The second installment of D. C. Somervell’s masterly Abridgement of A Study of History (Oxford University Press, $5.00) by Arnold J. Toynbee covers the last four volumes, MUX, of Toynbee’s magnum opus. Since its publication in 1947, the first part of Somervell’s Abridgement has sold more than 300,000 copies; and in the United Stales — where his impact has been much larger than in England — Toynbee has acquired the approximate standing of a contemporary prophet.
What is perhaps most striking about Toynbee’s position is the extraordinary disparity between his reception on the middle-brow and on the scholarly levels. The reviews addressed to the general reader have averaged a pound of admiration to every ounce of criticism. In scholarly studies, on the other hand, Toynbee’s work has generally been strongly, even scathingly, condemned. The distinguished Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl, has courteously summed up a frequent criticism in the aphorism “C’est magnifique, mais ce nest pas l’histoire.” A. J. P. Taylor of Oxford has said more bluntly: “Toynbee’s method is not that of scholarship, but of the lucky dip, with emphasis on luck.” The revivalist sonorities which are so insistent in Toynbee’s work have led a Chicago historian to call him “a sort of Billy Graham of the eggheads.”
Some of these scholarly critics acknowledge that A Study of History, whatever its faults, is an achievement of great magnitude. Toynbee has certainly come closer than any other modern historian to writing a Universal History. The mere dimensions of his work — 6290 pages, more than 3 million words, 332 pages of index with 19,000 entries — arouse the awe inspired by almost superhuman energy. Toynbee’s learning is probably unmatched in range, and his thought, is rich in moral and psychological insights. He has had the courage to tackle, head on, the largest questions that can be put to history, and has come up with provocative answers. But respect for the mightiness of his edifice and for his titanic knowledge should not place Toynbee beyond criticism by the layman. There is much in his argument and procedure which the intelligence is competent to judge without the aid of encyclopedic erudition. In fact, being a system builder he is more open to challenge than the conventional historian.
The over-all objection to Toynbee’s history is that its claim to be based on “the scientific approach,”to have arrived at its interpretations via the road of “English empiricism,” is utterly untenable. Take, for example, Toynbee’s formulation that civilization originates as a response to the challenge of “special difficulties.” In the first place, the admission that special difficulties can prove so severe as to be insuperable leaves one wondering what degree of challenge produces the appropriate response and reduces the formulation to a homily on the uses of adversity. More importantly, the fourteen examples cited of the origin of civilization merely show that civilized societies have arisen under “hard” rather than under “soft” conditions. This does not necessarily prove what Toynbee’s thesis requires him to prove, namely that it was the hard conditions exclusivety which caused the emergence of civilization —other factors may have played a decisive part.
Time and again. Toynbee concludes that a hypothesis has been vindicatcd by “the empirical method,” when all that he has done is to select instances which happen to fit the pattern he wishes to impose upon the past. He does not, as he should, go out of his way to examine evidence which appears to conflict with his theories; and sometimes he blatantly flouts inconvenient facts — on one occasion at. the cost of gross self-coniradiction. In the chronological table (Abridgement, Yol. I) which refers to universal stales, the years 1797-1814 the period of the Napoleonic wars -are placed under the heading: universal peace. In the table (Abridgement, Vol. II) illustrating a later theory about the “ War-and-Pace Cycle,” the same period appears (more realistically, at any rate) under the heading: general war.
A second major weakness of Toynbee’s— a fatal one for a system builder is that his procedure is highly inconsistent and unsystematic. Although his study of Western Christianity concludes that it suffered its decisive breakdown about, four ecuturies ago, we subsequently find him suggesting that Christianity may well be “left as the heir to all the philosophies . . . and to all the higher religions.” He sometimes supports his argument about the growth of civilizations by referring to the experience of units (Holland and Switzerland, Venice and New England) which are not civilizations — and this after emphasizing that no unit smaller than a civilization is an intelligible field of study.
