Friday, February 23, 2007

More about The Story of Mankind

First, I've got a load of information about Hendrik Van Loon from that Newbery and Caldecott Trivia book by Claudette Hegel, so you're all going to get some of it.

According to Hegel, The Story of Mankind won the Newbery in 1922 by a popular vote. It "was the landslide winner with 163 votes while 14 other books received a combined total of 49 votes" (p. 48). However, "Libraries in at least half of the states refused to stock The Story of Mankind because of author Hendrik Van Loon's discussion of evolution" (p. 53). Ha ha, that gives it something in common with this year's winner, what with the great scrotum brouhaha.

Hendrik Van Loon made friends with Franklin Delano Roosevelt while both were at Harvard (Van Loon was later a guest at the White House), and he became an American citizen the same year that The Story of Mankind was published. TSoM was a huge success for Van Loon - it was apparently the second best-selling nonfiction book of 1922, and 9th in the list for 1923. Hegel also mentions that it probably made about half a million dollars for Van Loon, or the equivalent of several million today. My "new and enlarged edition", published in 1962, includes six chapters written by Willem Van Loon (Hendrik's son) in 1951, covering the years from 1923-1950.

Anyway, I think I liked this book more than most of the other reviewers. Partially because I only skimmed many of the chapters in the middle, and partially because I have a fairly high tolerance for outdated history (as befits someone who used to work as an archaeologist?).

TSoM was terribly sexist and Eurocentric. It was all about 'man'; even famous women (like Elizabeth I of England) were rarely mentioned, although there was a passage about mothers passing on culture to their children. I guess that isn't too surprising for 1922, though. Van Loon's view of history was largely an account of 'man discovers this and that', which always reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear (Ayla discovers riding and agriculture and penicillin and I can't remember what else). My favorite description of this in TSoM is the description of the origin of cooking:
"And then one evening a dead chicken fell into the fire. It was not rescued until it had been well roasted. Man discovered that meat tasted better when cooked and he then and there discarded one of the old habits which he had shared with the other animals and began to prepare his food" (p. 16...and wouldn't you think that women might have had something to do with the evolution of cooking? A dead chicken fell into the fire??).
The rest of Van Loon's history is diffusion - of people and ideas and tools. From archaeology, I know this idea was big in the 20's. I did think it was curious that he put Egypt earlier than Mesopotamia - not what is known today, but maybe the dating was off back then. Neither the Americas nor Asia nor Africa get any credit for any social, political, or economic evolution of their own (i.e., "civilization"), though historians and archaeologists in these areas today concentrate much of their efforts on understanding the independent processes of such things. In fact, in the chapter on the American Revolution (which summarizes the European colonization of North America), Van Loon actually says that "Only a very small part of this vast domain was inhabited" (p. 329). Well, except for all those Indians who don't bear mention.

But again, I think this shows how differently people thought about these things in the 20's. One of the passages I really liked describes this very issue:
It is very difficult to understand the people of by-gone ages. Your own grandfather, whom you see every day [note this major difference from today! SD], is a mysterious being who lives in a different world of ideas and clothes and manners. I am now telling you the story of some of your grandfathers who are twenty-five generations removed, and I do not expect you to catch the meaning of what I write without re-reading this chapter a number of times (p. 162).
No one has really described the drawings - also by Van Loon - which were as quirky and sometimes charming as the rest of the book. I think Van Loon liked the pictures himself, since he includes a quote from Alice in Wonderland on the page after the title page (with a picture!):
"What is the use of a book without pictures?" said Alice.
Some of the his cartoonish illustrations were quite modern, if a bit dark - I particularly liked "Propaganda", in the chapter on WWI.

The index was rather disappointing - for instance, there was no entry for slavery or slaves, but there was one for emancipation. But at least it had an index, which I think is important in a 500+ page non-fiction book.

I liked the short chapters. Although (like both Bekah and Catherine) I simply cannot imagine either of my children reading this, at least without major coercion or bribery, I can imagine my grandfather reading this to my father in the 1930's - maybe a chapter every evening. I'm not sorry that I took a look at it, although I was a bit taken aback by Van Loon's conclusion - rather surprising for a history book:
This does not mean that we are absolutely certain about the road that now lies before us. Most likely we will follow a dozen wrong tracks before we find the right direction. And in the meantime we are fast learning one very important lesson - that the future belongs to the living and that the dead ought to mind their own business.


Bekah said...

I enjoy your perspective!

Regarding the chicken in the fire: everybody knows MEN are responsible for grilling. LOL ;)

I actually think the Euro-centrism is appropriate. In reading the end of the book where Van Loon makes apology for what's included and what's not, he mentions that his major criteria for entries in the book are that the events played a significant role in the shaping of history to date. While we feel American history is very important to us, I think our country was just revving up to becoming a significant player in world events, what with the predominant feeling of isolationism through the earlier periods. But, you clearly have a greater grasp of history than I.

I do feel Americans tend to have a bit of an aggrandized view of our own importance, which shows through the quality of education of our children in world history.

catherine said...

Very nice post. I esp. like your quote at the end about the future.
Now I am wondering if Van Loon ever did a review of the US (something like Alexis de Tocqueville's)?
Just the title with the "Mankind" would have caused trouble for me in my undergrad. days -- definitely not gender neutral.