Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind follows a chronological pattern in which each chapter addresses a specific event or series of events in human history. Each chapter is given a highly descriptive heading that provides a brief summary of its contents. The work begins, appropriately enough, with the chapter “The Setting of the Stage,” which briefly outlines the theory of the development of life on Earth and the eventual arrival of humans on the scene; the volume ends with an epilogue.

In between, Van Loon covers ample material with a considerable amount of detail, but in a briskly moving fashion and deft, quick characterizations of major figures that makes the volume read more like an adventure story—which, in a sense, it is—than academic history.

The style of the book, while historical in approach, is personal and even conversational in tone. Van Loon often pauses to address his young readers directly in order to explain his meaning in more detail, correct possible misconceptions, or provide additional examples. He frequently points out certain “lessons” of history, which are almost invariably commonsense conclusions drawn from the facts—such as that glory abroad often means misery at home for nations and that personal liberty, if it does not degenerate into license, is a good thing.

Van Loon envisions human history and civilization as moving in an ever-increasing arc from East to West, starting...

(The entire section is 550 words.)