One of my favorite works of nonfiction is Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization, an 11-volume series of history published by Simon & Schuster between 1935 and 1975. The reading is fascinating, but I also enjoy Will Durant’s writing style. It is a blend of old-world and modern, sardonic, but not malicious. These are my desert island books.
Over the years, I’ve managed to make it through the first 7 volumes. As much as I enjoy these books, they are a classic example of scope creep: a plan that goes wildly off the rails. I thought it would be fun to illustrate this by referencing comments that the Durants make in the prefaces to each volume. We’ll begin with the first, which was published in 1935…
1935: I. Our Oriental Heritage
Durant begins with a plan for the series firmly in mind. In the preface to this first book, he writes:
The plan of the series is to narrate the history of civilization in five independent parts:
1. Our Oriental Heritage: a history of civilization in Egypt and the Near East to the death of Alexander, an din India, China and Japan to the present day; with an introduction on the nature and elements of civilization.
2. Our Classical Heritage: a history of civilization in Greece and Rome, and of civilization in the Near East under Greek and Roman domination.
3. Our Medieval Heritage: Catholic and feudal Europe, Byzantine civilization, Mohammedan and Judaic culture in Asia, Africa and Spain, and the Italian Renaissance.
4. Our European Heritage: the cultural history of the European states fro the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution.
5. Our Modern Heritage: the history of European and statesmanship, science and philosophy, religion and morals, literature and art from the accession of Napoleon to our own times.
So far, so good. We have a plan for five books that cover logical phases of (mostly Western) history.
1939: II. The Life of Greece
In Volume II, Durant presents us with a lengthy and, in my mind, fascinating history of Greece. But only Greece. At last, in final chapter, we arrive in Rome. Here, then, in the second volume of the five planned, he has already altered course. Instead of covering Greece and Rome, he gets just Greece, and is essentially one book behind.
1944: III. Caesar and Christ
In the preface to Volume III, Durant writes:
This volume, while an independent unit by itself, is Part III in a history of civilization, of which Part I was Our Oriental Heritage, and Part II was The Life of Greece. War and health permitting, Part IV, The Age of Faith, should be ready in 1950.
He catches us up on Rome in volume III, another great volume. But, in Durant’s original plan, Volume 3 was supposed to be on our classical heritage. We are still a volume behind where we should be. That’s not too bad. At this point, nine years into the project, it has grown in scope from five books to six.
1950: IV: The Age of Faith
The Age of Faith is the longest of all of the books in Durant’s series, coming in at more than 1,200 pages. As Durant writes in the preface to this volume:
The book continues the study of the white man’s life to the death of Dante in 1321. Part V, The Renaissance and Reformation, covering the period from 1321-1649 should appear in 1955; and Part VI, The Age of Reason, carrying the story to our own time, should be ready by 1960. This will bring the author so close to senility that he must forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.
Here, Durant admits that his original plan of 5 books has gone by the boards, and the series will require 6 books to tell the story. He also, amusingly, refers to his impending senility. Will Durant was 65 when The Age of Faith was published. I think he worried he might not live to finish the series. He wasn’t the only one. In the first volume of his memoir, Isaac Asimov mentions reading the Durant books sometime in 1945. He wrote:
I read each volume as it came out. After I had read the first one and heard he was planning a multivolume history–five volumes was the original plan–I felt worried. I knew he was in his forties and I carefully noted in my diary that I hoped he would live long enough to complete the set. He did.
Durant’s wife Ariel, later coauthor of the series, was 52 at the time Volume IV was published.
1953: V: The Renaissance
Astute observes will note from the title of Volume V that it did not cover the Renaissance and Reformation, as Durant said it would three years earlier. Once again, another book would be required. Now eighteen years into the series, it had grown from 5 to 7 volumes. In the preface, Durant wrote,
If circumstances permit, a sixth volume, probably under the title of The Age of the Reformation, will appear in three or four years hence, covering the history of the Christian, Islamic, and Judaic civilization outside Italy from 1300, and in Italy from 1576-1648. The enlarged scale of treatment, and the imminence of senility, make it advisable to plan an end of the series with a seventh volume, The Age of Reason, which may carry the tale to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
In Durant’s original plan, the final volume was to cover “Our Modern Heritage” from Napoleon’s time to our own. Now, having enlarged the project to 7 volumes, he scales back the scope with a plan to end the series at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Spoiler alert: as of 1953, Durant is still insisting this series will be 7 volumes. In reality, we are not even halfway through the series yet.
1957: VI: The Reformation
The Durants stay the course with this sixth volume. They promised a book on the Reformation, and in 1957, they deliver. In the preface they wrote,
If the Reaper will stay his hand, there will be a concluding Volume VII, The Age of Reason, which should appear some five years hence, and should carry the story of civilization to Napoleon. There we shall make our bow and retire, deeply grateful to all those who have borne the weight of these tomes on their hands, and have forgiven numberless errors in our attempt to unravel the present into its constituent past.
