like John Irving, he is the most popular author, I think and
David Levitt is a very popular author too. They draw audiences to 700 people.
PORTER: That’s impressive.
PORTER: And, you said it was fiction and non-fiction.
PORTER: And I looked at your list of people that you’re thinking of having, hoping to
have in the coming year, and I noticed lots of very fine American authors there. Any of them
you can share with us of who will be coming? Who you know for sure will be coming?
WERTHEIM: Well, Frank McCord is coming.
PORTER: Author of Angela’s Ashes.
WERTHEIM: Yes, the Pulitzer Prize winner. And so we’re very happy with that. Edmund
White, he will be introduced by David Levitt, which will be a combination that will have
unknown proportions, probably, Amsterdam being a city of publishers and book stores and
readers, but also a gay city, so to say. Siri Hustvedt is Paul Oster’s wife and we hope to
have both of ?? in the program. We heard they usually travel together, or practically always
as much as they can travel together. So we thought if this is going to happen, we might as
well ask also Mr. Oster to be in the program, although he has already featured in a program 3
or 4 years ago. One of the first. But I heard he is very committed with a new book and is
held up with film making and so we don’t know but Siri Hustvedt has said that she will come
anytime we ask her in February ’98 so we are fixing a date right now and confirming her agent.
The architect Richard Meyer, that’s for us an enormous achievement for us, very important, who
builds the town hall in The Hague, and I bet that 3/4 of the people in the Netherlands never
saw the building or have never visited the building or don’t give it a thought that they didn’t
know about it and that if he comes to visit us, they will be very curious to see him, you
know, the maker of the building, the structure of the building, the creator of the building,
at the same time visiting the building, will be a moment to go there. And I am counting on a
very large audience, I hope about thousand people. We are working on it, but we are fixing
the date first with him and the atrium is a large hall in like a large marketplace in the
building which he constructed for big events in that town hall, and in that atrium is also
the place where he will speak, and we’re very delighted of course that he is, that he has
agreed to come. Brian Moore is an Irish-American writer. It looks like the Irish are coming
close to us. Irish-American writer Brian Moore, he wrote The Statement. He wrote very many
different books from thrillers to ordinary fiction, so you cannot say he is in a specific
category, but he writes interesting and very intellectual man. He lives on the West Coast of
the United States and he decided to say yes.
PORTER: We’re talking in this edition of Common Ground with Anne Wertheim.
She’s the director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam. Printed transcripts and audio
cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details.
Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan
organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
ANNE WERTHEIM: We are, right now, developing plans to ask, or we have asked but
haven’t had word yet from Steven Toolman, who is a philosopher, physical scientist, essayist
PORTER: Again, this is Anne Wertheim, Director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam.
WERTHEIM: We are also asking writer of The Clash of Civilization, Samuel Huntington,
but haven’t had a response yet. We haven’t, have sent an open invitation to Katherine Graham
and well, she is the Director of course of the Washington Post. You know that of
course. And the best seller author, John Berendt whose book Midnight in the Land of Good
and Evil will be filmed by Clint Eastwood and that’ll be next year. The filmmaking and
when it’s ready, well all those things are still very, very vague, be we are on our way and
sometimes send out open invitations, although a closed invitation is better and more binding,
but it sometimes works that way, and Jon Krakaver, the mountaineer journalist, we asked him
whether he would be willing to appear in our program sometimes. Toni Morrison, we haven’t
been successful very much about her. She is committed to teaching, but we hope that this
time she might be willing to, to agree to come to Amsterdam. There has to be a reason for
authors to come so we try to find the reason which for us is usually a Dutch translation.
Sometimes people don’t have a Dutch translation to promote because there is none in the case
of Katherine Graham, for example. It used to be the case with Peter Matthiessen, the writer
of The Snow Leopards, who has been in our program two, three years ago. And then the
author has to like to come or it has to coincide with a trip to Europe. For us, it’s more
difficult because it’s more, financially more difficult because we don’t then have somebody
to sponsor part of the trip, but some people are very interesting. Jane Smiley, for example
doesn’t have a Dutch publisher, but still she will remain on our list. One day we would like
to ask her although she doesn’t have Dutch publisher…
PORTER: …I understand that the authors do, among themselves, hear about the John
Adams Institute and about the audiences you get.
WERTHEIM: Well, you can guess that they, if you are asked for something, look at
yourself. You would do the same thing. You would see a few names on the list and think I
know that and that person. Well, I give them a little ring and asked whether they liked it
or not or whether it was something or nothing or worthless or, you know without any attention.
We try to give as much attention and friendship and, as we can give. We’re very happy that
we can have this program and most or all writers, so far as I know are very happy to be here.
PORTER: Do you make any special effort to get American women or American minority
WERTHEIM: We make no special efforts. We try to give a total view of American
society, so we would like to have men, women and of all colors and backgrounds and subjects
and try to have a mix, but again we have to have the ideal combination of somebody willing to
travel, a book that’s published at a certain moment, so that is dependent on that moment, and
if not, you know, you cannot ask them again. So you are depending on a few factors. If a
publication is coming up that Dutch media are writing about it and then the Dutch audience is
informed and that also helps to fills the evenings, you have to be also very practical and
you have to do something for the author as well. So then it all adds up to the right moment.
