Learning history from the master: Hendrik van Loon (1882-1944)

I’m a historian. Even historians had to learn their history from somewhere. And I learned mine from Henrik van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which I read in its 1926 edition.

My copy of van Loon’s Story was given to me by my father. He noted the assassination and death of two notable European politicians while he was reading it in 1934. So the book came down to me with some personal history, right from the start.

I read it when I was eight. Van Loon showed me that there was indeed a story to history, a narrative I could read about and understand. Moreover, in his later chapters, he told me that reading was not enough. I had to learn to question what I read, to explore what was significant, to understand the great forces of history that shaped not just the past, but the present and future.

Van Loon illustrated his history with hand-drawn pictures! You have NO idea how much that mattered to me at age eight!

It was an awe-inspiring concept, particularly for an eight-year-old. And what made it more telling, ironically, was that the story van Loon told was already forty years out of date. He was mostly concerned with the 1870-1926 era of European history. I was reading his book forty years later, on another continent in a country that, while it acknowledged its European roots, had its own issues and concerns.

In its own day, The Story of Mankind was a famous best seller, a winner of awards. It inspired a great many other books with similar titles. Why, just as I started as a philosophy major in college, I would read WIll and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Philosophy (originally published in 1926).

Today, van Loon’s work is almost unreadable. It’s really a history of Western Civilization, as understood a century ago, with all the baggage that entails. Looking for a global history, or one which questions issues of gender, or . . . well, any development in history and culture post-1926? It’s not here.

Still, because, even within that framework, van Loon not only taught me history, but taught me to question history, his book was critical in my development as a historian. So, on the anniversary of his death, I offer him a salute.

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4 thoughts on “Learning history from the master: Hendrik van Loon (1882-1944)

  1. crimsonprose

    A thought provoking post. So now I’m asking myself whence my early interest in history (outside of school, that is). My parents belonged to a book club, very common in immediate post-war years, and so had bookshelves that heaved with fiction and non-fiction alike. As I was growing up, these were available to me. But there wasn’t any such item as van Loon’s work. Instead there was a compendium of books called Essential Knowledge for All, which covered History, Geography, Maths, Latin, German, French, Engineering, Philosophy. I’ve no idea which historians contributed, but this set was my earliest history reading.

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    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      My parents’ forays into book clubs and the like included 23 of a 24 volume set of encyclopedias, so I never learned anything about topics after “Washington.” And volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which might have been the best treatment of some of them, but did provide a few leads I would later follow up with the real thing. Mostly they had the paperbacks of the era.

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      1. crimsonprose

        My godmother bought me a set of encyclopedias when I was 11. On the advice of an older cousin, who was then at university, I decided to read from A to Z. I never did progress past ‘Black-Foot’. But having said that, those encyclopedias were very well used by the time I passed them on to my sister’s grandchildren.

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