Monday, February 8, 2016

Newbery Wayback Machine: The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik van Loon (1922)

 So let's start at the very beginning. Word on the street is, it's a very good place to start.

The first Newbery Medal, handed out in 1922, went to Hendrik van Loon's mammoth history of the world, the portentously-titled The Story of Mankind. The book was something of a sensation at the time, but its reputation (along with that of its author) has faded as the years have rolled along. I'm not sure I've ever met a contemporary child who's read the thing, and John "Mr. Schu" Schumaker of Nerdbery fame declared it the worst Newbery winner ever.

However, after finishing The Story of Mankind (in its original version, rather than any of the later editions that attempt to bring the history up to the present), I have to say that this is one that, while not without its faults, seems unfairly maligned.

Let's get those faults out of the way first. Although it has a bibliography at the end, The Story of Mankind doesn't have any source notes or footnotes. At the time of his Newbery win, van Loon was head of the Department of Social Sciences at Antioch College in Ohio, so one would figure that he could be trusted with the facts anyway, but there is at least one brief section of the book, consisting of letters purporting to be written by Aesculapius Cultellus and Gladius Ensa on the subject of the rise of Christianity, that's woven from whole cloth. This isn't history as we'd expect it to be presented now, and it was, in fact, the subject of some controversy even during van Loon's lifetime.

By the standards of his time, van Loon was remarkably forward-thinking and progressive, castigating many of his contemporaries as "apt to be tolerant only upon such matters as do not interest them very much." However, to a 21st-century reader, he can seem hopelessly backward, and his unshakable belief in Progress feels naive at best. It's also easy to see where his true expertise lies. Van Loon was born and raised in the Netherlands (he did not become a US citizen until 1919), and his doctoral thesis was reworked into his first book, The Fall of the Dutch Republic (1913). When he's discussing the history of northwest Europe, he is clearly knowledgeable and authoritative. On the other hand, his grasp on the western hemisphere often seems shaky; it would be hard to find present-day defenders for his assertion that, during the second half of the 19th century, conditions were significantly better for African-Americans than for European factory workers.

Having said all that, however, The Story of Mankind does still have a lot to offer. The foreword, in which van Loon describes his boyhood experience of climbing to the top of the Old Saint Lawrence Church tower in Rotterdam, remains a compelling personal essay, and it's not the only occasion on which van Loon's prose bursts into a near-poetry of surprising feeling. The opening lines of the book, for instance, are worth quoting in their entirety:

"High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles long and a hundred miles high. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by."

Some readers find van Loon's self-insertions and personal digressions tiresome, but those were some of my favorite portions of the book. I especially loved his fearless examinations of his own biases and points of view, and his honesty regarding his opinion of his own writing. ("I suggested that we destroy the whole manuscript and begin once more from the beginning. This, however, the publishers would not allow.")

While time may not have been especially kind to the reputation of van Loon's work in general or The Story of Mankind in particular, it still stands as an entirely reasonable selection by the librarians who handed out the Newbery. Five other books were honored, but none of them is more than a footnote today, and nothing else from the 1921 publishing year stands out as an inexplicable omission.   

Thanks for taking this first trip in our

More to follow soon!


  1. I read the post world war 2 edition of The Story of Mankind and while it was a bit of a slog it certainly isn't the worst Newbery I have read. It isn't even the worst winner from the 1920s.

    1. As someone who's never really recovered from Smoky, the Cowhorse, I completely agree.

    2. Smoky the Cowhorse would have been much better if it was about a hundred pages shorter or if it was really about a cow/horse hybrid!