In the foreword to The Story of Mankind, Van Loon, writing to his young relatives Hansje and Willem, tells a typically personal story of how he came to be such a passionate student of history. One day, when he was about twelve, his uncle took him to the top of an old church tower in Rotterdam. From there, the young boy could see the sweep of the Dutch countryside and sites from the history of the Low Countries: where the Prince of Orange had cut the dikes to save Leyden; the leaning tower of Delft; and the church of Gouda, where the early Renaissance scholar and humanist writer Erasmus had been taught his first lessons.

Van Loon uses the tower and the vision as a metaphor of what history is and what it does. “History is the mighty Tower of Experience,” he writes, “which Time has built amidst the endless field of bygone ages.” He imagines history as a vantage point from which the student can make some sense and order of the tangled confusions of the past and draw experience and courage for the tasks of the present and future. This spirit is the one in which Van Loon presents The Story of Mankind.

Van Loon clearly believes that history is, at least for young readers, a series of object lessons that teach fundamental human and moral truths and that it is his role, as a historian, both to present the actors and actions of the past and to underscore the meaning of past events. Furthermore, he makes his presentation in an...

(The entire section is 541 words.)