by Hendrik Willem van Loon
Boni & Liveright: 1921 / Liveright: 1984
Also by this author: A Short History of Discovery, The Story of the Bible, America, Van Loon’s Geography, The Story of Inventions, The Arts
In the beginning, the planet upon which we live was (as far as we now know) a large ball of flaming matter, a tiny cloud of smoke in the endless ocean of space.
From this beginning, the ambitious historian and journalist Hendrik van Loon recounts the entire scope of human history up until the (then) present day of 1921. For his efforts he was awarded with the very first Newbery Medal for American literature for children.
(There have been a few updated editions published since 1921: the first few were revised by van Loon himself, but the job was later taken on by his nephew and then by other historians. The edition I read came out in 1984, and the sections written by van Loon seem un-meddled with, although I can’t vouch for later editions.)
In an informal and conversational style the author leads the reader through all the empires of ages past – Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Assyrian and Babylonian, Phoenician, Persian, Greek, Roman, and so forth. I particularly enjoyed his comparison of Greek and Roman culture, which give a sense of his colloquial but incisive approach:
… the Romans swallowed Greek civilisation hook, line and sinker. They even welcomed the Gods of the Greeks to their country. Zeus was taken to Rome where he became known as Jupiter and the other divinities followed him. The Roman Gods however never were quite like their cheerful cousins who had accompanied the Greeks on their road through life and through history. The Roman Gods were State Functionaries. Each one managed his own department with great prudence and a deep sense of justice, but in turn he was exact in demanding the obedience of his worshippers. This obedience the Romans rendered with scrupulous care. But they never established the cordial personal relations and that charming friendship which had existed between the old Hellenes and the mighty residents of the high Olympian peak.
… the Romans enjoyed one great advantage over the Greeks. They managed the affairs of their country without making too many speeches. They were less imaginative than the Greeks and they preferred an ounce of action to a pound of words. They understood the tendency of the multitude (the “plebs,” as the assemblage of free citizens was called) only too well to waste valuable time upon mere talk. (p. 94)
On he goes up until World War I, which had just ended as he was writing, and in these latter chapters his style becomes much more emotional and full of personal opinion. (He is especially critical of the peacemakers of 1919 as old men who were living in the past, simply carving up Europe as diplomats had been doing for centuries, instead of taking industrialization and modern political forces into account.) While this subjectivity undermines the usual cool and dispassionate style of historical writing, it does breath life into van Loon’s own time, and is refreshing in that it shows that history does matter, it makes a great difference to how we live and in particular how we react to turbulent times.
That van Loon’s history should be still palatable today is due to the writer being particularly tolerant and forward-thinking, thus not prey to too many of the prejudices of his time. He does not excuse, for example, the terrible exploitation and cruelties inflicted by old-world Europeans on new-world peoples. He does not assume the superiority of the white, or northern races over everyone else, and gives the great civilizations of all continents their due.
In the sixteenth century the enthusiastic but rather uncivilised Christians of the western world came face to face with the older creeds of the East. The early Spaniards and Portuguese looked upon the peaceful statues of Buddha and contemplated the venerable pictures of Confucius and did not in the least know what to make of those worthy prophets with their far-away smile. They came to the easy conclusion that these strange divinities were just plain devils who represented something idolatrous and heretical and did not deserve the respect of the true sons of the Church. Whenever the spirit of Buddha or Confucius seemed to interfere with the trade in spices and silks, the Europeans attacked the “evil influence” with bullets and grapeshot. That system had certain very definite disadvantages. It has left us an unpleasant heritage of ill-will which promises little good for the immediate future. (p. 250)
That said, there are still artifacts of outdated ways of thought, ie. the concept of the ‘ascent of man’, that man is ever perfecting himself and climbing higher and higher on some sort of ladder of godliness. He also resorts frequently to national typecasting and profiling. Van Loon’s overall fair-mindedness makes his infrequent flashes of hatred all the more jarring, like this one, speaking of the Tartar invasion of Russia in 1224: “No Russian could hope to survive unless he was willing to creep before a dirty little yellow man who sat in a tent somewhere in the heart of the steppes of southern Russia and spat at him.” (p. 304)
Van Loon wrote this massive history particularly for his own children and their contemporaries, and he does assume some familiarity with history that today’s students may not have. That is to say he does not fill in all the gaps as fully as a writer today might do, but assumes the reader has some previous knowledge of the subject.
There are many illustrations throughout by van Loon himself, many of them extremely scratchy sketches, but the maps in particular are helpful for visualizing the areas under discussion. (see below)
This book is a very large one – it took me a while to get through it, and I’m a history geek – but its particular value lies in the fact that it presents all eras in one volume, and speaks to the reader in a friendly tone without condescension. Van Loon’s love of history and sense of wonder and amusement is always evident:
In another chapter I have told you how in the year 800 a German chieftain had become a Roman Emperor. Now in the year 1066 the grandson of a Norse pirate was recognised as King of England.
Why should we ever read fairy stories, when the truth of history is so much more interesting and entertaining? (p. 154)