An Interpretation of Universal History


by José Ortega y Gasset. Norton, $8.95. In 1948 Ortega, back in Spain after years of exile, opened his newly founded Institute of the Humanities with this series of lectures, in which he purported to examine A. J. Toynbee’s A Study of History. Ortega not only examined the work, he demolished both Toynbee’s major concept of history and his detailed application of it. This performance, which rather suggests dismantling an elephant with a rapier, would be impressive in itself but is in fact the lesser half of the project. Ortega used Toynbee’s notions as an excuse to expound his own more far-reaching and meticulously reasoned ideas about man and history, the origin and growth of civilizations, the basis of legitimate government, and the persistence of the past in the present. At the end of the series, Ortega apologized to his audience for lectures which he called “the most dense, most concentrated that have ever been given anywhere.” The description was fair. It would be an impertinence to attempt to summarize the intricate lucidity of Ortega’s thought. It would also be futile. The book must—in every sense of the word—be read. Translated by Mildred Adams.
THE LETTERS OF ANTON CHEKHOV edited and translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. Viking, $15.00. Chekhov was a voluminous correspondent, addicted to slang, mischievous invention, bursts of fantasy, and diatribes against injustice, stupidity, and the town of Taganrog, where he was born and which he could never quite escape because relatives continued to inhabit the place. He was also an instinctive nomad who described superbly the various areas that he visited. This selection from his vast output of letters is, apart from its importance for specialists, a lively panorama of life in late-nineteenth-century Russia and a bewitching portrait of Chekhov himself.