So if the right moment is not there, then it goes by and you have to wait for two, three
years to find another right moment.
PORTER: I copied the latest New York Times Bestseller List and I noticed you
don’t have many of these people, Danielle Steele, many of the people who are, you know, the
most popular writers in America.
WERTHEIM: Yeah, but the most popular writers are not the ones that draw an attention
on a stage. The popular writers, the readers of popular authors are readers in airplanes and,
they’re not a literary readers very often and they’re not the ones that are interested to get
out of their house, take the bike or the tram and go to a location to meet the author and hear
him or her speak.
PORTER: Now the number one book on the non-fiction list, and I won’t even say what it
is, but it’s about the O.J. Simpson trial. I could take it you’ve had no author come to talk
about the O.J. trial
WERTHEIM: No, no, I’d like to throw up.
PORTER: I understand. Now recently on CNN they did a story about the fact that no one
can find Thomas Pynchon. Have you tried to invite the author of the new book Mason and
WERTHEIM: Yeah, Thomas Pynchon is on, is one of those persons as Jane Smiley, for
example. We would like to invite them, but again, he doesn’t have a Dutch publisher either
PORTER: …Unlike Jane Smiley, Thomas Pynchon has not been seen. You know, he hides.
He’s not available to reporters and that kind of thing.
WERTHEIM: Well, I don’t know about that, well those are the things the hidden
information is what you’re giving me now, although it’s not so hidden when it’s on the radio,
maybe you cut it out. Anyway, Thomas Pynchon would be very interesting to have in our program,
but, again, you don’t always have that information. I remember that I called because I didn’t
get any, any reactions from Ellison, Ralph Ellison
PORTER: Ralph Ellison.
WERTHEIM: And so eventually I thought, you know, why don’t I just call. So I called
him and I started to tell my name and he just, he reacted as a hurt animal and he said, “No!
No! Please, No!” and he hung up. So, you know, you don’t know always.
PORTER: You certainly couldn’t predict that, could you?
WERTHEIM: Yeah, no, well and we would like to have in the program Kurt Vonnegut and I
visited him in New York, was bitten by his dog, but who wouldn’t want to be bitten by Kurt
Vonnegut’s dog? I mean, I was even flattered that—anyway, he didn’t. He’s not going to
come. It’s sometimes very difficult. People just are not interested in traveling.
PORTER: And you don’t have a budget to pay these authors?
WERTHEIM: Not really. Not really. It has to have the right thing or the right moment
and the right willingness by the author and the audience is always very, very warm audience.
They’re very interested. It’s an audience of readers. It’s an audience what an author would
like. You know, it’s their readers.
PORTER: Where is your funding coming from?
WERTHEIM: Oh, all different ways, small amounts from all different corners. We have
small foundations that are not giving continually a yearly allowance, but for example, if I
need a new computer or a new printer, or something else for the office, I could apply for a
little, you know, for their help. So for office supplies, I have a little place where I go
to and the hotel here in the neighborhood of this building is hosting the authors. KLM-USA
is giving us a small discount which we of course, have to apply for in an early stage. We
have, of course, a direct , the direct rental hall is connected with the location. The locations
where we go are changing. It’s not always in this building because the audiences is sometimes
larger and as you have seen, the catering in this building is enormous so the West India House,
despite of its glorious historic past, is right now a catering palace. But we go out whether,
when we need it, when we need a larger location or when they are having a catering thing,
although the events in the West India House are very cozy. We can have up to 200 people here
and it’s very nice. People like it. It gives a very special atmosphere and also the authors
like it a lot, but all the other locations in town are very central and also chosen for their
historic history, for their history and their prettiness, you know, a nice place to speak. I
have also donations from the people who are receiving our news card informing them each month,
ahead of the events, what’s going on, who’s the next author. So they give, that’s a large
group of small donations. And we have a small group of larger donations that are called the
Friends of the John Adams Institute and they are all senior officers of Dutch companies with
American interests, or senior officers of American companies in the Netherlands. They give a
yearly amount and that’s, another substantial part to keep the office and the program going.
And one main sponsor which is running out next year. He, they usually do it for three years
and the three years are running out and I don’t have another main sponsor yet. But I have the
feeling or the trust right now that the program is not to be thought away anymore in Amsterdam.
It has, it is really a highlight in the Amsterdam, or one of the highlights in the Amsterdam
cultural scene. So well, it’s unthinkable for me that we wouldn’t find another main sponsor.
It would be nice if it came from an American corner, but so far they are, and that’s also the
problem with the American culture, it’s when it gets too capitalistic and too commercialized.
They’re only thinking about profits and not thinking about any little side trek that could
make life more agreeable.
PORTER: Yes. No government funding.
WERTHEIM: Very small. It’s a private enterprise what we’re doing here. As I told you,
it started because of the building and the history of the building and it ended up in a
lecture series. The people love it and the authors love it and so we continue as long as we can.
PORTER: That is Anne Wertheim, Director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam. For
Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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