At the beginning of the year, I decided (because I wasn’t busy enough as it was) to undergo the Newbery challenge. That is, I dared myself to read every single Newbery Medal winner, starting from the beginning. This would include any and all volumes that I had previously read. I knew this would be a large undertaking, and would likely take me quite a long time. I did not anticipate, however, that the first book on the roster would take six and a half months to check off.
The very first John Newbery Medal was awarded in 1922 to The Story of Mankind, by Hendrick Willem van Loon. Originally published in 1921, the tome of human history has been routinely updated throughout the years (the most recent edition was released in 2013). The edition I read was updated in 1984.
After completing The Story of Mankind, I took a peek online to see what other readers were saying. I was not in the least bit surprised to see decidedly mixed opinions, some of them very strong indeed. The Story of Mankind was written before the age of political correctness, before the Civil Rights movement, before the women’s movement. Written at the close of World War I, van Loon had only a glimpse at the twentieth century. As such, van Loon’s style of writing, his choice of language, his selection of topics might to our ears sound backward, biased or just plain wrong. But van Loon is performing something of a magic trick with his history, and I believe I fall on the side of appreciating his unique approach.
“Few things in human life are either entirely good or entirely bad. Few things are either black or white. It is the duty of the honest chronicler to give a true account of all the good and bad sides of every historical event. It is very difficult to do this because we all have our personal likes and dislikes…Take my own case as an example.” – Hendrick Willem van Loon, The Story of Mankind
In this passage from van Loon’s history, located in a chapter on the Reformation, van Loon outlines the importance of objectivity in writing history and then promptly explains why this almost never, if ever, happens. Many, I am sure, are familiar with the phrase, “History is written by the winners”. This, obviously, is true. This is partially due to an innate human tendency to associate winning with acceptance. Van Loon would likely say this erroneous assumption is a result of hundreds of years of “Divine Right”, of monarchs, pharaohs and Popes whose power over the people is ordained by the will of a divine power. Therefore, the opinions of the losers are rarely cherished.
Is this right or just? Of course not. And more and more in today’s modern world of global communication, this axiom is becoming less and less true. The voices of “the little people” are getting louder by the minute (for good or ill). But in van Loon’s time, in the early 20th century, history was written by educated white men, and the other side of the story was buried.
What makes van Loon’s history different is not that he is something special, more enlightened and in tune with the voice of the downtrodden (though I believe he is), but that he is upfront about his prejudices. He acknowledges that history, all history, is presented through a lens of one kind or another. There is no such thing as an impartial history. This is largely what I found so fascinating about van Loon’s book. Yes, it is grossly Euro-centric, blind of females and indifferent (at best) on the topic of religion. But this is van Loon’s point of view. “I state these few facts deliberately that you may know the personal bias of the man who wrote this history and may understand his point-of-view.” You can’t get much clearer than that.
Van Loon wrote his history from the perspective of his own life and time, and therefore included only the things he thought to be immediately relevant to the world as he knew it. After all, in a book called The Story of Mankind, if you want it under a thousand pages, there are going to have to be some cuts. This is why there is very little information about the Far East in van Loon’s history. In 1921, the West knew relatively little about Asia, which had been for so long hidden and closed off. And for a man in 1921, it would be very easy to imagine that the goings on these distant lands would not have such a huge and irrevocable role to play on the world stage in the years to come. It would be fascinating to consider how van Loon would have written his history if he were writing from 2014. Many things, I imagine, would be different.
As for the absence of women in van Loon’s text (with the notable exception of Queen Elizabeth I, whom he affectionately refers to as “Old Queen Bess”), here is another open prejudice, of van Loon’s and of the time in which he wrote. There is a wonderful character created by Alan Bennett in the play “The History Boys” named Mrs. Lintott. While attempted to prepare her students to take exams in history, Mrs. Lintott makes this observation:
“History’s not such a frolic for women as it is for men. Why should it be? They never get round the conference table. In 1919, for instance, they just arranged the flowers then gracefully retired. History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”
Van Loon was writing from a time that was before Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Aung San Suu Kyi, women whose courage, passion, and leadership forced the world to pay attention and take note of their impact on the world. From where van Loon sat, women in American had just earned the right to vote, and the women’s liberation movement was decades away. While I hardly agree with his male-centric view of the world, I can hardly blame him either.
Finally, who exactly is van Loon’s intended audience? For a modern reader, this book would easily be classified as one for adults. In fact, in my library, both copies of the book are shelved with adult non-fiction. However, the writing style, I think, lends itself quite handily to a younger reader. Van Loon’s employment of the first person and direct address give even the most ancient history a sense of immediacy. Furthermore, van Loon has a sly and sharp sense of humor, a perfect ploy to pull along a reluctant reader. The length is forbidding (nearly six hundred pages as of 1984, approaching eight hundred as of the last update in 2013), but with plentiful illustrations and short chapters, the book is eminently readable.
Writing timeless history is a difficult job, to say the least. But with honesty, transparency and humor, I think van Loon has achieved just that. The Newbery committee of 1922 certainly had forward-thinking caps on the day they voted for this winner.
Next: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle!