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The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem Van…

The Story of Mankind (1921)

by Hendrik Willem Van Loon

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The Story of Mankind is the 1922 Newbery winner, and the first book to receive the award. It chronicles the history of "mankind" from its single cell origins through the end of World War I. I'm not sure what inspired the Newbery committee to choose a nearly 500 page book with such an ambitious scope, and I really can't see how this book would have gotten children excited about either reading or history.

First off, the book is incredibly Eurocentric. There is barely a mention of the world beyond Europe. There is brief discussion of the Middle East and one chapter entitled, "Concerning Buddha and Confucius" that deals with Eastern religions. Egypt is mentioned in chapters detailing the beginning of civilization, but the rest of Africa may as well not even exist, except for the "heathenish tribes...who worshiped sticks and stones and dead trees." The Native Americans also do not merit a mention. At times, Van Loon is apologetic about this, saying, "I wish that I could tell you what happened to Norway and Switzerland and Serbia and China. But these lands exercised no great influence upon the development of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I therefore pass them by with a polite an very respectful bow."

Towards the end of the book he talks about how he had one rule for deciding what to put in his book. "Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?" It seems like a nearly impossible question to answer, but Van Loon doesn't hesitate to answer this question in regards to the Mongolians. "No race ever played a more picturesque role in history than the Mongolians," he writes, "and no race, from the point of view of achievement or intelligent progress, was of less value to the rest of mankind." Yikes. Not so much of a polite and respectful bow there. I can't decide if I prefer the patronizing, the condemning, or complete omitting of certain groups.

I will also mention Van Loon's cringe-worthy discussion of slavery in the Americas. He writes the "negroes were strong and could withstand rough treatment...[and] association with the white man would give them a chance to learn Christianity...so from every possible point of view, it would be an excellent arrangement both for the kindly white man and for his ignorant black brother." Wowzers. Soon after, Van Loon condemns slavery as practiced in the Americas, but his condemnation seems to be mostly an, "oops, maybe we went a little to far trying to save these ignorant heathens." (I am putting these words in his mouth.)

This review is already long, but so I won't discuss my issues with Van Loon's portrayal of the Jews killing Jesus or the fearless Muslims so excited about paradise they are running directly into European machine gun fire. Nor will I dwell on the fact that I could probably count the number of women mentioned in this book on one hand.

In spite of these things, I found some parts of the book to be surprisingly progressive. The book was written just before the Scopes Trial, but evolution is presented as a fact and there is no mention whatsoever of creationism. Van Loon also states the the Bible is not a reliable source of scientific knowledge and the most important messages in the Bible are those of love, charity, and forgiveness. He encourages his readers to question their own stereotypes, ask questions, and see history from all angles. A good student of history should attempt to uncover the hidden motives behind people's actions, because it is only through understanding that we can truly make the world a more peaceful place.

I think that Van Loon was well-intentioned, but very misguided in writing this book. He wanted kids to understand and love history, and most importantly to learn from it. If the book were written today, I would be more adamant that is an infuriating, condescending, and worthless piece of literature. Since it was written nearly one hundred years ago, I will exercise some restraint. It had its good moments.

That being said, the book was very dense, mostly very boring, and I would not recommend it to anyone unless you have taken on the senseless project of reading all the Newbery winners.
  klburnside | Nov 4, 2015 |
The title of this book is both correct and incorrect at the same time. While there is much talk in the beginning about how man came to be, the author chose to ignore all but Europeans for the most part because, in his opinion, they did the most notable things in history. The important thing to remember when reading this book is that it was written in a different time from ours. Back in 1921, when it was first published, certain ways of thinking and speaking were completely acceptable. Of course a book written in this era, by a Dutch-American would center on European civilization and ignore most others. Anyone picking this book up should understand that fact of history before they dive in.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in the 1920s, history wasn't what it is today. Research was done differently and less was known about the world nearly 100 years ago. We thought we found all there was to discover in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt... Until they found KV-63 in 2005. And let's not forget that when most of us were of the target age of this book, Pluto was unquestionably a planet. Readers will find things in this book stated as fact that might very well have been the accepted history of the time, but that we now know more about. If looked at in this context, this book is a completely acceptable representation of certain histories of certain cultures. You get the double bonus of looking at history through the eyes of history, which is something I really enjoy.

There is a reason this book won the Newbery Prize. The information is presented with a storyteller's voice, even including humor at times. I can see how younger readers would find this a fascinating introduction to past events of the world, even if they had struggled with the subject before. They might even find a particular part of history they want to learn more about and branch off reading from there. In my mind, if a book as all encompassing as this one keeps younger people involved in learning about the past, it is something special and worthy of the attention. ( )
  mirrani | Oct 7, 2015 |
First edition, very good condition
  EllenBeu | May 10, 2015 |
Didn't read this, just thumbed through it out of curiosity because it's the first winner of the Newbery. The updates, fyi, don't appear to fix the original, but rather just tack on new stuff at the end. It does seem to be charming and interesting enough to deserve accolades *in context* of its time and place. However, there are too many errors, too much Euro-centrism, etc. for it to have much value to modern children. I enjoyed thumbing through it but would not encourage my children to read it.
  Cheryl_in_CC_NV | Apr 14, 2015 |
This is a book that belonged to my grandfather, it's the 1947 edition. I fell in love with the illustrations and is probably one of the reasons I love history. I've added 3 photographs of pages with illustrations that took my fancy. The first - of the universe with the sign (Here we Live) at first worried me a little - the vastness OUT THERE but I was very very young at the time. Now it reminds me of something that might come from a Douglas Adams book...perhaps he read Van Loon too. ;) ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hendrik Willem Van Loonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sperry, ArmstrongIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0871401754, Paperback)

Anyone who can chronicle world history from 500,000 B.C. to present times--and do so in a lively, entertaining style--deserves a medal. Luckily, the bestowers of the very first Newbery Medal in 1922 thought so, too. The warm, personable tone of Hendrik Willem van Loon's writing lends itself to true learning in a way that stern, dry textbooks never do. In the introduction, he describes climbing a tower in Rotterdam in his youth. Years later, the perspective at the top inspired the author to develop a metaphor of history as a "mighty Tower of Experience, which Time has built amidst the endless fields of bygone ages."

This genuinely enjoyable charmer, for history buffs and the historically challenged alike, covers human history from prehistoric times, when our earliest ancestors were learning to communicate with grunts, right through to the issues of the latter 20th century: gay rights, Arab-Israeli conflicts, and health and fitness. Revised and updated several times since 1921, van Loon's inviting classic is filled with stories (and witty parenthetical asides) that bring history alive. His pen-and-ink illustrations, maps, and animated chronology contribute to the cozy, round the fireplace aspect of the book. (Ages 12 and older) --Emilie Coulter

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:03 -0400)

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The classic history of all ages, for all ages, updated in a new version for the twenty-first century.

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