Thursday, November 5, 2015

Birthday: Will Durant and the Great Sweep of History


William James Durant (1885-1981)

Born to Quebecois immigrants, Will Durant trained to be a priest but got caught up in the socialist-worker enthusiasms of the Progressive Era and abandoned that future for one of writing and teaching. After graduating college, he taught at Seton Hall University and served as its librarian; in 1911 he resigned to become head of a progressive school for working class students.

Two years later, at the age of 28, he fell in love with, and married, a student he called Ariel. She was fifteen at the time and arrived at the wedding with her roller skates slung over her shoulder. The marriage was a classic love-match, lasting 68 years; they died within weeks of each other.

He resigned his teaching post and took up itinerant lecturing while pursuing a PhD at Columbia. His lectures on philosophy were published as little paperbacks to be accessible to the masses, but in 1926 Simon & Schuster bundled them into a book called The Story of Philosophy. It was a huge hit, and made the Durants sufficiently wealthy to undertake his grand design, conceived during an illness in Damascus in 1912: a five volume, popular history of civilization from the dawn of recorded history to the early 20th century.

Durant wanted to defy the modern cult of specialization, and scientification, of history. He saw history as the story of people, rather than as the great, sweeping collision of forces advocated by another long-form historian of the day, Arnold Toynbee. The New York Times summed up his approach in his 1981 obituary:

One explanation for the success of ''The Story of Civilization'' was the clarity and wit of its prose. Another was its emphasis on man's achievements in art, literature, science and philosophy rather than on the follies and crimes of mankind or on military, political and economic events. 
''History,'' Dr. Durant and his wife once remarked, ''is above all else the creation and recording of the intellectual, moral and aesthetic heritage of mankind; progress is the increasing abundance, use, preservation and transmission of that heritage. 
''To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man's follies and crimes but also as a remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, philosophers and lovers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing.''  
Dr. Durant's approach to history was looked down on by many serious historians. The late Crane Brinton of Harvard wrote of ''The Age of Voltaire,'' the ninth volume in the Durants' series: 
''It is difficult for a professor of history to say good things about their work without seeming to unbend, if not to patronize. Clearly they are readable. They can produce the telling anecdote, the picturesque detail, the sense of movement in events and ideas, though they cannot create the kind of dramatic suspense Barbara Tuchman achieved in her 'Guns of August.' 
''Above all, though, they are often mildly epigrammatic. Though they can be comfortably realistic about human nature, the Durants are never uncomfortably realistic, never daring, never surprising. Theirs is the enlightenment that still enlightens, basically kindly, hopeful, progressive, reasonable, democratic.''
The first volume, Our Oriental Heritage, took eight years to produce. It came out in 1935 and made Simon & Schuster’s name in publishing. With its steady revenue, the house was able to take on the more literary authors for which it- and its editor, Maxwell Perkins- became famous in the coming decades. Translated into nine languages, the series sold over two million copies. Vaulted into the role of intellectual celebrity, Durant produced dozens of books, pamphlets and articles on public affairs, after a 1933 visit, he pronounced the Soviet Union “one giant prison” in a book on the trip.

The trouble with massive projects is that they always take longer than planned. Working from secondary sources- they used about 500 books per volume- they worked ten hours a day, seven days a week, for most of the forty years it took to produce the series. It took four years to complete each book; The Story of Civilization took 18 years to reach its planned fifth, and last, volume, and there the Durants were only up to The Renaissance.


They pressed on. The tenth volume, Rousseau and Revolution, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968. An eleventh volume, The Age of Napoleon, came out in 1975; the Durants conceded defeat to Father Time- he was 90; she 77. They shared the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and published Joint Autobiography in 1978.

A massive set of books- 10,000 pages, some four million words, The Story of Civilization brought the world to America. The Durant books were immensely popular as a come-on to join book clubs in the decades before Amazon and big box bookstores brought publishing to the masses. While historians tended to sniff at “popular” presentations- especially the notion that one man could be expert in everything in the history of the world and tell you about it- Durant was a good writer who told his tale well. Though Ariel was his collaborator in the work from its earliest days, Will was a man of his time, and did not move her from the acknowledgements to co-author status until 1961.

Through it all, Durant maintained confidence in the fate of Man:

Dr. Durant consistently took a generally optimistic view of civilization, despite a growing belief that ''the world situation is all fouled up.'' 
''Civilization is a stream with banks,'' he said in his precise voice. ''The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. 
''The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.''

1 comment:

  1. "...Will was a man of his time, and did not move her from the acknowledgements to co-author status until 1961." This implies that Durant was lying when he suggested that his wife's contribution to the labors expanded over time so that eventually it seemed reasonable to add her as co-author. Unless you have information that you are not sharing to indicate that Ariel was deprived of just credit in the earlier volumes, the implication here is invidious.


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