4. Hendrik Willem van Loon’s “The Story of Mankind”

The main author of popular world history in the United States during the interwar years was Hendrik Willem van Loon (1882-1944). Van Loon was born in the Netherlands, where he grew up in an irreligious middle-class family in the port city of Rotterdam.[1] The stage of his childhood formed the young Van Loon’s early conception of history, which was both vivid and wide. Rotterdam’s cityscape prior to the Nazi bombardment of 1940 contained many memories of earlier times; such as the building where in the sixteenth century the Spaniards had staged a massacre in retaliation of a local revolt, an episode that haunted the young Van Loon in his dreams. The port city also incited a broad outlook on the world. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of the harbour, where Van Loon witnessed the arrival and departure of ships from and to all corners of the globe, awakened an interest in geography. The city harboured the objects that sailors brought in from far-off lands in the Museum of Knowledge of the Earth and Its People, a place were the young Van Loon often resided. His birthplace also linked Van Loon to the works of Desiderius Erasmus, the sixteenth-century humanist who also was a child of the Dutch port city. Throughout his life, Van Loon would admire the renowned humanist to such an extent that at times he would even claim to be his reincarnation.[2]

Van Loon ended up in the United States due to the influence of the Irish teacher Esther Bell-Robinson at Noorthey boarding school, who excited Van Loon for the English language and the profession of journalism. After the passing of Van Loon’s mother, her inheritance and the contacts of his uncle’s American wife, opened up the possibility for Van Loon to study at Cornell University. In 1902, aged twenty, he embarked for the States with the aim of becoming a journalist. In the next three years he studied at Cornell and Harvard, mostly taking courses on law, languages, and history. He became a close acquaintance of the Cornell historians Georg Lincoln Burr (1857-1938), who advocated the perspective of a unified humankind, and Andrew Dickson White, who in the 1884 inaugural presidential address of the AHA had made a plea for synthesis in historical scholarship.

After his graduation in 1905, Van Loon worked as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Russia and Poland. Yet he soon grew tired of journalism and focused on a career in historical scholarship. Between 1907 and 1911 he completed a PhD dissertation at the University of Munich, which was later published as The Fall of the Dutch Republic (1913). Before Van Loon was able to get an appointment in academic scholarship, he served as a wartime correspondent in Antwerp, once more for the Associated Press. In Belgium he nearly fell victim when caught up in a sudden artillery exchange between Belgian and German troops. In 1915 he began in his new position as a lecturer in Modern European History at Cornell University. His courses were very popular among the student body, but faced criticism from his faculty colleagues for not providing students with sufficient factual knowledge. Van Loon lost his position at Cornell in 1917. Around that year, he moved away from conventional academic scholarship, as he declared to have given up on the task of giving the older generation at the universities other historical ideas.[3] He began to seek a broader, as well as younger, audience. In the genre of history for children, Van Loon would experience his major break-through.

The Story of Mankind was first published in 1921 and its success was immediate. It became an absolute bestseller in the United States, went through thirty editions in the 1920s alone, and received the John Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to the American literature for children” in 1921.[4] Although the book was primarily aimed at children, multiple reviewers recommended it for adults as well. Historian Charles Beard (1874-1948) and sociologist Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) wrote laudatory reviews in The New Republic and The Freeman respectively. Both compared the work to Wells’ Outline of History and named The Story of Mankind as the better of the two historical syntheses.[5] The American Historical Review, however, ignored it.

Van Loon was a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan, which he regarded as the explanation for his occasional feelings of alienation from both his native and adopted country (he had become an American citizen in 1919). Cosmopolitanism was a recurrent theme throughout Van Loon’s works, such as expressed in the much-cited statement that “we are all of us fellow-passengers on the same planet and we are all of us equally responsible for the happiness and well-being of the world in which we happen to live.”[6] However, there also was another side to Van Loon. He often declared to feel most at home among Protestant Northern Europeans, for he regarded himself to be a product of that civilization.[7] Besides this identification with a particular culture, Van Loon also demonstrated occasional contempt for other peoples and cultures. He thought less of the Slavic and Mediterranean peoples, and neither was free from anti-Semitism and bias against Catholics. However, he was very inconsistent in these opinions. At the one occasion he would lament the growing influence of Jews in New York and the large wartime influx of European refugees, at the next he would declare to harbour deep sympathy for the Jewish people and spoke out in favour of providing aid to everyone that had fled Nazi-ruled Europe.

