Will Durant wrote one of the 20th century’s most ambitious works of nonfiction. “The Story of Civilization,” a series of 11 books that appeared over the course of four decades, explored an epoch that began in pre-Christian Asia and concluded in Napoleonic France.
Durant’s books aren’t often read these days. But for a time, he was as famous as a historian can get in this country. In 1968, he won a Pulitzer Prize (shared with Ariel Durant, his wife and co-author on several titles), and later, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
For all his accomplishments, Durant seems to have had reservations about the book he was working on near the end of his long life.
“Here I am,” he wrote, “going on ninety-five; by this time I should have learned the art of silence, and should realize that every educated reader has already heard all opinions and their opposites; yet here I set out, fearful and rash, to tell the world — or one hundred millionth of it — just what I think on everything.”
This blunt self-appraisal appears in Durant’s final book, which is just now being published, 33 years after his death.
“Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War and God” deals with timeless concerns. In a series of what he describes as “micro- or mini-essays,” Durant discusses the aging process, spirituality, ethics and morality, war, gender issues, the arts and America’s schools. He aims “to tell, in a very informal way … how I feel, now that I have one foot in the grave, about those ultimate riddles that” fueled his research and writing.
Some of the arguments in these pages prove to be wise and prescient. Others feel antique and underdeveloped.
This isn’t surprising when one considers that Durant was born in 1885 and maybe wasn’t at the very top of his game when some of this material was written in the 1970s. Had he lived longer and been afforded the assistance of an editor, Durant would almost certainly have sharpened some of his assertions.
According to a foreword by John Little, a Durant archivist, the author spoke publicly about “Fallen Leaves” just a handful of times before he died in 1981. Assumed to be lost or destroyed, the manuscript turned up when Durant’s granddaughter, having sold her home, was sifting through some family items.
“To discover the last manuscript of a Pulitzer Prize-winning author such as Will Durant over thirty years after his passing is surely a major literary event,” Little writes.
Given his connection to the author’s work, Little’s excitement is understandable. Alas, he’s exaggerating.
In truth, “Fallen Leaves” never leaves the reader with the impression that it’s an important addition to Durant’s body of work
Durant spends the book’s opening chapters reflecting, in notably impersonal language, on the various stages of human existence. “And so youth marries, and youth ends,” he writes at the start of a chapter titled “On Middle Age.” “A married man is already five years older the next day, and a married woman, too.”
Like his rather dour portrait of domesticity, Durant’s brief essay about life’s last act is resolutely unsentimental. “Death, like style, is the removal of rubbish,” he writes, “the circumcision of the superfluous.”
“Fallen Leaves” eventually takes shape as a document of an active mind at work during a particular era, one in which the Cold War was still being contested and the nation was slowly coming to grips with the legacy of Vietnam. Though Durant’s chapter on the Vietnam War was at least partially written in the late 1960s, his comments evoke those heard during recent debates about American involvement abroad.
“The possession of power tempts to its use; the definition of national interest widens to cover any aim; the demand for security suggests and excuses the acquisition and arming of ever more distant frontiers,” he writes. “Men above military age are readily moved by calls to patriotism; pleaders for peace are scorned as cowards, and arguments for mutual understanding and adjustment are branded as appeasement.”
Some of Durant’s other essays are poorly conceived. In one chapter, he sounds a bit lecherous: “I think the architecture of woman is superb from whatever angle seen; I especially admire the frontal elevation.”
In another, he’s impractical and reactionary: “No one has a right to bring a child into the community without having passed tests of physical and mental fitness to breed.”
His literary executors could have improved this book by chopping some of its weaker essays. But even if these improvements had been made, “Fallen Leaves” would remain an intellectual curio, little more than a footnote to a great career.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, War, and God, by Will Durant (208 pages; Simon & Schuster; $25)