Magazine October 5, 2009, Issue

The Epic of The Durants

The Durants in 1975 (Bettmann/Corbis)


Eighty years after Will and Ariel Durant started writing their history of the world, their finished project appears as quixotic as their dream: It’s hard to imagine two feet of books, unconcerned with America and current events, making for a rush on Borders checkout lines. But, during its four-decade publication odyssey, The Story of Civilization regularly had its volumes on the bestseller list; the last volume, The Age of Napoleon (1975), spent seven weeks there.

In 1981, Will and Ariel Durant died within a fortnight of each other. It seemed fitting. They had been married for almost seven decades, won both a Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom together, and produced the eleven-volume Story of Civilization.

At their wedding, in 1913, nothing would have seemed more far-fetched than the prosperous union that followed. Before Will and Ariel Durant’s names became inseparable on dust jackets, they had been joined in scandal. He served as the principal of an anarchist school; she was its student most committed to classroom anarchy. In the first of his life’s many transitions, Will traded the discipline of Seton Hall (where he had been a lay teacher, then a seminarian, and then a lay teacher again) for the latitudinarianism of the Ferrer School, which dispensed with grades, detention, compulsory lessons, and even the notion of “the” teacher. Durant’s students skipped rope inside the classroom and pelted him with snowballs outside it.

The teacher, too, took advantage of the peculiar system. Durant confessed to his bosses in 1913 that though “my feelings for Ariel were those of fatherly or brotherly interest, I say now that I love the girl.” Durant tendered his resignation, which his overseers tried to rebuff. Departing after the 1912–13 school year, teacher married student. The bride roller-skated from Harlem to City Hall, and slung the transportation over her shoulder for the ceremony. The groom was scolded by the judge as a “cradle robber” and lectured to delay consummating the marriage until Ariel’s 16th birthday.

Though the teacher-student romance may have been, in Will’s words, “the scandal of a season,” the season did not last long. A year after Durant’s resignation, three anarchists transformed a Harlem tenement into an arsenal — just blocks away from the Ferrer School, where they had plotted murder. Like three Weathermen downtown 56 years later, the trio ended up killing themselves instead of their intended targets, John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the partygoers at his 1914 Fourth of July picnic.

Like the Durants’ intergenerational romance, the bombers hardly scandalized Ferrer School radicals. Planned Parenthood matriarch Margaret Sanger, her son a former Durant student, lionized Rockefeller’s would-be assassins. The federal government suppressed her journal and indicted her. She fled America. Future Communist-party literary commissar Mike Gold penned a youthful ode claiming that the bombers just “loved too much.” Plot puppeteer Alexander Berkman, failed assassin of Andrew Carnegie’s lieutenant Henry Clay Frick, had again failed in orchestrating an industrialist’s demise but succeeded in evading justice — even as he organized a demonstration that celebrated his puppets as martyrs.

For the second time in less than a decade, Durant lost faith. “I came now to feel toward anarchism very much as I felt toward Catholicism: I could give it respect and sympathy even though I withheld belief,” he wrote in his autobiographical novel, Transition. “But I bore from that moment a new sadness in my heart as I realized that I was fated, bit by bit and day by day, to lose my Utopian aspirations as I had lost, in younger days, my hope of immortality and heaven.” But like the Seton Hall priests who had offered the seminarian employment even after he announced his atheism, Alden Freeman — the sugar daddy of the Ferrer School, who had already sent Durant on a European junket — sent Will to Columbia to study philosophy.

Columbia, radical breeding ground for Whittaker Chambers, Elizabeth Bentley, and others, strangely had the opposite effect on the seminarian-turned-socialist. Durant’s study of philosophy made him realize that many of his generation’s supposedly novel ideas had been tried, and failed, too many times to count. 

He nevertheless remained in that radical milieu. At Manhattan’s Labor Temple, a place of continuing education for Manhattan radicals, Durant twice weekly imparted the wisdom of the ages to workingmen, passers-by, and Greenwich Village denizens who could afford the 25-cent tuition: He was dubbed a “one-man university.” When the eccentric publisher Emanuel Haldeman-Julius wandered into the Labor Temple in 1922 to catch a lecture on Plato, destiny seemed at work. Both men had been engaged in the same endeavor: providing the masses an elite education. While Durant lectured mass audiences on the history of philosophy, Haldeman-Julius published for the common man the “Little Blue Books,” an ingenious series of staple-bound pocket-primers on every subject imaginable.

Haldeman-Julius petitioned Durant to pen a 15,000-word monograph on Plato. Busy, Durant demurred. Persistent, Haldeman-Julius sent a check for $150. It was an offer the young Ph.D. couldn’t refuse. A second volume, on Aristotle, followed another check. Eleven Durant-authored Little Blue Books made their way into print between 1922 and 1925. By 1926, the sales of Durant’s primers — ultimately nearing 2 million copies — prompted Haldeman-Julius to bind the collection properly, between two hard covers. He commended Durant to twentysomething upstart bookmen Dick Simon and Max Schuster. The Story of Philosophy would be the bestselling nonfiction book of 1927, establishing Simon and Schuster as publishing giants and providing Durant the cash-register cachet to chart his own course.

