Unpopular history

Two of my favorite historians were not historians. Which shows you just how much I failed my Jesuit education at Fairfield University way back when.

Frederick Lewis Allen was the editor of the old Harper’s Magazine. He died in New York City in 1954. Boston-born in 1890, he was educated at Groton, of all places, and Harvard. A full-blown, old-school WASP.

Allen wrote history in his spare time. It was history that was meant to be consumed by the average reader and was “popular” in the good and bad sense of the word: It skipped scholarly affectations and was breezily written, but sometimes sacrificed discernment and depth.

But so what? Allen is fun to read, particularly his two most popular books that are still in print: “Only Yesterday,” a history of American culture in the 1920s, and “The Lords of Creation,” an overview of the massive expansion of the American economy from the late 19th century to the Depression, focusing on the “titans of business and capital” that made it happen — both the expansion and the Depression.

But like a true populist, Allen had a theme that ran through his work. America in the 20th century was losing its soul in an economic and cultural revolution. We were changing from rural to urban, agrarian to industrial, faith-based to secular. Allen was a kind writer, but his sympathies were clear. “A time of revolution ... is an uneasy time to live in. It is easier to tear down a code than to put a new one in its place,” Allen wrote.

While Allen was almost whimsical in approaching this time of nearly cataclysmic social change, my other favorite non-historian historian was almost mystical. Will Durant had the curse of a long life. Born in 1885, he died nearly a century later in 1981, two weeks after the death of his wife and co-author, Ariel.

Durant was a former seminarian — and a former Catholic — who authored “The Story of Philosophy” in 1924. Its huge popular success allowed him the freedom to write for a living. From 1935 to 1975, he wrote — later joined by his wife — the best-selling 11-volume “The Story of Civilization.” When I went straight to work after graduating college with a degree in history, I devoured the “The Story of Civilization” as a poor man’s master’s degree.

They say that after Durant abandoned his study for the priesthood and his faith, the rector closed up the library at the seminary, fearful that Durant’s quest for knowledge led him to lose his immortal soul.

Durant remained more of a philosopher than an historian, but a bit of a theologian as well with overt Catholic sympathies. Anyone reading “The Story of Civilization” in the order it was written can see Durant’s lifelong pilgrimage from secularist to humanist to rediscovering the beauty and meaning of the faith of his youth.

With a touch of irony, Frederick Lewis Allen described the tremendously trivial preoccupation of American popular culture in the 1920s as “a contagion of delighted concern over things that were exciting but didn’t matter profoundly.” Durant warned more darkly that “Dictatorship is near when liberty becomes license.”

Which is why you don’t see Allen and Durant celebrated much anymore. Their message doesn’t resonate with today’s worship of license confused with liberty, and when the things that matter profoundly — marriage, family, freedom of faith and conscience — are no longer terribly exciting and are greeted with a cultural shrug.

“Civilization begins with order, grows with liberty, and dies with chaos,” Durant explained in his old age.

Will Durant returned to his Catholic faith on his deathbed. I just knew he would.

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.