Study Guide

A Dual Autobiography

by Chaya Kaufman

A Dual Autobiography Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Will and Ariel Durant have spent their lives bringing the gifts of philosophy and history to thousands of people in the form of their books and lectures, and their dual autobiography may be the best gift of all. They have described here the joys and the sorrows of their journey across so many decades. We are treated to stronger and more personal opinions than they often have expressed in their public speeches and written words.

The book is arranged chronologically with Will and Ariel alternating in the narrative. Much of the story is devoted to their personal lives and their infatuation with each other, but a great amount of space is also devoted to the social and political events that influenced their intellectual development. The contrapuntal arrangement of their observations gives rise to something of a dialogue and is far less distracting than may be supposed. That they chose to present a dual autobiography is not surprising, for the last several volumes of The Story of Civilization were a joint project. It might be, in fact, very difficult for this inseparable pair to produce individual autobiographies.

Perhaps the most inviting and intriguing chapter is the first, where Ariel, without much of Will’s editorial hand, describes her childhood and adolescence. Ariel comes across as part feminist/radical socialist and eventually part dutiful wife in the old style, a fascinating combination. Her political fires seem to mellow as her attention and energies have turned more and more to the “family business” of writing books. Throughout the remainder of the work, those sections written by Ariel that alternate with the sections written by Will have come under his polishing pen, and her thoughts frequently reach us through his graceful style. That Will seems to have taken on the general editorial duties is also typical of their roles in life, ever since they became acquainted as teacher and pupil at the Ferrar School in New York so long ago.

By all rights the Durant marriage never should have worked. There is a thirteen year difference in their ages. Will was well educated and well read when they met, while Ariel was just discovering books and ideas. Will had been reared in a strongly Roman Catholic family, Ariel in a less strongly Jewish one. But their love was strong enough to overcome such inauspicious circumstances, and to abide through the weeks of loneliness and separation that they endured for so many years while Will was on the lecture circuit. In our day of all too frequent divorces it is heartening to find a pair that could overcome a number of formidable obstacles and remain so devoted.

Nevertheless, this autobiography does not exclude some moments of doubt and accusation—Ariel’s terrible loneliness while Will was away, for example, or a number of petty jealousies. These are all honestly, if blushingly, shown in excerpts from their correspondence. In this regard, the Durants play Everyman and Everywoman for their readers. In the end, they have come through it all, given patience and perspective, with a rock-solid marriage, and in so doing may shed a positive light on similar experiences for others.

Will’s concern for his repudiated religious beliefs is a theme that is recorded throughout his life. He began firmly grounded in the Roman Catholic Church, so firmly grounded, in fact, that the natural course of his life led him into a seminary to study for the priesthood. As he read more and more theological and philosophical works, he came to value the creative...

(The entire section is 1446 words.)