Online Edition: Spring 2006

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A Little History of the World

E.H. Gombrich
translated by Caroline Mustill

Yale University Press ($25)

by Kelly Everding

"What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way--and so did I." --John Gardner, Grendel

Gardner's Grendel is outraged by the lies of the blind harper who extolled Hrothgar in such a stirring way as to change memory and history. Such sly sycophancy would secure the role of the "king of the Shapers" in Hrothgar's hall. Why does our society put such value on truth, when truth is such a malleable thing? One person's truth is another person's heresy. I say truth be damned and tell me a good story. And that's what E. H. Gombrich does with A Little History of the World--he puts the story back into history.

Gombrich, famed Austrian art historian and author of The Story of Art, wrote A Little History of the World in 1935, when he was 26 years old. Like many at that time he was out of work and jumped at a publisher's offer to write this history for a younger audience, finishing it within the six-week deadline. A Little History of the World was a great success and was translated into 18 languages--except English. That was a task Gombrich wanted to take on himself, having transplanted himself in England before World War II started. However, it wasn't until over 40 years later that Gombrich began the task of updating and translating the book into English, when he was well into his 80s, and he died at the age of 92 before the task was complete. Luckily, his assistant and co-translator Caroline Mustill could finish the job and present this splendid treasure of a book. In the Preface written by Gombrich's granddaughter, Leonie, we learn that he intended to include more chapters on English history including Shakespeare and the birth of parliamentary democracy. While it is sad not to see how Gombrich would have explained these bits of history in his own entertaining way, it is more interesting to see history through the eyes of a young Austrian in the '30s. What will be left in and what left out? How will history be skewed or does it really matter?

While I am not a historian and cannot attest to the accuracy of Gombrich's history, the sheer beauty of the language and charm in the writing is enough to recommend it to readers of all ages, and begs to be read out loud. The chapters revolve around the more popular stories of history--the artistic Greeks, the birth of major religions, and the unending wars fought back and forth throughout the Middle Ages. The history is Eurasia-centric, so not much is said about Africa or the Americas for that matter, but if you put all umbrage aside and just enjoy the storytelling, it's quite wonderful. Gombrich begins at the beginning, with the innate problems of "once upon a time":

And that's how it is with 'Once upon a time.' We can't see where it ends. Grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's grandfather... it makes your head spin. But say it again, slowly, and in the end you'll be able to imagine it. Then add one more. That gets us quickly back into the past, and from there into the distant past. But you will never reach the beginning, because behind every beginning there's always another 'Once upon at time.'

And what do we learn, once Gombrich has set the tone? We learn about the dawn of prehistoric man and the beginnings of civilization along the Nile. "Here--as I promised--History begins. With a when and a where." We learn that the Egyptians worshipped cats as sacred animals, "and if you ask me, I think that in this, at least, the ancient Egyptians were right." We learn about the wonderful gifts of the Greeks. "And now I hear you asking: 'But what exactly did they do that was so great?' And I can only say 'everything.'" And moving on to the Romans we learn that "if you weren't a Christian, a Jew or a close relative of the emperor, life in the Roman empire could be peaceful and pleasant." Gombrich makes history accessible to children, putting it in terms they can understand, but he in no way condescends. He likens the approach of a storm that sweeps through the mountains to the Asiatic and Germanic tribes that swept in from all sides to destroy the Roman empire. ("At first there's nothing to see, but you feel a sort of weariness that tells you something is in the air... All of a sudden, the mountains seem strangely near. There isn't a breath of wind, yet dense clouds pile up in the sky.") Gombrich's wit and artistic eye makes history entertaining and tantalizing and scary, battle after battle, empire after empire.

The final chapter, "The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself: Looking Back," was added to bring the book somewhat up to the present, and in it Gombrich confesses to a slight one-sidedness in his chapter "Men and Machines," in which industrialization upturned the economic status-quo leaving millions of people destitute. Growing up during that time made Gombrich especially sensitive to the suffering poor, and in his last chapter he still points to the suffering that exists now, even with all of our progress. "We have no easy remedies, not least because there too, as ever, intolerance and misery go hand in hand." But with the progress in information technology, Gombrich notes, we know immediately what peoples in what parts of the world need help. "Whenever an earthquake, a flood or a drought in a far-off place leaves many victims, thousands of people in wealthier countries put their money and their efforts into providing relief. And that, too, used not to happen. Which proves that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future."


To purchase Gombrich's A Little History of the World click here.