The commercial success of a book on Aristotle, Nietzsche, Spinoza, and other highbrains says as much about Durant’s crowd-pleasing style as it does about the crowd. Strangely, critics viewed Durant’s project as part of the dumbing-down of culture, as if it somehow sullied the greatest philosophers to encourage mechanics with dirty hands to read their books. As Durant put it, The Story of Philosophy was “disgracefully and unforgivably popular.” Snobs, not for the last time, looked down on Durant’s attempt at cultural uplift.

Both Durants’ lifetime project was to bring the education of the few to the many. Their lives exemplified the wisdom of such an effort. Ariel, born Chaya Kaufman in a Jewish ghetto in Ukraine, was temporarily struck blind during passage from Old World to New. Temporary quarantine in Liverpool to deal with the mysterious malady resulted in her family’s permanent loss of their possessions. With her family’s luggage travelling to America without them, Ariel’s hard-luck immigrant experience reads as a caricature. Will’s upbringing in a supersized family of ten conformed to Catholic stereotypes. Will spoke French in the home, and his immigrant factory-worker father never learned to read. When Will and Ariel married, it was the religious rather than the age gap that scandalized their families. What brought them together, and raised them from meager upbringings, was education. For Will, the Jesuits imparted knowledge and wisdom; for Ariel, Will did.

The Durants were the consummate blue-collar intellectuals. But by the late 1920s, Ariel’s work as the proprietor of the Gypsy Tavern in New York made her more blue-collar than intellectual — even in a bohemian haunt barely escaping the shadow of the Washington Square Arch. Will was buried in his books, Ariel behind her bar, and the Durants reached a marital crossroads. “If we could only find a way in which each of us would enter more fully into the life of the other,” Will wrote. He offered to go out biweekly with his wife if she joined him in an intellectual partnership for the week’s remaining days. Ariel gradually turned over her bar to relatives and joined Will in the project that would dominate their remaining half century. “Our love was renewed,” Ariel recalled, “and our lives became one.”

The Durants embarked on their intellectual odyssey on the SS Franconia, which left New York on Jan. 11, 1930, to explore such exotic locales as Algiers, Cairo, Nazareth, Bombay, Madras, Rangoon, Bangkok, Saigon, Canton, Shanghai, and Osaka. With The Story of Philosophy’s proceeds, the Durants laid down $18,000 for two staterooms housing Will, Ariel, daughter Ethel, and 200 books.

The outline of Our Oriental Heritage, The Story of Civilization’s first entry, matched its author’s travels. Sections moved west to east. Chapters moved past to present. Will presented Ariel with chapter outlines, accompanied by relevant notes, and Ariel organized Will’s slips of paper into the relevant chapter subheads on art, religion, war, and so on until they constituted a chapter. “We estimate that an average chapter of the Story used some fifteen hundred slips, or about thirty thousand per volume; our attic rooms are bulging with the boxes of used slips,” Ariel recalled in 1977. “All in all, the gathering of the material for Volume I (ignoring the gleanings made before 1929) took two years; the classification, one year; the writing and rewriting (in longhand), and the typing, two years; the printing, proofreading, and illustration, one year.” This pattern of telling the story of civilization was repeated ten times.

Their globetrotting jaunts, too, recurred with great frequency. In 1932, the Durants embarked on a trip wholly irrelevant to the content of The Story of Civilization but crucial to its critical reception. After spending nearly a month in Soviet Russia — which he called a “gigantic prison” — Durant attempted to sell his reflections on the trip to the day’s leading magazines. The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s balked. It was the 1930s, and editors expected ideological tourists dutifully to return home with tales of heaven on earth; Durant’s honest account failed to conform. The Saturday Evening Post finally offered $6,000, during the depths of the Depression, for the four-part serial. “Surely the time has come for the intellectuals, the liberals, and the radicals of the world to speak out about this new slavery, to call it clearly and bluntly what it is,” wrote Durant. “For it can no longer be doubted that in this dictatorship of politicians is to be found every abuse which liberals and radicals have denounced in their own societies for generations.”

The serial enraged the Communists and fellow travelers who bullied writers in the 1930s. John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, and W. E. B. Du Bois had found Heaven in Russia. Why hadn’t Will Durant? Despite a Simon & Schuster editor’s warning that an unfavorable book about Russia would further alienate reviewers, a determined Durant bound his series in The Tragedy of Russia (1933). Coming from a credentialed radical who, upon receiving news of the revolution, had proclaimed “Holy Russia” the “gentle Christ of the Nations,” the book, articles, and lectures on Russia, Durant discovered, “won me large audiences and many enemies.”

