In my previous essay on The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant, I explored the ubiquity and popularity of this familiar set of books, a sweeping synthetic historical narrative aimed at a broad general audience. Their success in telling and selling a grand, stylish narrative about the human past met with the approval of some academic specialists and the scorn of others. Many historians today are slammed by fellow academics, never mind outside critics, for being “out of touch” with the general reader and for not reaching a broad audience with our work. At the same time, others within “the guild” of professional scholars worry that writing for a popular readership can too easily turn into pandering of pablum. As this essay shows, early reviewers of the Durants’ work tended to fall in one or the other of these camps, and those camps still carry on a rhetorical battle about popular history writing today.

Will Durant’s The Life of Greece, the second volume in the “Story of Civilization” series, was published in 1939, a grim year for “Western Civilization.” Despite — or perhaps because — the book was such a popular success, it was reviewed in a handful of academic journals.

Two reviews of this volume nicely illustrate the camps into which academic readers of Durant seemed to fall: either they lauded him for his ability to bring to the distant past a sense of immediacy and vividness for the general reader, or they lambasted him for his hamfisted handling of historical argumentation and historical facts.

One review, in praising Durant the popularizer, critiques the social sciences of the time for the arcane interests and esoteric specialization of scholarship content with investigating minutiae of interest only to other scholars. But that critique of scholarship for its dry-as-dust specialization is framed in the way that such critiques of scholarly research in the humanities are often framed today: in studying esoteric subjects that are of no broad relevance, humanists are betraying a duty to consider not just the Big Questions but the Big Culture(s) that truly matter in the long sweep of history, and nothing matters as much as Western culture. “It is eminently respectable to spend half a lifetime in the study of some insignificant tribelet having no demonstrable connections with the culture of the Western world,” wrote Howard Becker in the American Sociological Review, “but preoccupation with things Greek is thought to be direct evidence of a sickly estheticism or a failure to concentrate on ‘genuine research.’ Year after year we turn out dissertations establishing correlations between the number of bath-tubs and the amount of juvenile delinquency in Oskaloosa without feeling at all apologetic. Why? Because of our rampant ‘raw empiricism’ and lamentable lack of historical sophistication.”[1]

There’s a lot going on here. There’s the dismissive sneer at anthropological or ethnic studies, particularly those focused on cultures that are not part of the grand sweep of “the West.” There’s the eye-rolling jab at “empiricism” that contents itself with addressing minute questions whose answers may be quantifiable but are not qualitatively important.

All this is the backdrop to a review of several works among which Durant’s is included: Pearson’s Early Ionian Historians, Botsford and Robinson’s, Hellenic History, Birt’s Von Homer bis Sokrates, Jaeger and Highet’s Paideia, Bonner and Smith’sThe Administration of Justice from Homer to Aristotle, Jaeger’sDemosthenes, and Nestle’s Der Friedensgedanke in der antiken Welt.

That’s pretty heady company for a bestseller aimed at a general audience. In Becker’s view, though, Durant holds up very well. However, for this reviewer, praising Durant’s work serves as a way of disdaining scholarship that relies on more specialized language. “This writer, for all his popularization, is not to be sneered at in the manner all too common among the professorial guild. Granted that he does not soar so high that only those equipped with the oxygen outfit of monographic research can follow him; granted that he occasionally smirks at an audience eager for scandalous tidbits; granted that he sometimes indulges in epigrams that verge on the Broadway wisecrack — but should a few venial sins altogether bar him from salvation? The present reviewer has read a great many surveys in this field, and he says without reservation that Durant has no superior where the intelligent general reader is concerned. Most of us, after all, are general readers, no matter how many academic baubles we have pinned to our names.” [2]

The figurative language is interesting here. The reference to soaring so high that one needs an “oxygen kit” seems to be an up-to-the moment reference to technological advances in (military) aviation. This would have been a particularly striking image, I think, near the beginning of World War II. No one needs such “special equipment” to read Durant, special equipment that includes “academic baubles” — advanced degrees. Instinctive aversion to Durant’s rollicking narrative and his success represents so much “sneering” by “the academic guild.” Durant is here envisioned as the champion of the common man against the elite.

