Reading the dual autobiography of Will and Ariel Durant has been fascinating and excruciatingly boring, inspirational and frustrating. Why the contradictions?
Let me start at the beginning. I grew up in a house, not devoid of books, but with books as furniture. There was a built in bookcase in the basement that matched the built in hifi and the built in liquor cabinet in a nice reddish wood. The books, which were mainly acquired through the book-of-the month club, filled the shelves and remained unchanged all through my childhood, presumably because the shelves were full, so that no new books were needed. There was a set of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and all the many volumes of The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant in nicely dark, rich looking bindings.
From about age 12 to 14, I read The Story of Civilization, and it was probably the basis of a life-long fascination with history. I had a picture in my mind of the authors: aristocratic, tea drinking, Oxford educated. Far from it! To my surprise, the Wikipedia article painted a very different picture, and I immediately put their autobiography on hold at the library.
Will Durant was the son of illiterate, loving, hard-working French Canadian parents who had moved to New York. Ariel Durant was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, her mother a free spirit who left the family for a Bohemian life of free love. Ariel was 15 when she married Will, then 27, getting herself to City Hall on roller skates. When she found married life irksome, she rode her bike until the rubber wore off the wheels, making it as far as Boston. Will Durant had intended to become a priest, but found it conflicted with his agnosticism and instead, after he got his PhD, became a popular lecturer and writer in philosophy and history. When they were young, they hung out with artists and intellectuals in Greenwich Village, who were striving for a different life than their parents, who were aggravated, confused, frightened by their wayward offspring, demanded.
I grew up in a house devoid of books, but loved books. I grew up in a house where writing was seen as an idle and impractical dream, and I became a writer. I can relate to Will and Ariel, whose American publisher is also my American publisher. In fact they made Simon and Schuster the major force in the industry that it became. Will had published a number of small pamphlets on philosophy as part of a series of Little Blue Books that sold for 5 cents each in the days when working people hungered for education. When he worked these into a book, The Story of Philosophy, it was the first book published by S&S, a couple of young enthusiastic start-ups. It was phenomenally successful, establishing the Durants and the publisher. It is astounding to me that a book about the major figures in philosophy could be so popular. It astounds me that this was the making of my publisher.
In 1932, Will and Ariel Durant visited Russia, and to their disappointment found that the country under Stalin was hungry, fearful, beaten down, broken and tormented. No surprise there, at least not from our knowledge of history. But Will’s article about this was rejected by Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly “on the ground that they would alienate too many readers; for Russia, in our Depression years, seemed to millions of Americans the last best hope of men.”
About his publisher: “They have given me every consideration, have shared with me the expenses of research, and have never let considerations of profit or loss determine our relations.” Really! Max Schuster and Dick Simon, learning about the poverty of John Cowper Powys, one of their authors who was living in Wales, sent him “royalties far above the earnings of his books.” Can anyone imagine a publisher doing that now? My publisher??
And words that resonate today: “In general the reforms of the last three administrations…peaceably mitigate that natural concentration of wealth which periodically disturbs every vital society. They will help our economic system to meet the challenge of thirty million Americans living on the edge of destitution and forming for our production a potential market as precious as any for which we may wage a costly war. The spread of profit sharing would give the worker a stake in the stability of the firm and industry for which he works. We must put a bit of America under every American.”
Will Durant was born in 1885 and died in the 1980’s, shortly after his wife of a gazillion years of marriage died. They were writing nearly all that time. The Story of Philosophy, which made Simon and Schuster, was published when he was in his early 40’s. He and Ariel received the pulitzer prize for volume 10 of The Story of Civlization: Rousseau and Revolution. He was then in his 80’s. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his 90’s. They hobnobbed with movie stars and with presidents. He was ahead of his time, advising Truman to recognize the PRC (Mainland China) and invite China into the UN and the Security Council. But it wasn’t all roses.
Some of their books were succesful, others weren’t, and they never knew which way it would go. Books took longer to write than they expected. The series was supposed to be 5 volumes and instead was 11 and remained incomplete, with notes left for a 12th. Their process of research was exhaustive and exhausting. Each book generated 30,000 slips of notes; each chapter an outline consisting of hundreds of headings. They were buoyed by positive reviews, dashed by critical ones. Until his 70’s, in addition to writing Durant made a good living on the lecture circuit, a demanding and exhausting routine of constantly travelling across the continent, dealing with bad food and uncomfortable conditions despite his success. (I loved the story of his arrival at one destination, only to be told he had to make his own way somehow to the small town for his lecture because his ride hadn’t materialized. I could so relate!)
And yet their autobigraphy, which spans most of the 20th century is mainly a boring itinerary of dates, destinations, bowel movements (or lack thereof; the lecture circuit was constipating). There is very little analysis or character study though they met and were friends with many of the prominent people in the arts and politics, travelling all over the world from the steppes of Russia to the Mayan ruins of Central America. Ariel was nearly 80, Will in his early 90’s when their autobiography was published. I so wish that I could have sat down with them and asked them the questions that were never answered in their book: why was she so afraid that he was cheating on her, did he; what was she thinking when she ran off and ended up in the nut house for a few days; who came to her tea house in Greenwich Village; what were Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard really like; did the Durants end up losing all their money in the stock market and bank crash and how did they deal with that?
But I have to settle for the words they left behind: “I hasten to send you a little note of reassurance. First of all I have some $500 in cash, which I have had the brains to collect en route…No difficulty which falls upon all of us alike can destroy my spirit; I am willing to take my share of the blow…I should say of a lost fortune…’Well, I go make another one.’…We shall muddle thru.”