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February 24, 2012


Mannie Sherberg

Good to see Will Durant getting some much-deserved attention. He was not just a remarkable writer -- his "Story of Civilization" runs to 10 jumbo-sized volumes, and probably contains more words and more profundity than most writers manage in a lifetime -- but also a remarkable human being -- a man who insisted on telling the truth even when the truth was hugely unpopular. He and his wife (her name was Chaya -- he called her Ariel -- and she was a Ukrainian-born Jew) visited the Soviet Union in the early 1930s -- at a time when one writer after another was insisting the USSR was nothing less than the true Utopia -- and reported that it was really a "gigantic prison" and a "dictatorship of fanatics." He went on to describe the atrocities already being perpetrated on the Soviet people, and he did it in the plainest English. Back in the thirties, that took a courage few people were able to muster. My guess is that, if he were alive, he'd be an admirer of Bibi (another truth-teller), and elated to be mentioned in one of Bibi's speeches. (JCI readers might want to check out Daniel Flynn's new book -- "Blue Collar Intellectuals" -- which has a nice section on Mr. and Mrs. Durant.)

Rick Richman

Thank you, Mannie, for the reference to Daniel Flynn’s book, which I downloaded in 60 seconds with the magic of Kindle and read the fascinating chapter on Will and Ariel Durant, which describes their remarkable marriage and the four-decade run of best-sellers they had with their multi-volume work “The Story of Civilization”. They won the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom for achievements that “bridged the chasm that separates scholars and laymen."

This paragraph of Flynn’s description was quite moving:

“The last entry in their eleven-volumn series, "The Age of Napoleon," hit the New York Times best-seller list in 1975. Six years later, both Will and Ariel Durant passed away. They died within a fortnight of each other, which seemed fitting. They lived, labored, and loved for so long in such close quarters that denying one the other might have struck some as evidence of a sadistic God.”

Ariel was born Chaya Kaufman in a Ukrainian Jewish ghetto. Will nicknamed her “Ariel” for the spirit in Shakespeare’s Tempest.

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