Van Loon, Hendrik Willem,
Van Loon's Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as our dinner guests in a bygone year,
Simon and Schuster, 1942.
For readers of Plutarch’s Lives and lovers of biographies and the stories of the great men and women of the past here is another classic compilation of Lives they (and their children) might enjoy. Because children in the modern age are no longer brought up on the stories of the exploits of the great men and women of classical age modern kids at first find Plutarch difficult going. Thus, they may want to start with a more reader-friendly text. Van Loon’s Lives, is written in a great style with lots of charming character sketches AND lots of superb intellectual content. Hendrik van Loon (1882–1944) won the first John Newbery Medal, for his ‘Story of Mankind’ (1922) written again (mostly) for children but with enough intellectual content to make it superb nourishment for adults as well. Van Loon was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands in 1882. He emigrated to the United States in 1903 and studied at Harvard and Cornell (B.A., 1905). He was an Associated Press correspondent in Russia during the revolutionary outbreak of 1905 then witnessed the outbreak of the disastrous first world war in 1914 in Belgium. By the time the Nazi threat began to hover over Europe he as back in the USA denouncing the twin tyrannies of Nazism and communism. The cloud of the second world war and the Nazi threat hover over the prose and the content of the Lives and van Loon conceived the text as a kind of testament to his grandchildren. He consistently tried to awaken the world to the old piece of wisdom that liberty and civilization requires constant vigilance and readiness to fight. His numerous popular histories include The Story of Mankind (1921), The Story of the Bible (1923), Tolerance (1925), America (1927), and R. v. R. (1930), a fictional biography of Rembrandt.
In the Lives, two friends, living in the village of Veere (in the Netherlands) on the eve of WWII somehow found a way to conjure up heroes and heroines of theirs from the distant past. The heroes and heroines take on bodily form for the duration of a very fine dinner. During the dinner the guest and their hosts talk of their past lives and how the world has changed and not changed since their time on earth. Before the guests arrive the two friends do some thorough research on the lives and times of their guests. This research is presented to the reader along with details on what kind of food and music the person likely or what known to enjoy. No dinner could be complete without wines, music and several courses. Thus the reader is given a complete synopsis of the lives, impact and idiosyncratic tastes of the guest before he or she arrives. After the arrival of the guest we get a vivid portrait of the character as he or she interacts with the hosts and sometime other invited guests! Given that they are in the city of Veere, a city was special to the great humanist scholar Erasmus, the hosts selected Erasmus for their first dinner guest. He later advises them on other people to invite (and not to invite). Some of the guests are characters created by writers but who nevertheless had an impact on history as great or greater than their authors: Thus we meet Hamlet (as well as Shakespeare); Don Quixote (as well as Cervantes) and so forth. William of Orange is invited along with George Washington; the great artistic families of the Bachs and Breugels; the archbishops of Bithnia and Cyrenaica (who battled at the council of Nicaea are presented as hateful religious fanatics battling over trifling theological issues; Descartes and Emerson are presented as champions of freedom of thought and self-reliance; the dour Empress Theodora is contrasted with Queen Elizabeth who gets drunk and does some wild dancing. Both women are presented as people of superhuman emotional and intellectual strength give the circumstances each faced; Robespierre and Torquemada are (rightfully as far as I am concerned) skewered as murderous and life-hating ideologues who were willing to kill in the name of an idea; Saint Francis is the only representative of the Church given any respectful hearing at all; Hans Christian Andersen is lauded and Mozart is idolized; Beethoven and Napoleon are the weakest lives in the volume-van Loon does neither any justice; Plato and Confucius are given respectful hearings and the wisdom of the Confucian philosophy is properly given due reverence. Peter the Great is unfavorably contrasted with Charles of Sweden while Voltaire drops in to continue his fight against the obscurantist ‘infamy of the church’, Dante and his countryman Leonardo are treated as the great artists that they are (with some regrets about Dante’s adherence to the church) Leonardo gets taken up in a modern airplane, Montaigne and Rabeleis share a fine dinner and some of Rabeleis characters (Gargantua and Pantagruel) are brought vividly to life; the reclusive Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson gets to meet Chopin who improvises on the piano, the volume is rounded off with Lives of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as well as some very worthy minor figures from the history of the Netherlands. I found the book by accident in a second hand book stall and got it for $2.00! Inside the pages was a facsimile of a page of music from Beethoven’s 5th symphony in C minor. The music appeared to be variations on the theme from the symphony which I believe van Loon composed.
Van Loon’s histories are very clearly histories in service to a very particular conception of the story of liberty. He very simplistically assigns all the finest qualities to characters prominent in protestant history and simply can’t bring himself to say anything good about the catholic contribution to the history of liberty. He apparently had never read the papers of Lord Acton. With that said the Lives is still a fun read with lots of meaty stories from the lives of these great men and women of the past.