In the essays published in Civilization on Trial and elsewhere, Professor Toynbee has shown that he can write with a clarity, grace, and eloquence rarely found in the highest echelons of learning. But all too often in A Study of History the style is overburdened with multiplicity of allusion, cumbrous Latinizations, and esoteric terminology. The following is a not extreme example of the Toynbeean gobbledygook which causes the reader to feel, at times, that he is being addressed by a magician describing happenings in an Enchanted Forest: “In the field of encounters in the Time-dimension an Antaean rebound that wins from Necromancy an anticipatory communion with the Future has its antithesis in an Atlantean stance in which a Necromancer who has yielded to the legendary Epimethean impulse of Lot’s wife is petrified by the hypnotic state of a resuscitated corpse’s Medusan countenance into the rigidity of a pillar of salt pinned down by the incubus of the Past.”
Similarly, Toynbee’s doctrines force him into positions in the face of which the mind boggles, so outrageously do they violate common sense. That rational and humane Victorian, Sir James Frazer, is equated, by virtue of his paganism, with the barbaric Nazi, Alfred Rosenberg. The thesis that a “schism of the soul” ended the growth of Western Christianity some time before 1600 commits Toynbee to the view that since that date the history of the West has been entirely one of decay. The development of the American continent, the advances in medicine, science, material prosperity, social justice — all this is dogmatically rejected as “a vain repetition of the heathen.” The fantastic assertion is made that the West’s artistic genius has been sterilized since the fourteenth century, and all painting and sculpture from Giotto to Cézanne is blandly dismissed as “a resuscitated Hellenic naturalism.”
Everywhere it is apparent that Toynbee is what Burckhardt, referred to as a “terrible simplifier.” Art, philosophy, economics, science, and technology and the material changes they bring are clearly not regarded as important in themselves to the historian. Only religion is held to be creative; and Toynbee, though he often inconsistently speaks as a liberal in the political sphere, shows so little regard for freedom on the secular plane that he diagnoses Western democracy and Russian totalitarianism as basically similar aberrations. Toward the end of the Study lie makes the astonishing statement that he finds the current trend toward regimentation encouraging: if men are prevented from thinking for themselves about politics and economics, they may then devote their psychic energies to affairs of the spirit.
Much that invites attack in Toynbee would be immune to criticism if A Study of History were presented and phrased as the product of an inner vision, a work in the tradition of St. Augustine’s City of God. But Toynbee’s grotesque claim that he is using the scientific method is not abandoned even when, in Volume VII of the original, he announces that to him history has become “a vision of God’s creation on the move,” a revelation of “man’s mysterious spiritual ascent on the wings of material catastrophe.” Hereafter Toynbee moves unabashedly in the domain of intuition and prophecy, drawing even more copiously than before on myth, allegory, and theology. The system of the first six volumes is turned upside down. Churches replace civilizations as “ the protagonists" of history. Previously churches were the source of the spiritual energy that carried forward the chariot of civilization; now civilization is demoted to the status of a wheel, “whose descending movement [is] the means of carrying forward the chariot of Religion.”
Since “the law of spiritual progress” is that “we learn by suffering,” it is self-evident to Toynbee that civilizations of the second generation came into being solely to provide, by means of their disintegration, opportunities for “fully fledged higher religions to come to birth.” In Toynbee’s eyes, civilizations, except insofar as they minister to the progress of religion, “have forfeited their historical significance.” Thus our modern Western society has only one way of justifying itself: with its universal communications, it could provide a meeting ground for the four “higher” religions and thereby enable them to unite in a universal religion, to which, one gathers, Christianity would make the major contribution.
As a “City of God,” A Study of History is a powerful and fascinating work, a stupendous achievement. As a rational interpretation of history it seems to me totally inacceplable; and the way in which Toynbee uses religion has been as sharply criticized by believers of various faiths as it has by skeptics. The explanation of its popular success in the United States is, I believe, that it is curiously in tune with the spirit of the times. It appeals, lo begin with, to the contemporary veneration of the colossal which has produced the four-hour movie, the giant screen, and the oversized, overpowered automobile; Toynbee has brought to history the Cecil B. de Mille touch, backed by impeccable credentials. More importantly, he manages both to articulate the pessimism of the age—the fear that our civilization may be headed toward destruction — and at the same time to oppose to such fears a vague religiosity which creates a glow of optimism. He leaves us with the assurance that history is, at bottom, a success story — that man is moving upward as he moves onward into the dark beyond.