The Durants are still promising a seventh and final volume, pleading that their increasing age may not allow them to bring this to fruition. At this point, Will Durant is 72 years old, Ariel, 59.
At the very end of the book, the following text appears in ALL CAPS:
COURAGE, READER! WE NEAR THE END.
1961: VII: The Age of Reason Begins
Finally, with Volume VII, the Durants finally admit that things have gone off the rails. They had promised a final volume on the Age of Reason. Instead, as they wrote in preface to Volume VII,
I had hoped to conclude my sketch of the history of civilization with a seventh volume to be called The Age of Reason, which was to cover the cultural development of Europe from the accession of Elizabeth I to the outbreak of the French Revolution. But as the story came close to our own times and interests it presented an ever greater number of personalities and events still vitally influential today… What had begun as a final volume has swollen into three, and one of the present authors, at an unseemly age, becomes a prima dona making a succession of farewell tours.
What was supposed to be the final volume of the series suddenly became 3 volumes. I think the Durant’s would have empathized with Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
More than a quarter century into the project, it has grown from 5 volumes planned to 9 volumes planned.
1963: VIII: The Age of Louis XIV
Uh, make that 10 volumes:
We hope to present Part IX, The Age of Voltaire, in 1965, and Part X, Rousseau and Revolution, in 1968… Meanwhile we shall rely on the Great Powers not to destroy our subject before it destroys us.
1965: IX: The Age of Voltaire
Not only has the scope increased in term of volumes, but the volumes themselves are getting longer. Not since The Age of Faith, fifteen years earlier, was one of the volumes as long as The Age of Voltaire. Still, they are set on concluding the series with Volume X:
Blame for the length of this volume (900 pages) must rest with authors fascinated to exuberant prolixity by the central theme–the pervasive conflict between religion and science-plus-philosophy which became a living drama in the eighteenth century, which has resulted in the secret secularism of our times…. The perspective of the age of Voltaire will be completed in Part X of The Story of Civilization.
1967: X: Rousseau and Revolution
Finally, we have reached the end, more than thirty years after the first volume was published, Will at 82, and Ariel at 69.
This is the concluding volume of that Story of Civilization to which we devoted ourselves in 1929, and which has been the daily chore and solace of our lives ever since… We shall not sin at such length again; but if we manage to elude the Reaper for another year or two we hope to offer a summarizing essay on “The Lessons of History”
At the end of the book, there is this passage: “We thank the reader who has been with us these many years for part or all of the long journey. We have ever been mindful of his presence. Now we take our leave and bid him farewell.”
Incidentally, the literary world acknowledged the Durant’s work on this series by awarding the book the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 1968, a nice way to complete such an opus.
1975: XI: The Age of Napoleon
“Pysch!” as we used to say back in the 80s. Presaging the “reboots” of the 21st century, the Durants were back 8 years later with a Volume XI. They explain it thus:
“By the middle of the twentieth century,” says the Encyclopedia Britannica (XVI, 10a), “the literature of Napoleon already numbered more than 100,000 volumes.” Why add to the heap? We offer no better reason than to say that the Reaper repeated overlooked us, and left us to passive living and passive reading after 1968.
The books total something like 13,000 pages and 2.5 to 3 million words. Interestingly, in 1968, before Volume XI was written, they came out not with essay, but a short book entitled The Lessons of History, a signed copy of which sits on my bookshelf with all my other Durant books.
In 1977, they published A Dual Autobiography, which I found fascinating, if for no other reason than to better understand how two people could spend 40 years constantly working on these volumes. They were all successful volumes, incidentally, and helped to put Simon & Schuster on the map (and vice-versa).
Theirs was a true love story. Ariel Durant died on October 25, 1981. Will Durant was in the hospital when she died, and the news was kept from him, but he learned about her death in the evening news, and two weeks later, he died at the age of 96.
I don’t really mind the scope creep here, I only wish it had gone in a different direction. In the preface to Volume V, Will Durant wrote, “This will bring the author so close to senility that he must forgo the privilege of applying the integral method to the two Americas.” I would have loved to see volumes covering the history of the native people of North and South America.
Postscript: Before setting out to write this post, I searched the blog to see if I had written about it before. I felt that I had but I couldn’t find anything that seemed similar to what I had written. Then, just after scheduling this, I found it, from 2014, mainly because the title was similar: A post called “Scope Creep of Historical Proportions.” Not only do great minds think alike, but the same mind thinks alike. Ah, well, repetition is inevitable with a fallible memory such as mine. I image such repetition will occur again here from time to time, should the Reaper stay his hand allow me to to continue writing.
Written on April 5-6, 2022.
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