by Hendrik Willem Van Loon
[Simon and Schuster, $3.95]
THIS is precisely the sort, of introductory treatment that the arts have always needed, and have never had. It is a conspectus, taken from the point of view of the primary purpose for which the arts are practised — namely, the humanization of man in society, or in one word, civilization. The arts are aids to man’s progress in the humane life; that is what they exist for, and all they exist for. Men have always practised them in obedience to the urge to civilize themselves. Even in primitive times, and among peoples so primitive that their level of general culture seems to be little, if any, above that of the anthropoids, there is evidence that men were vaguely conscious that the arts had this purpose and that they should be practised with this end in view. This fact, as Mr. Van Loon shows, is the one drop of truth in the ocean of verbiage which has been poured out around ‘the universality of art.’
This purpose being common to the several arts, it correlates them all in the service of the one supreme art of living. Music, painting, sculpture, literature, and so forth, are like the several fingers of a hand, adapted and correlated to help one another out in the service of the purpose to which the hand is addressed. Mr. Van Loon has organized his whole book around this principle of correlation, and thereby has made it, as far as my knowledge goes, unique. I know of no work which has any structural resemblance to it. It is in place to remark here also that his success in this most difficult achievement is so pronounced as to be quite beyond praise.
In presenting this work, with its homemade illustrations, Mr. Van Loon displays what Cardinal de Retz called ‘the terrible gift of intimacy,’and indeed when used unscrupulously, as it so easily may be, a terrible gift it is. Perhaps the strongest impression the book makes — certainly the first impression — is of the unfailing scrupulousness with which he employs his gift of an easy and prepossessing informality. It is a book of great but apparently effortless simplicity; candid, but never presuming; informal, but never condescending; full of homely wisdom and common sense, but never grandmotherly; immensely learned, but never pedantic.
This combination of qualities makes it a book equally acceptable and useful to all degrees of age and proficiency. I venture to say that no practitioner, however eminent, — provided he were an honest practitioner,—could read it without gaining light and encouragement for achieving the purpose of his life. I believe, too, that a fifteen-year-old child with a nascent turn for one of the arts would have an analogous experience. On one occasion, it is said, Phillips Brooks preached in the morning to a congregation of learned men at Harvard, again in the afternoon to a group of school children, and again in the evening to an audience of convicts in the State prison; and he preached the same sermon to all three. Why may one not say that, in this matter of making truth accessible and acceptable to all sorts and conditions of men, Mr. Van Loon resembles Phillips Brooks?
Indeed, although prophecy is a ticklish business and I do not venture on it, one might think it possible that this book would some day, probably in a far future, give Mr. Van Loon something of the peculiar hold on the affection of Americans that Lessing and Herder had on the affection of Germans. Germany had great men in abundance, learned men, but Lessing and Herder were learned men who made learning popular, — I mean good learning, sound learning, like Mr. Van Loon’s,— and Germans of all classes never forgot them. As I say, it would be too venturesome to predict that this book will do as much for Mr. Van Loon’s memory, but one may certainly say without doubt or hesitation that it should do just that.