In many ways, The Story of Mankind embodies so many of the things the Newberry Medal has come to stand for: a celebration of where we’ve come from, a look to the future, the exploration of relationships between events and people, and perhaps most of all, the hope that we can learn something to make our world a better place.
The Story of Mankind certainly reaches for those things, and in many ways, delivers. As a history, Hendrick Willem van Loon’s book of course looks backwards, but at every turn, he works to make connections to the present and to the future. van Loon seems genuinely hopeful for America’s future, despite that the history he’s accounted is full of war, death, and despair. van Loon believes in heroes, adventure, discovery, and justice, and his celebration of these things echoes even the earliest of American literature.
Perhaps the most successful aspects of The Story of Mankind is van Loon’s constant reminders to the reader that though they read a history, they live in the present. Granted, van Loon’s “present” for most of the book is at the lastest, 1921 (I read a later edition, but still, the author’s “present” didn’t extend much past WWII), but his goal seems to be to remind his readers to learn from their history rather than simply judge it. My favorite examples of this comes in his Napoleon chapter:
‘Here I am,’ he writes, ‘sitting at a comfortable table loaded heavily with books, with one eye on my typewriter and the other on Licorice the cat, who has a great fondness of carbon paper, and I am telling you that the Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person. But should I happen to look out of the window, down upon Seventh Avenue, and should the endless procession of trucks and carts come to a sudden halt, and should I hear the sound of the heavy drums and see the little man on his white horse in his old and much-worn green uniform, then I don’t know, but I am afraid that I would leave my books and the kitten and my home and everything else to follow him wherever he cared to lead.’ (van Loon 352)
van Loon also encourages his readers to recognize the mistakes we make in the present as simple reincarnations of mistakes made decades or centuries earlier. For example, in his chapter about the tendency of scientists to be scorned and their work feared, van Loon mentions the Scopes Monkey Trial, in which “Mr. Bryan is addressing a vast multitude on the ‘Menace of Darwinism,’ warning his hearers against the errors of the grate English naturalist” (van Loon 429). He explains the cause of the American Great Depression as because “few of the men who had waxed prosperous and influential in [the 1920s] ever found the time to read their history books. If they had they would have learned that those who wish to enjoy greater privilege must also assume greater responsbility. Otherwise the national apple-cart overturns” (van Loon 487).
But despite The Story of Mankind‘s many successes, van Loon’s tome fails to satisfy wholly. It starts out as a history of the world, but even after only a quarter of the way through, it becomes only a history of Europe (and by extension, the United States). Smaller, non-European countries are only mentioned if they were a European colony. The Story of Mankind is largely a male history, and I think this might be as much a product of its time as it is anything else. The history’s length is also problematic. I’m a very fast reader, and The Story of Mankind took me nearly 8 weeks to finish. The chapter-length, language, and tone were quite approachable, but the text simply didn’t offer anything completely unique to keep me engaged. In many ways, The Story of Mankind is simply a well-written history text, showing its age and prejudices to its modern audience.
What old book have you read that still feels relevant? What new favorite of yours should stand the test of time?