Van Loon’s cosmopolitan ideals may have laid at the roots of his plan for writing The Story of Mankind.[8] But his more parochial identification with the civilization of “Protestant Northern Europe” strongly directed the content of the work, which is extremely Eurocentric. It begins with the account of “Our Earliest Ancestors”, which tells the tail of how humankind faced near extinction at the onset of the Glacial Period, but came out stronger as the falling climate forced man to start using his brain and thereby differentiated himself from other species. It reads as a general account of human development, until Van Loon discloses that his description only concerned the peoples of Europe. It then appears that at the same time there had also existed other peoples, when suddenly the Egyptians – whose origins remain clouded – walk onto the stage. Thereafter focus subsequently shifts towards Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Persia, before it moves to the earliest civilizations of the Aegean Sea. From this point onwards The Story barely leaves Europe. China and India only get the first mention in chapter 42 (of a total of 63), which is titled “Concerning Buddha and Confucius”, and contains a brief account of the histories of Buddhism and Confucianism. For the remainder of the book, both Asian countries are once again left to itself. The Americas are completely ignored until European colonization. Sub-Saharan Africa, the most part of Asia, Australia, and Oceania are not discussed at all. Western Asia and Northern Africa are the only regions outside of Europe (and the European colonies in America) that Van Loon considers worthy of some attention. Yet these lands are merely discussed in relation to their (military) interaction with European civilizations: from the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, to the threat of the Islamic invasions.

Near the end of the work Van Loon addresses the question of how he defined the geographical scope of The Story. There had been only one rule that he had followed in this respect. Van Loon explaines: “’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 was not a question of personal taste. It was a matter of cool, almost mathematical judgement. No race ever played a more picturesque rôle than the Mongolians, and no race, from the point of view of achievement or intelligent process, was of less value to the rest of mankind.”[9] Most world histories written in Europe and the United States during the interwar years were in some form centred on Europe, but few were so extremely Eurocentric as Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind.

The Story of Mankind lacks the explicit exposition of an overarching theme or model that integrates world historical events, such as is done in the works of Spengler, Wells, and (as will be shown below) Toynbee. Van Loon’s work consists of many short chapters that can also be read in isolation. However, some patterns and recurring topics can be distinguished.

The most prominent pattern considers the moving centre of human civilization. Van Loon describes how, by the fifth century BCE,[10] civilization had travelled along a semi-circle: “It begins in Egypt, and by way of Mesopotamia and the Aegean Islands it moves westward until it reaches the European continent.”[11] At that time, the “torch that was to illuminate the world” was handed over from the Semitic tribes (the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians) to the Indo-European Greeks. The “torch of civilization” thereafter moved further west, as the Greeks became the teachers – via the Etruscans – of the new Roman civilization, which Van Loon identifies as “the foundation of our modern society”.[12]

Near the dying days of the Western Roman Empire, in the fifth century CE, European civilization stood at the brink of destruction. The Byzantine Empire was still going strong, but because it had forgotten its Western origins, Van Loon argues that it could hardly be counted as European. Instead, the saviour of European civilization was the Christian Church. The Church prevented “a return to the days of cave-men and the hyena” by determinately holding on to its principles in the most unstable of times.[13] Another European institution that was essential for safeguarding the continuing existence of civilization during the dark ages was feudalism. “During that era,” Van Loon declares, “the noble torch of learning and art which had illuminated the world of the Egyptians and the Greeks and the Romans was burning very low.”[14] Once again the human race faced the prospect of being “forced to begin once more where the cave-man had left off,”[15] but this time it were the arduous works of knights and monks that prevented so from happening.[16]

The crusades rang in a new era. Increasing interregional movement of people led to a geographical expansion of trade, the introduction of currency, and subsequent economic development. There emerged a merchant class that dwelled in cities and was able to free itself from feudal obligations. Power shifted from castle to city. The freemen dared to question the established order of thought and social relations, which had been unchallenged for centuries. This eventually led to the coming of the Renaissance. Civilization was thriving again. In the sixteenth century the centre of civilization once again moved, as the overland trade routes to Asia gave way to transport over sea. The merchants of Venice and Genoa, who had enriched themselves during the age of the crusades, lost economic dominance to the sea-faring nations to the West. In the final move of the centre of civilization in The Story of Mankind, the countries that border upon the Atlantic became the masters of the Earth.[17]

