ARNOLD J. TOYNBEE by William H. McNeill


A Life
Email this review


The reputation of Arnold Toynbee--whose Study of History was called by Time magazine "the best available guide to the meaning of history and the destiny of humankind"--has over the intervening years slipped into a scholarly limbo. Toynbee's type of sweeping overview of the rise and decline of civilizations has become suspect; specialization is now the watchword among historians. In this gracefully written, subtly reasoned, warts-and-all (thought not vindictive) biography, McNeill (History/Univ. of Chicago; Rise of the West, 1964) does not aim to set Toynee back atop a pedestal, but merely to stimulate a reevaluation of the British historian's theories and works. The result is a cogent, evenhanded, and consistently involving study. The author is just as scrupulous in his depiction of Toynbee's personal life. He makes no attempt to gloss over his subject's many shortcomings: Toynbee's combination of outward modesty and inward craving for adulation, his near-pathological concern for financial security, his coldness toward his children, his snobbery. The only son of a middle-class family aways terrified of toppling into genteel poverty, Toynbee was an intellectual wonder. He was awarded scholarships to prestigious schools and consistently walked off with honors. He remained a researchaholic all his life, turning out masses of detailed papers and books; and later married the imperious Rosalind Murray, daughter of Gilbert Murray and his aristocratic wife, Lady Mary--a connection that eased his rise to prominence. As his monumental Study of History appeared in volume after volume, his reputation likewise burgeoned. Ultimately, after several children, Rosalind converted to Roman Catholicism, and the marriage split asunder. Toynbee was devastated, but in time he married his research assistant. Over the years, he formed his own peculiar version of religiosity; it was this spiritual "awakening" that accounts for the switch in tone between the earlier and later volumes of his masterwork, a disparity often noted by subsequent critic/historians. A fair and stimulating look at an immensely gifted, immensely flawed figure.

ISBN: 19-505863-1
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1989


NonfictionTHE GREAT FRONTIER by William H. McNeill
by William H. McNeill
NonfictionTHE PURSUIT OF POWER by William H. McNeill
by William H. McNeill
NonfictionPLAGUES AND PEOPLES by William H. McNeill
by William H. McNeill