An explicit denial that critique of Durant springs from mere reflexive defensiveness and “guild” solidarity concludes a scathing review of The Life of Greece written by M.I. Finkelstein. “These questions are raised from no narrow ‘guild’ interest, nor as an attack on popular history,” Finkelstein writes at the end of a blistering review. “Quite the contrary. There exists a genuine need for popularization which will be neither vulgarization nor Philistinism. An accurate portrayal of the material and intellectual forces of Greek society in all their ramifications and interconnections can be more exciting than the cheap romanticizing of a Will Durant – and certainly more vital and socially useful.” [3]

The “cheap romanticizing” Finkelstein called out in Durant was not just a stylistic gesture but an intellectual flaw. Finkelstein singled out what he saw as Durant’s conception of race and races as having set characteristics that endure through history, an “essential sameness” such that one can discuss “Oriental autocracy” and “the rugged North” as if these were fixed and immutable factors in shaping history. This is romanticism and romanticizing in a Herderian sense, and Finkelstein is not having it. Durant’s thinking on the constant of race is pernicious not simply because it is a bad and lazy explanation for the past but because it lays all the weight of historical change on great men. “Racism is naturally accompanied by the notion that it is the leader-hero who molds history,” Finkelstein writes. “Mr. Durant reveals a deep distrust of democratic forms and a contempt for the ‘mob.’” [4] Thus, rather than writing a work that gives the common man an intellectual foothold among the elites, Durant’s entire argument upholds and undergirds the consolidation of power and authority in the hands of the few rather than the many — also a striking argument to make in the early years of World War II.

Finkelstein has little patience for Durant’s reputation or his reach among general readers, educated or otherwise. “Mr. Durant has read fairly widely,” Finkelstein writes, “but not enough or with sufficient discrimination to avoid innumerable errors or to be able to distinguish between a wild guess and a sober judgment. Apparently the main function of his research and learning is not to enlighten but to impress the uninitiate (with the assistance of reviewers in the daily press who know next to nothing about Greek history).” No wonder, then, that Finkelstein felt it necessary to conclude his review with a disclaimer that he was not here simply speaking up for “the guild.”

Instead, Finkelstein’s review includes an explicit indictment of America’s system of education. He began with a rhetorical defense of the aims of professional historians.

The Life of Greece is a best seller. The challenge therefore has two aspects. Is the study of history to be nothing more than a series of perversions of the past, designed to hoist public opinion onto the band wagon of the moment? Or is it a scientific discipline, the search for an understanding of the historical process, motivated by a deep-rooted interest in human welfare to be sure, but free from any restrictions imposed by momentary political pressures and whims?

Here is a paean to empiricism, to objectivity, to inquiry that is humane in interest but not presentist in motivation or approach.

But then comes the critique:

Secondly, what is wrong with our educational system when more people learn ‘history’ from one book by Will Durant, aided and abetted by the press, than from a whole year’s output by all the professional historians in the country?

Why aren’t more people reading the work of “the professional historians”? It must be because something is wrong with “our educational system.” But doesn’t that system include those very historians? And there is so much vituperative ire reserved for “the press” as an agent of public mis-education. Imagine what the outcry would have been if Durant had had a regular column in The New Yorker. (Durant did, in fact, have a syndicated column running in newspapers in the 1920s, which helped very much to make his byline a household name before he published a single volume of this series.)

Will Durant’s book was not the first work of popular or popularizing history to receive critical attention, positive and negative, from scholarly reviewers writing in academic journals, and it certainly won’t be the last. Indeed, these two antithetical perspectives on a runaway best-seller nicely stake out the polarized extremes of both the academic reception of popular history and the academic perception of scholars’ own role in shaping popular views of the past.

 L.D. Burnett, Professor of History at Collin College, is a scholar of American thought and culture. This article was originally published by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.


[1] Howard Becker, “Review,” American Sociological Review 5, No. 2 (April 1940), 287.

[2] Becker 288.

[3] M.I. Finkelstein, Review, Political Science Quarterly56, No. 1 (Mar. 1941), 129.

[4] Finkelstein 127.