In conclusion of the theme of the shifting civilization, Van Loon reflects upon the idea of some of his contemporaries that the First World War had been the suicide of the great European nations and therefore had diminished the importance of the Atlantic Ocean. Van Loon also had a very negative perception of European nationalism and the way it had pushed the continent into war, but he rejected ‘Spenglerian’ pessimism. Van Loon remarks: “They expect to see civilisation cross the American continent and find a new home in the Pacific. But I doubt this.”[18]

A second recurring theme in The Story of Mankind is the struggle between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Van Loon explicitly mentions it as a recurring pattern of history, which he believed had continued until this very day.[19] The Greco-Persian conflicts of the fifth century BCE were, Van Loon writes, “the first encounter between Asia, the ancient teacher, and Europe, the young and eager pupil.”[20] The next clash came in the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. Although the latter was geographically African, its racial origins linked it to the lands to its east. Just as Wells in The Outline of History, Van Loon largely understood human history by the interaction between different races. Of these, the Indo-Europeans and the Semites were the most prominent in his account of world history. While the centre of human civilization shifted towards the “Indo-European” Romans, the Semites pushed westward along the northern coast of Arica and made themselves the rulers of the western half of the Mediterranean. Carthage became “the great Western advance-post of the Semitic races”.[21]This leads to a terrible conflict between two rival races”, writes Van Loon referring to the Punic Wars.[22]

These racial categories were also relevant for defining the notions of ‘Europe’ and ‘Asia’, which to Van Loon were not merely geographical denotations.[23] After the Roman victory in the Punic Wars, the Mediterranean became “a European sea”. But as soon as the Roman Empire had perished, “Asia made another attempt to dominate this great inland sea”.[24] This time it were the armies of Islam that represented Asia. Van Loon’s grand concepts of race and continent such as the notion of ‘Asia’, served to integrate distant historical events – in the case of the Punic Wars and the Islamic expansion separated by more than eight centuries – into the same historical pattern.

After the publication of The Story of Mankind Van Loon would have a long career in the United States as author, columnist, and journalist. He further hosted popular radio programs on science and the Second World War (during the war he broadcasted in Dutch to bolster the morale of the people in his native country that lived under Nazi occupation). He authored many more books, for both children and adults. In 1930 he published a historic novel about the (fictional) physician of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn,[25] but most of his works fell in the genre of non-fiction. The most prominent of these were Van Loon’s Geography: The Story of the World We Live In (1932), and The Arts (1937).[26] Both works once again sought a global viewpoint.

Van Loon’s Geography takes a tour around the world, in which each chapter discusses the geography, history, culture and demography of another country, region, or continent. The viewpoint of Van Loon’s Geography is still Eurocentric, but significantly less so than The Story of Mankind. Most attention goes to Europe, but the work also discusses numerous regions and countries in Asia, as well as (be it much briefer) Oceania, Africa, and the Americas. Like in The Story of Mankind, continents are depicted as holistic entities that as a whole can be granted with specific qualities or contributions, which then can become subject of comparison. In this comparison Europe still comes out the better, but Asia is not as much marginalized as before. Van Loon writes: “Europe gave us our civilization but Asia gave us our religion”.[27] Yet in some comparisons involving individual Asian countries, Europe comes in second: “The Chinese people form fully one-fifth of the total population of our planet and they knew how to use gunpowder and how to write letters at a time when our ancestors still painted their faces a pale blue and hunted the wild boar with a stone axe.”[28] Such a statement seems hardly daring or revolutionary, but stands out because nothing in The Story of Mankind had even vaguely suggested that there had been societies worth noting outside of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and thereafter Europe and North America.

The Arts is a world history of artistic expression.[29] Founded on the assumption that art is universal, but not universally uniform, it tells the history of art, from pre-historical rock paintings up to the composers and painters of the early twentieth century. The narrative follows the same route as The Story of Mankind: from a general account of the cavemen it moves to – subsequently – Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, the Etruscans, and the Romans, whereupon it mostly stays in Europe. The Arts thus mainly is a history of European art, but also contains chapters on Islam, East Asia, and even sheds some light on art forms in pre-Columbian America.

In 1942 Van Loon was named among “America’s 93 greatest living authors”, a list compiled by a public ballot.[30] He became a famous public figure and was acquainted with famous scientists and authors such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, and was particularly close with president Franklin D. Roosevelt. He supported most of Roosevelt’s politics, but was annoyed by the president’s initial neglect to join the war against Hitler, whom Van Loon had warned for since the dictator’s rise to power in 1933.

