Newbery Challenge: The Story of Mankind

As I mentioned in my review of A Gathering of Days, I like lists.  I like the satisfaction that comes from checking off every single thing on a list.  However, while I have neither the time nor the inclination to read all of the Newbery Award Winners, I was curious to read the first book ever awarded that honor: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon.

I swear that I put a mark or note on every single page of the ebook I downloaded from Project Gutenberg.  This book is that crazy.  "But it's so old!" you cry.  "Surely, that must excuse him some things."  Okay, maybe a few.  But there is some bat-guano-crazy stuff going on in this book and I just have to get it all off my chest.  I hate having guano on my chest.  Stinks to high heaven.

Let me preface this by saying that (obviously) I was not a child in the early 1920s.  I do not know what other material kids had to read besides their textbooks for school, and since Van Loon at least has some fun with this story, I can see how it would be more appealing than dry academic works.  Slightly more appealing.  Fortunately, Van Loon does acknowledge that his writing is biased.  Unfortunately, he doesn't say anything like that until the end of the book.

Like most literature of the period written by old white dudes, this book is Euro-centric, offensive, short-sighted, and ... offensive.  I had to throw that in twice.  Van Loon has an odd mixture of religion and Darwinism going on as well, which really threw me off.  I think the best way to tackle this beast is to just go right down the line of his "story."

Van Loon gives a very abbreviated version of the theory of evolution, which consists mostly of a floating cell that becomes other things that become more things that become humans.  My favorite bit was how Van Loon describes the discovery of fire.  Setting: one of the various Ice Ages.  A cave.  A humanoid is cold.  Annnnd action!
"Then a genius bethought himself of the use of fire. Once, while out hunting, he had been caught in a forest-fire. He remembered that he had been almost roasted to death by the flames. Thus far fire had been an enemy. Now it became a friend. A dead tree was dragged into the cave and lighted by means of smouldering branches from a burning wood. This turned the cave into a cozy little room."
Handy, huh?  Yay fire!  But wait for this gem of a non sequitur: "And then one evening a dead chicken fell into the fire."  This is How Man Discovered Cooking.  Hooray!

Then we skip ahead a lot in time to the Egyptians and hieroglyphs, which Van Loon really likes talking about, and the pyramids.  We find out that the Nile River "taught the people who lived along its banks the noble art of 'team-work,' " unless you're like me, and the words "group project" inspire terror and despair.

Because we're in Biblical times, Van Loon tries to work in both a secular and a religious viewpoint of events recorded in the Bible.  Most of the time it just ends up being really confusing (and I would assume that most of the kiddos reading this back in the day would have been more religious than kids today generally are).  The author states that the name "Babylon" came from when "the Jews saw them  [the ziggurats] when they went into exile in the land of Babylon and they called them towers of Bab-Illi, or towers of Babel."  The subsequent narrative of Moses and the Israelites seems to be cobbled out the author's own imagination.  If he's going to talk about something that is in a holy text, he should at least follow what that says and not make up his own story.  He kind of does the same thing for Islam, too.

I honestly can't summarize the whole book for you because there's so much to talk about.  Here are a few choice quotes with some commentary instead:

"Indeed, ancient Athens resembled a modern club."  Here, Van Loon obviously means a London club of society gentlemen, but I very much doubt the Athenians lounged about playing pool and smoking cigars.

On slavery in the Hellenic world: "But when we talk about slaves, we do not mean the sort of people about whom you have read in the pages of 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin.' "  Yes, he went there.

On how the Greeks beat the Persian Empire: "But the Gods of High Olympus watched over their children and when the Phœnician fleet carrying the Persian troops was near Mount Athos, the Storm-God blew his cheeks until he almost burst the veins of his brow, and the fleet was destroyed by a terrible hurricane and the Persians were all drowned."  Easy-peasy.

"But as no one has ever been able to decipher the Etruscan alphabet, these written messages are, so far, merely annoying and not at all useful."  If you don't understand it, it must be crap.

On the fall of Rome: "Then at last the imperial city sank into a state of utter neglect and despair. The ancient palaces had been plundered time and again. The schools had been burned down. The teachers had been starved to death. The rich people had been thrown out of their villas which were now inhabited by evil-smelling and hairy barbarians."  The hirsuteness of the barbarians was really the last straw.  Also, how do we know they smelled any worse than anyone else?

On the founding of Islam: "The story of Ahmed, the son of Abdallah and Aminah, (usually known as Mohammed, or “he who will be praised,”) reads like a chapter in the “Thousand and One Nights.” He was a camel-driver, born in Mecca. He seems to have been an epileptic and he suffered from spells of unconsciousness when he dreamed strange dreams and heard the voice of the angel Gabriel."  So Mohammed was a fairy-tale man with epilepsy.  This is Van Loon being respectful.

"Heaven knew what fresh hordes of barbarians were ready to cross the Alps and begin a new attack on Rome."  He's really stuck on those barbarians.

