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Leipoldt's valley community: The novelist as archivist

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Abstract

This paper presents one example of the process whereby a writer like C. Louis Leipoldt absorbed living oral Afrikaans history and converted it into written Afrikaans documentation. This example serves to illustrate a larger process which he applied to the construction and composition of a sequence of four historical novels dealing with analogous material in English. The purpose is to record some of the problems and implications of a Leipoldt editing project, which is still in progress, and to formulate some of the related aspects of interpreting historical fiction as historical source material. The paper proposes that one of the traumatic events of South African literature is the shift from oracy to literacy, and that many South African writers have displayed a special guardianship of this shift in terms of literary procedures which follow different norms than those of the cultural historian.

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The Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leipoldt (1880–1947) left behind a writing legacy that is a case study of missed or lost opportunities for critical debate. Work that went unpublished in his lifetime reveals a painstakingly continuous literary project that opposed Afrikaner nationalism and populist fearmongering, even predicting future socio-political hardships and uneven development in South Africa. Many of Leipoldt’s criticisms of Afrikaner Nationalism went largely ignored or misread, presumably because Leipoldt was seen as a senior figure of importance in the Afrikaans literary set. In spite of the great amount of research produced by scholars like Kannemeyer and Gray between 1970 and 2000, revealing Leipoldt as a captivating public figure entangled in prominent moments in South Africa’s cultural development in the early twentieth century, little further interest has been shown. Speculation about Leipoldt’s personal life and his interactions with other established Afrikaans writers tend to receive more attention than the consistency and multi-pronged nature of his literary-cultural critiques of South Africa. These critiques are presented in his poetry, prose, plays, journalism and even his medical, culinary and travel writing. Now, at a time of strong intersections between identity politics, populism and sentiment, and with the urgent discussions around decolonization of universities and the literatures they teach, Leipoldt’s views from a century ago may be more worthwhile than before.
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The famous Afrikaans poet C. Louis Leipoldt (1880-1947) has long been misread as a nationalist writer. During the first half of the 20th century Leipoldt's poetry seemed to be in sympathy with Afrikaner nationalism, and since his death he has mostly been remembered for this element of his work. Recent scholarship reveals a different Leipoldt, one fiercely anti-nationalist in his unpublished English fiction and more openly aggressive in his non-fiction prose. Leipoldt regularly wrote about food and culinary traditions in South Africa and used his knowledge of local cuisine to argue against notions of “authentic Afrikaner dishes”, instead insisting that the earliest authorities behind original South African dishes camefrom the “Cape Malay” population of theWestern Cape. This article aims to explore Leipoldt's cosmopolitan argument against political, sectional possessiveness in the cultural development of South Africa between the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, with a sustained focus on the importance of food as a cultural marker.
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