The Battle of Budapest
In record-breaking time, James A. Michener has written the first book-length account of the Battle of Budapest, pieced together (with the aid of a team of researchers) from interviews with hundreds of Hungarian refugees in Austria. Mr. Michener himself helped to lead many fugitives across the frontier footbridge at Andau which was the escape route taken by 20,000 of the nearly 200,000 Hungarians who left their country. Where it was necessary to protect relatives, Michener has changed names or has fused the experiences of several individuals into a composite story. But his book, The Bridge at Andau (Random House, $3.50), sticks to fact throughout, and he has spared no effort to make His report as reliable as possible.
The Battle of Budapest may well be lastingly commemorated as one of the historic stands against impossible odds. Michener’s account of the fighting — the defense of Killian barracks, the factory workers’ bitter-end resistance on Csepel Island, the exploits performed by teen-agers in attacking Russian tanks with homemade explosives — is a masterly job of re-creative chronicling: precise, vivid, and immeasurably stirring. When the Russians—using a fullsized army and 4000 tanks — eventually crushed the revolt, they added a hideous chapter to the crowded annals of contemporary barbarism. Freedom fighters who surrendered were massacred; women in shopping queues were machine-gunned; even nurses and Red Cross workers who were attending the wounded were executed.
Michener’s central point is that it was the Communist elite which led the revolution — young intellectuals favored by the Party and the industrial workers of Csepel, who were considered the hard core of the Communist movement. An arresting and encouraging aspect of the revolt was that the youth of Hungary, indoctrinated with Communism from its earliest school days, was solidly in the vanguard of the fight for freedom. What caused the uprising? Hatred of Russian domination and of the thought control and ruthless economic exploitation that went with it; the terrorism of the AVO (the secret police), of whose bestialities Michener gives some horrendous examples; and the abysmal failure of the puppet rulers to make good any of their promises.
In his concluding observations, Michener notes that only one per cent of the Hungarian refugees were participants in the fighting, and he warns that it would be a grave mistake for the United States to support a government-in-exile. Finally, Michener focuses attention on a tragic failing in American policy. The Hungarian freedom fighters are bitter at having been misled by our radio propaganda (beamed at them via Radio Free Europe), which insistently played up the theme of “liberation” and encouraged them, or so they feel, to expect help in the event of a showdown. Now that the structure of satellite society is so obviously under fire, the United States, says Michener, cannot go on promoting revolt without being in any way prepared to respond to an uprising.
My score for the five titles I settled on, after a fairly wide sampling of the new novels, is two disappointments, two (predictable) comedy hits, and one attractive discovery. The sharpest disappointment was A Distant Drum (Houghton Mifflin, $4.50) by Charles Bracelen Flood, whose first novel, Lone Is a Bridge (which I did not read), met with an extremely favorable reception. The story hinges on the overworked theme of the young man who leaves a conservative home in order to become a writer, and it is inflated with odds and ends which contribute little or nothing to the three main lines of the plot.
Flood’s hero writes a novel, supposedly a pretty good one, but it does not get published. He falls in love with an exquisite girl and she with him, but she balks at marriage and their relationship breaks up. He enlists hi the army at the outbreak of the Korean War, concealing the fact that he has a defective arm, and struggles heroically to get through basic training; but the bad arm finally forces him to ask for a discharge. Whether or not it is autobiographical, the book reads like a record of undigested experience and leaves an impression of pointlessness. It is written with a great deal of earnestness, a streak of sentimentality, and enough competence to sustain the fallacious hope that it will eventually get somewhere.
Stacking the cards against his protagonists has always been a compulsion in the case of Charles Morgan, whose new novel is entitled Challenge to Venus (Macmillan, $3.50). There are few living novelists with a finer command of the English language than Mr. Morgan: but it is hardly an exaggeration to say that he has devoted his considerable talents to forever rewriting the same story. The setting changes, the incidentals vary, but the heart of the matter is always love in the romantic stratosphere between two beings from different worlds — and always the twain must part. In the current novel, the setting is an ancient hill town in Italy. The lovers are a young Englishman on his way to a job in Aden and an Italian princess of surpassing beauty, who behaves as though endowed with the power of a goddess — there are moments when she is the very embodiment of Racine’s line: “C’est Venus toute entière à sa praie uttaehée.” If I count the book a disappointment, it is only because I naïvely imagined that there might be some departure from the too familiar mixture as before. Mr. Morgan is certainly in fine form, and he remains one of the few contemporary masters of the novel in the key of high romanticism.
