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Book Review


McNeill, William H. The Pursuit of Truth. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2005). 189 pp, $27.50.


…as a child, he was very happily spirited and inimical to rest; but at the age of seven, he fell off a ladder to the floor, where he remained a good five hours motionless and unconscious. He had fractured the right side of his skull without breaking the skin, so that fracture produced a large tumour, and the child lost a great deal of blood because of the many deep contusions. The surgeon, finding the skull broken and thinking ahead to the long period of recovery, made the following prediction: either he would die, or he would survive insane. Neither of these predictions turned out right, thank God; but having recovered from his misfortune, he grew up henceforth a melancholic and irritable nature, as it must be with profound men of genius, who because of their genius are brilliant in their perceptions, and because of their depth take no delight in witticisms or falsehood.

     Few historians can match the drama of Giambattista Vico's explanation for his talents as a thinker and writer.1 Like Vico, historians commonly use the genre of memoir or autobiography to construct an account of how they came to embrace the visions of history that distinguish their work. On this point, William H. McNeill's The Pursuit of Truth will not disappoint. Sketched over 160 pages, McNeill's reflections take us from a childhood home in which an intellectually adventurous mother and the Waverley novels dominate, through studies and scholarship at Chicago and Cornell, and back again to prayers sketched on the occasion of his birth by a father enamoured by meticulous medieval studies.

     Historians' memoirs and autobiographiesælike the works they createæcan be written on a variety of scales. Their key moments may lay within the confines of a prisoner-of-war camp, as with Fernand Braudel's personal recollection of the sources for The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, or suggest the intertwining of the individual in world-shaking and world-shaping events, as with Eric Hobsbawm's Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life. Temporally, they may focus on a particular period or provide a cradle to old age narrative. Spatial and temporal decisions on the part of the historian can support or even be the main means to explain his or her interests and motivations.

     So what might McNeill's decision to locate most of his recollections on the sub-national levelæwithin homes and universitiesæsay about his long and successful career as a world historian? This is a question that I put to a group of students in my third year 'world histories' class. Many of them, like me, were initially surprised by the apparently small range of McNeill's work, and some saw the international and even global focus of Hobsbawm's autobiography in more favourable terms. The assumptions revealed in their questions and comments were of great interest to me as a historiographe, and drove home the value of using autobiographical writings in teaching. Can the focus of McNeill's work be explained, as one student saw it, as a reflection of American exceptionalism? Or is an echo of his early-career focus on events and developments within relatively isolated civilizations? What do questions like these say about the historiographical understanding of the person who asks them? It would be quite fruitful, I believe, to set all or part of McNeill's The Pursuit of Truth as common reading in an advanced undergraduate or graduate class and to ask all students to offer at least one explanation for its scale. Those explanations might then be discussed in class and used as a springboard to consider issues and assumptions such as the connection of exceptionalism with North American historiography. Further, they can form the framework for a short or extended research exercise. What evidence can students muster in support of their explanation for the work? The historian's other writings? Contemporary historical events? Comparing McNeill's work with another, like Hobsbawm's Interesting Times, might make it easy for students to recognise the decisions that shape historical writing like those of spatio-temporal scale outlined above.

     It was through discussion with students that I sharpened my own understanding of The Pursuit of Truth. Two themes, I believe, dominate the work. Neither is presented as an explicit focus, but that does not undercut their significance. First, I see The Pursuit of Truth as an extended dialogue on religion. This might at first sight appear an odd thing to say as McNeill has made his lack of faith clear. When he was a high school student, he tells us:

     I departed from parental paths significantly and abruptly one Sunday morning when, sitting in the family pew of the Hyde Park United Church and idly twisting a loose button on the cushion beside me, I said to myself 'I do not believe in God (p. 8)

     A key part of this passage is McNeill's image of 'parental paths'. McNeill's father was a Presbyterian minister and religious historian with a particular interest in religious unity in the medieval period. Although McNeill had 'youthful differences' his father, he credits him for the idea of looking across cultural divides. His mother, a graduate of McGill, taught him to read before he went to kindergarten and read aloud, 'mixing novels and poems with hymns and excerpts from the Bible' (p. 4). McNeill's upbringing in a household where religion was lived as well as discussed clearly made its mark. He may have reacted against personal belief, but his writings suggest a familiarity and a dialogue with Christianity that is striking. Consider the opening line of The Rise of the West: 'In the beginning human history is a great darkness' (p. 3). As one of my students remarked, 'It takes someone familiar with Christianity to write that and perhaps presumes that the reader is also familiar'. My students were also quick to note the religious imagery in McNeill's appraisal of David Christian toward the end of The Pursuit of Truth:

     Christian's book [Maps of Time], if it attracts appropriate attention, will count in future as a landmark synthesis, offering a far more complete account of the newly glimpsed evolutionary reality with which our book [The Human Web] dealt only in part. My son and I, in short, as like John the Baptist, prefiguring a greater revelation coming from the hand and mind of David Christian (p. 157).

     Could it be, I asked my students, that McNeill's efforts are a microcosm of the wider struggle against and with religion in the making of universal and now world history? Can world history ever leave its religious preoccupations behind? Reading The Pursuit of Truth helped my students to understand better that McNeill's use of religious language and imagery does not necessarily suggest endorsement. Rather, it may suggest ironic reinterpretation. Some students were so struck by this point that they began to wonder about the role of irony in other world histories. A wonderful discussion then followed on whether authorial intentions can be known at all.

     A second theme that stands in The Pursuit of Truth is that of family, friend, and work webs. Students who read The Human Web are most often struck by the dramatic growth in the connections between people in the last 200 years. What they often fail to appreciate, though, is the enduring power of local connections that are part of or disrupt more global webs. 'I wear shoes from China', one student quipped last semester, 'but it was the person next door who told me about them.' Apply that thinking to The Pursuit of Truth, I asked my students, and tell me whether you still think it is not as 'historically powerful' as Hobsbawm's Interesting Times. Why should we expect a world historian to describe his or her beliefs and experiences in global terms? Could it be that McNeill's father is a key factor in explaining why McNeill writes world histories? Why not? History does not just take place in the international arena or on the level of the state. Sometimes, the experiences we have in our homes and classrooms can be life changing. Realising that can only enrich our understanding of the world historiesæancient and modernæwe encounter.



Marnie Hughes-Warrington
Macquarie University


1G. Vico The New Science of Giambattista Vico, trans. M. H. Fisch and T. G. Bergin, 1744 edn, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, revised edition, 1984, p. 1.

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