On the Norsemen: "They soon learned to speak the language of their subjects and gave up the uncivilised ways of the early Vikings (or Sea-Kings) who had been very picturesque but also very unwashed and terribly cruel."  

On writing in the Middle Ages: "Before the middle of the thirteenth century, a layman who could read and write was regarded as a 'sissy' "

"Then there was Abelard, the young priest from Brittany, who early in the twelfth century began to lecture on theology and logic in Paris. Thousands of eager young men flocked to the French city to hear him."  He also had the sexytimes with a nun named Héloïse and they're more known for their doomed love affair.

De Loon's account of Dante Alighieri is totally bizarre and oversimplified and he also gives a mangled account of The Divine Comedy.  Per De Loon, "Virgil then takes Dante through Purgatory and through Hell. Deeper and deeper the path leads them until they reach the lowest pit where Lucifer himself stands frozen into the eternal ice surrounded by the most terrible of sinners, traitors and liars and those who have achieved fame and success by lies and by deceit."  I have a lot to say about this, but I will restrain myself to two main points.

  1. Dante and Virgil start out in Hell, and then climb to Purgatory, and finally Paradise.  This is symbolic of the Pilgrim's gradually improving state of grace with God and his shedding of his past sinful ways.  They don't go through Purgatory to get to Hell.  This is pretty obvious if you've ever read the poem.  Which this guy doesn't seem to have done.
  2. The Ninth Circle of Hell is reserved for betrayers--not liars or just general "sinners."  Dante's Hell has a very specific hierarchy and even the betrayers are sorted out by whom they betrayed.  Liars are in the Eighth Circle with the Falsifiers.  They have falsified words.  
"The Chinese had never been much interested in religion as we understand that word. They believed in devils and spooks as most primitive people do. But they had no prophets and recognised no 'revealed truth.' "  Hmm.  So a people who built a massive and successful empire with many dynasties and who figured out a lot of scientific principles before anyone in Western Europe even thought about them are "primitive."  This is me restraining my rage.  I think I'm doing rather well!

On royal inbreeding: "Philip was the son of Charles and a Portuguese princess who had been first cousin to her own husband. The children that are born of such a union are apt to be rather queer. The son of Philip, the unfortunate Don Carlos, (murdered afterwards with his own father’s consent,) was crazy. Philip was not quite crazy, but his zeal for the Church bordered closely upon religious insanity."  Well, yes, technically correct, but the language could use some sprucing up.

De Loon offers the world's most succinct, lazy summary of the Thirty Years' War ever: "Everybody fought everybody else and the struggle ended only when all parties had been thoroughly exhausted and could fight no longer."  I beg someone to write that on an exam for Western Civ.  I then beg that person to send me the professor's comments.

"It [the rise of the Mongolian Empire] turned the Slavic peasants into miserable slaves. No Russian could hope to survive unless he was willing to creep before a dirty little yellow man who sat in a tent somewhere in the heart of the steppes of southern Russia and spat at him. It deprived the mass of the people of all feeling of honour and independence. It made hunger and misery and maltreatment and personal abuse the normal state of human existence. Until at last the average Russian, were he peasant or nobleman, went about his business like a neglected dog who has been beaten so often that his spirit has been broken and he dare not wag his tail without permission."  Wow.  That was ... intensely offensive.

On Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette of France: "Even “if” he had possessed the ruthless strength of Napoleon, his career during these difficult days might have been easily ruined by his wife who was the daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria and who possessed all the characteristic virtues and vices of a young girl who had been brought up at the most autocratic and mediæval court of that age."  Buuuuurrrrn.  Evidently, if Maria Teresa was your mother, you were doomed to be an idiot.

On Napoléon: "The Emperor Napoleon was a most contemptible person."  No, tell me how you really feel.

He also had a low opinion of Queen Victoria: "He [Napoléon III] had gained the friendship of Queen Victoria but this had not been a difficult task, as the good Queen was not particularly brilliant and was very susceptible to flattery."

So, pretty much, this guy disliked most everyone and obviously felt he could have done things a lot better.  He peppers the text with bizarre ink line drawings, some of which feel like a joke because there's so many arrows pointing here, there, and everywhere.  One of them contains the label, "Here live the savage Finns."  

If the young men of the 1920s thought that this really was an accurate history of the world, then I suppose I am not surprised that World War II happened.  They were too busy patting themselves on the back for being Awesome Europeans and Americans to notice what that painter from Austria was doing over in Germany.  

For a good laugh, you can read this book.  If you'd like to be horrified by racism, you can also read this book.  And if you'd like to be thoroughly befuddled on the subject of religion, most definitely read this book.  It's an interesting snippet of the beliefs of the time, but ultimately unworthy of being awarded anything.  Except, perhaps, my undying scorn.  I don't give that to just anybody, you know.


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