It might also be said of P. G. Wodehouse that he has forever rewritten the same novel, with incidental variations. But when one shifts to the domain of farce, it becomes irrelevant whether the mixture is new or old: all that matters is whether it is entertaining. For this reader, time has not withered nor custom staled Wodehouse’s infinite hilarity. His latest opus, The Butler Did It (Simon & Schuster, $3.50), is superlative Wodehouse. The point of departure is a tontine started in 1929; a group of American millionaires set up a trust fund which will go to the son who is last to get married. The plotting is intricate and ingenious, the prose crisp, the wit entrancing. And the proceedings are masterminded by a butler who, as one of the characters observes, is “a vintage butler of obviously a very good year.”
The other comedy hit in tins month’s lineup is Richard Bissell’s Say, Darling (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $3.95), a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Mr. Bissell, whose novel, 7 · Cents, was turned into a successful musical, The Pajama Game, has chronicled the ordeal of an Innocent from Indiana, Jack Jordan, who has been summoned to New York to adapt his best-selling novel into a musical comedy. The story follows Jordan step by step along the via dolorosa that leads from the first blank page on the typewriter to the morning after opening night on Broadway. Bissell’s derisive eye ranges beyond the theatrical madhouse over divers aspects of the Manhattan scene — the antics of society columnists; the $20 midtown lunch; the sheep waiting to be herded into Radio City Music Hall; the jargon of the avant-garde; the rituals of de luxe barbershops; commutermanship; and the mystique of the Brooks Brothers look.
All this is territory which a posse of humorists has already assiduously explored. But Bissell has the authentic comic touch — a salty turn of phrase and a flair for rendering what is humorous in strokes that shrewdly blend realism and caricature. Even when he tackles types who have been done to death, he often manages to come through with some delightful stuff—notably in his portraits of a souped-up theatrical press agent, a big play-backer who is both a Hollywood mogul and a manufacturer of exotic shirts, and a song writer with a No. 1 juke-box hit to his credit and a fancy case of satyriasis.
One of the protagonists says to Jack Jordan, “You overplay the hick sometimes”; and I feel that Bissell is guilty of this himself. There is no doubt, though, that his book is fast, funny, and at times tellingly satiric. I suspect that Bissell will again find himself in Jack Jordan’s shoes — Say, Darling would surely make a socko musical.
The King of a Rainy Country (Knopf, paperbound, $1.25) introduced me to a young English writer, Brigid Brophy, who is well endowed with the quality which is all-important to the novelist and is currently in short supply—a distinctive individuality. Her way of seeing, feeling, and thinking — and therefore of writing — is decidedly her own.
Miss Brophy has described her theme as “the romantic temperament,” and the story in which she develops it is a curious sort of comedy. Her heroine, Susan, has fallen in love with a young man called Neale and has gone to live with him à la Bohème; but Neale has kept their relationship platonic. They discover, in ihe disreputable bookstore in which Susan is working, a nude picture of a former schoolmate of hers, who was the adored idol of her adolescence. This beautiful girl, Cynthia, has to them an aura ol romanticism which launches them on a quest to find her; and learning that she is in Venice, they work their way there as escorts to a party of American tourists. When finally they meet up with Cynthia, their romantic image is dissolved. But another and more compelling one takes its place; and that one, too, finally eludes them.
Taken as a whole the novel is far from being a success: it is somewhat disjointed, lacking in coherence, and at times not sufficiently convincing. But it has, throughout, qualities which I found extremely attractive. The prose is first-rate; fresh, spare, and assured. There is dead-pan comedy of the choicest order, especially in the scenes involving the dealer in pornography, who is a truly inspired creation. There is hilarious caricature and farce in the description of the trip with the American tourists. Above all, there is a genuine youthfulness of spirit, a glow of independence.