Since his final departure from Cornell University in 1917, Van Loon explicitly opposed academic historians. He disapproved the specialized historical training, which did not produce scholars with broad historical knowledge, but rather focused on delivering “historians that would make ideal candidates for a Guggenheim scholarship”.[31] The lack of love was reciprocal. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1917-2007) would later state that academic historians ignored Van Loon’s works “partly because of his rather slapdash scholarship, partly because his books sold too many copies”.[32] Van Loon said not to be bothered about the lack of academic recognition: “professors never cared a damn about my work, but the public does and that is all that matters.”[33]

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[1] The biographical information about Hendrik Willem van Loon is based on: Cornelis A. van Minnen, Van Loon: Popular Historian, Journalist, and FDR Confidant (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[2] It is unclear whether Van Loon actually believed this claim, or uttered it merely to stress that he identified with the Rotterdam humanist.

[3] Van Minnen, Van Loon, 68.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Ibid., 77-78.

[6] From: Hendrik van Loon, Van Loon’s Geography: The Story of the World We Live In (n.p., 1932), 6. Van Minnen, Van Loon, 145.

[7] Van Minnen, Van Loon, 191.

[8] Consulted versions: Hendrik van Loon, The Story of Mankind (London: George G. Harrap, 1922); Ibid., The Story of Mankind. Pocketbook edition complete and unabridged (New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1939).

[9] Van Loon, The Story of Mankind (1922) 449; Ibid., The Story of Mankind (1939) 377-378.

The “Mongolian race” to Van Loon might not have included China, Japan, or Korea. Van Loon’s conception of racial categories appears to be slightly different from that of Wells in the Outline of History, who integrated the Chinese into the Mongolian, or ‘Mongoloid’, category. In the narrative of The Story of Mankind the presumed racial make-up of the world is not explicated, but one of Van Loon’s maps provides a clue (The Story of Mankind includes 142 maps and illustrations, drawn by Van Loon himself). A racial map of Europe, Asia, and North Africa differentiates the Chinese from the Mongolians. On Van Loon’s map, the Mongolian expansion merely covers Central Asia and Siberia. See: Van Loon, Story of Mankind (1923) 46.

[10] This date is not explicitly named in the book. Van Loon makes very few mentions of dates. This may have been because the author regarded them as largely superfluous in a book primarily aimed at children, but he also had a general aversion against history as the enumeration of “dull dates”.

[11] Van Loon, Story of Mankind (1939) 60.

[12] Ibid., 61.

[13] Ibid., 95.

[14] Ibid., 117.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Granting European knights and monks with the credit for upholding all of human civilization at a time in which the feudal societies of Europe were dwarfed in relation to the size and development of numerous Asian empires, may be the most far-fetched Eurocentric claim in The Story of Mankind.

[17] Van Loon, Story of Mankind (1939) 187.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Van Loon neglected to exemplify how the east-west struggle manifested itself in his own time. See: Van Loon, Story of Mankind (1939), 33.

[20] Van Loon, Story of Mankind (1939), 33.

[21] Ibid., 62.

[22] Ibid., 61.

[23] There also was a notion of culture involved, as was demonstrated by Van Loon’s judgement of the Byzantine Empire ceasing to be “European” because it had forgotten its Western origins. See: Van Loon, Story of Mankind (1939), 94.

[24] Van Loon, Story of Mankind (1939), 73.

[25] Hendrik van Loon, R.v.R.: The Life and Times of Rembrandt van Rijn (New York: Horace Liveright, 1930).

[26] Both of these works were originally published in New York by Simon and Schuster.

[27] Van Loon, Van Loon’s Geography (1932), 193.

[28] Ibid., 235.

[29] Consulted version: Van Loon, De mens en zijn kunst. Authorized translation of The Arts, 5th print (The Hague: Uitgeverij Servire, n.d.).

[30] Van Minnen, Van Loon, 242.

[31] A notable exception was Carl Becker, who had praised Wells’ Outline of History. Van Loon admired him greatly. See: Van Minnen, Van Loon, 164.

[32] Van Minnen, Van Loon, 266.

[33] Ibid., 239.

Van Loon’s works were indeed very popular among the general public, but the The Story of Mankind also faced popular resistance. Just as Wells in The Outline of History, Van Loon had integrated into The Story of Mankind the newest astronomical, geological, and biological findings, and thus subscribed to Darwinian theory. Creationist Christians were successful in banning the book from some class rooms and libraries, thus hampering its national distribution.