Many of the Durants’ “many enemies” called the campuses home. The Durants’ view of Communism offended academia’s ideology, even as their history writing offended its guild mentality. The sin of being independent scholars unaffiliated with institutions of higher learning was compounded by the infuriating fact that neither was a properly credentialed historian. It was bad enough that Will was an interloper from philosophy; Ariel didn’t even have a college degree. This independence resulted in a historiography that rebelled against that of professional historians, irking scholars but pleasing readers. The Durants eschewed theory-driven history for people-driven history, microscopic specialization for broad synthesis, and the clique’s jargon for the King’s English. The Story of Civilization extracted history from the academic ghetto, opening the conversation about the past to all comers.

The Durants’ style of cutting to the point made them anathema to academics who saw clarity as a vice. Their critics wrote to be cited; the Durants wrote to be read. The Story of Civilization is epigrammatic: “We know that war is ugly, and that the Iliad is beautiful.” “Some nations have not lasted as long as Rome fell.” “It was a pity that Adrian could not understand the Renaissance; but it was a greater crime and folly that the Renaissance could not tolerate a Christian Pope.” “The state in some measure had civilized man, but who would civilize the state?” “No nation is ever defeated in its textbooks.” Readers remember the Durants because readers remember their words — not all 2 million of them, but a pithy line here or there that somehow manages to put whole epochs into perspective.

Will Durant rejected the historians’ politicization of history. “If I were to ask what Will Durant believes, or disbelieves,” a reader lamented, “I could not produce a single paragraph explicitly stating your position.” But what some readers, and even his wife, viewed critically, Will considered a  virtue. 

Though the Durants didn’t intrude their politics into their histories, they were far from apolitical. In 1930, Will spent a weekend with Herbert Hoover at Camp Rapidan, conversing with the president for hours. By 1932, he had shifted his allegiance to Franklin Roosevelt, who would host him at the White House, as would Harry Truman, who assured Durant that he kept a volume of The Story of Civilization by his bed for evening reading. The flattery went both ways. The couple’s passion for Hubert Humphrey so clouded their judgment that, in the last days of the 1968 campaign, they mixed Richard Nixon’s name with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. Nor did seeing the past translate into telling the future: Will supported Wilson to stay out of the Great War, Roosevelt to stay out of World War II, and Johnson to stay out of Vietnam. To his credit, he highlighted, rather than obscured, his mistakes, such as his belief that Imperial Japan would never attack America and his early enthusiasm for anarchist education (“a weak inability on our own part to command because we had never learned to obey”).

But Will could also sound like a reactionary. “Most of our literature and social philosophy, after 1850, was the voice of freedom against authority, of the child against the parent, of the pupil against the teacher, of men against the state,” he lamented in 1963.

I shared in that individualistic revolt. I do not regret it; it is the function of youth to defend liberty and innovation, of the old to defend order and tradition, and of middle age to find a middle way. But now that I too am old, I wonder whether the battle I fought was not too completely won. . . . Have we too much freedom? Have we so long ridiculed authority in the family, discipline in education, rules in art, decency in conduct, and law in the State that our liberation has brought us close to chaos in the family and the school, in morals, arts, ideas, and Government? We forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves free.

If ever a man embodied the dictum attributed to Churchill, that conservatism in youth reveals heartlessness and liberalism in age reveals brainlessness, it was Will Durant. Three decades after he discovered the truth about Soviet Communism, Durant again became a man against fashion, with his broadside against moral anarchism. In politics, religion, marriage, and scholarship, Durant forever played the apostate.  

All the while, the Durants’ labors on The Story of Civilization continued. As volume piled upon volume, the master generalists became second-rate specialists, writing more about less. The Age of Faith had covered the history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims over a millennium, but the planned Age of Reason coda expanded to five books (the volumes that credit Ariel as co-author) covering a mere 250 years and too often limiting their focus to Britain and France. Whether it resulted from an Enlightenment bias, a concession to specialist historians, a Durants Inc. mania for more and more product, or age’s desire to continue youth’s activity, this extension of seven volumes into eleven left the audience wanting less rather than more.

But in life’s twilight, with their bodies and books in decline, the Durants received appreciation from quarters that hadn’t always appreciated. Universities coveted them as commencement speakers. Young people were introduced to them through endless printings of The Story of Civilization and The Story of Philosophy, which in May 2009 enjoyed yet another reissue. Critics awarded them the Pulitzer Prize for Rousseau and Revolution in 1968. A Republican president bestowed the Medal of Freedom upon them in 1977. By November 1981, just days after Ariel’s burial, the Catholic Church that had excommunicated Will performed his last rites. 

“As a young man, he asked too many questions to be an authentic rebel,” former Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins eulogized, “and in his later years he was too distrustful of the answers to be an authentic conservative.” Will and Ariel Durant became what they had wished history to become: for Democrats and Republicans, old and young, believers and atheists, scholars and readers — for everyone.

– Mr. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008).

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