1922 Newbery Medal: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

The Story of Mankind, by Hendrik Willem van Loon, was published in 1921 by Liveright. I read the updated version that was published in 1972.

Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s renowned classic charms us once against with its warmth, simplicity, and wisdom as it unfolds its tale of the history of man for both adults and children. Reaching back into the beginnings of man and sweeping forward to illuminate all of history, van Loon’s enthusiasm breathes life into the characters and events of other ages.

Rating: 2/5

There’s no surprise that The Story of Mankind won the first Newbery Medal ever awarded. It’s history retold almost as a story, in a fairly simple manner and covering a great deal of time in relatively few pages. However, unlike many Newbery Medal winners, this book does not age well—no wonder, considering its nature as a history book first and foremost.

The original edition of The Story of Mankind stops after World War I, while the updated version tells of history up until the Korean War (actually, I’m not sure how far it goes—my edition was missing about 20 pages or so at the end, so it could also have covered the Vietnam War). While van Loon gets many things correct about history, there are many other things he gets extraordinarily wrong, owing both to the time the book was written and what his voice as the “narrator” of history reveals.

It’s not surprising that someone in the 1920s would get some aspects of previous history wrong, since today we’ve had 90+ extra years to study and get things right, and van Loon got more things right than I expected. But he does get some things wrong, such as the birth of modern science and his hilariously incorrect story of “Joshua, whom the Greeks called Jesus.” Van Loon seems to be highly contemptuous of all religion, for even his story of the beginnings of Islam is brief and told in an irritatingly patronizing tone.

This patronizing tone is present throughout the entire novel, really, but particularly worse in areas where religion or archaic ways of doing things are concerned. He tells of particular moments in history in a pretentious, “those silly, ignorant peasants” tone that is almost unnoticeable at first but starts to build and build as the book progresses. In addition, The Story of Mankind is, in actuality, The Story of Western Mankind, as Eastern thought and culture gets only a handful of pages devoted to it, and no history of China or Japan is given until it relates to a war or a particularly global moment in history. Perhaps I’m expecting too much of van Loon, however, or perhaps it’s only natural that someone who seems as contemptuous of certain cultures and times in history as he is would leave out a few things here and there.

The only reason I’m not giving The Story of Mankind a lower rating is that, as fed-up as I was with his pretentious tone, van Loon does get some aspects of history correct that I wasn’t expecting, such as the emphasis on the Middle Ages as a time of great development rather than being “Dark” (although, according to van Loon, they were still ignorant peasants who weren’t nearly as intelligent as the people who came after them) and the fact that no one during Columbus’s time actually thought the world was flat. But despite van Loon’s accuracy in some areas, he is wildly inaccurate in others, especially in the ones he clearly thinks are beneath him. This condescension of tone made The Story of Mankind, ultimately, an unpleasant read.

Recommended Age Range: 10+

Warnings: None.

Genre: Children’s

You can buy this book here: http://amzn.to/2qpquzq

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