The Story of Mankind by Hendrick Willem Van Loon, updated and introduced by Robert Sullivan; Liveright, 765 pages ($25.95). A tricky business this. Hendrik Willem Van Loon died in 1944. An awful lot of history has transpired since the end of World War II: ideas about race and gender have been transformed all over the world. Human beings have walked on the moon. Conflicts in the 21st century are often based on fundamentalism vs. internationalism.
It is by no means a given that an “updating” of Hendrick Willem Van Loon’s “Story of Mankind” is the proper thing to do.
Robert Sullivan begins his introduction by saying “Hendrick Willem Van Loon was a big man with a small dog and an idea that the story of the world was much too large for just a few people to consider. When you read his books you get the idea that by writing them he considered himself to be akin to an engineer on an old train. Stories and facts from the past were to be fed into minds in order that the engine of progress might speed on.”
So here, “in a time when we are both more specialized and generalized, when the fact about anything can be a few clicks away” how do you continue on with this “masterwork” of generalized history originally written for young people? Especially with Van Loon’s “mistakes” and “aversion to some immigrant groups”?
What can’t be overlooked is that all the drawbacks to Van Loon have to be subject to “update” for this rather wonderful history of the world – a splendidly lucid way, still, for young people to get one view of Western civilization – to continue being heard in a world of so much technological progress and so much stasis and repetition in all the things civilization does to itself to prove how uncivilized it’s always been.
He was, as Robert Sullivan tells us, called a “laughing philosopher” in obituaries when he died. Sullivan wants us to remember that Groucho Marx was among the many Hollwyood stars who would appear in, of all things, the 1957 version of Van Loon’s bestselling book. And, said Groucho once, “outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
– Jeff Simon