One day while working in the library at Cornell, William H. McNeill stumbled onto three green-bound volumes of Arnold Toynbee’s The Study of History. As he devoured the books, which were the first of an ambitious attempt to chart the rise and fall of world civilizations, McNeill found himself alternately agreeing and arguing with Toynbee. When he’d finished, McNeill knew that he wanted to write his own history of the world. Twenty-three years later, he did precisely that with the 1963 publication of The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. The landmark survey won the National Book Award and helped launch the field of world history.
From an early age, McNeill was one of those rare people who could see historical patterns that transcend time and borders. At the precocious age of ten, he tried out on his history professor father a theory explaining the relative development of medieval kingdoms. Although he was raised on Scottish history and literature, it was a class on ancient and medieval history in his sophomore year of high school that really fired up his historical sensibilities. At the University of Chicago, he studied history—always with an eye to patterns—and worked on the school paper, rising to become editor in chief. A class with anthropologist Robert Redfield was an intellectual revelation. Redfield introduced McNeill to the idea that cultures and nations don’t exist in isolation, but engage in exchange with others. It was an idea that McNeill would grapple with throughout his career.
In 1939, McNeill headed off to Cornell to earn a Ph.D. in history, but his studies were interrupted in August 1941 when he was drafted into the army. Over the next five years, he rose from private to captain, serving coastline duty in Hawai’i and guarding an oil refinery in Curaçao. In April 1944, he was sent to Cairo to serve as the assistant military attaché to Lincoln MacVeagh, the U.S. ambassador to the Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile. McNeill had a front-row seat to the German retreat from Greece in November 1944 and the civil war that consumed the country during the winter of 1944–45. He relied on this experience, along with oral histories he collected, to write his first book, The Greek Dilemma; War and Aftermath, 1947. Greece was also where he met his wife, Elizabeth Darbishire, who oversaw the Office of War Information’s library in Athens. A formidable linguist, she is credited in his memoir, The Pursuit of Truth, 2005, with bringing “a new awareness of words” into his life. She became his most reliable proofreader, critic, and collaborator. They also had and raised four children.
After the war, McNeill finished his Ph.D. and headed for the University of Chicago, where he taught for forty years. “Teaching is the most wonderful way to learn things,” he says. “You have to get up before a class at ten o’clock the next morning and have something to say.” McNeill was instrumental in the creation of Chicago’s much-lauded Western civilization module, which was developed after the university realized it was turning out students briefed in social sciences, but unable to place Plato and Tocqueville in the right centuries.
The siren call of his own world history book persisted and, in 1951, he finagled an invitation to work under Toynbee at Chatham House in London. He hoped to learn the secret of his role model’s success in crafting his magnum opus, but was instead put off by Toynbee’s reliance on stale notes. McNeill’s work for Chatham House, where he was tasked with writing a history of Allied wartime relations, taught him how to digest large quantities of information with minimal note-taking. The technique served him well when he finally embarked on writing Rise of the West upon his return to Chicago. Using the portable Underwood typewriter his parents gave him for his twenty-first birthday, he pounded out the 1,110-page manuscript. “It took me nine years to write it and a year to cut it down. I had to cut out about 20 percent. I thought it was important to read from beginning to end, and two-volume works are almost never read straight through,” he says.
Tracing five thousand years of history, Rise of the West shows how China, India, the Middle East, and Europe fostered indigenous cultural traditions, while exchanging crops, warfare techniques, philosophy, art, and disease. It exploded the notion that a civilization or country’s history was a self-contained unit; cultures and people did not exist in a vacuum. The book’s title comes from McNeill’s assertion that the West emerged as the dominant force in the world, because its political and religious restlessness and the advent of industrialization required it to periodically renew itself.
Over the next four decades, McNeill continued to explore world history, writing and editing more than thirty books, many of which helped further define the field. Plagues and Peoples, 1976, looked at how disease molded a culture’s demographics, politics, and ecological resources. The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000, 1982, showed how innovations such as the chariot, crossbow, and iron manufacturing changed military tactics and how those tactics were adopted across cultures. With Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life, 1989, he became a biographer. “That was a painful book for me to write, because some of the things that I discovered about him were not very admirable. I had looked up to him very much when I was young.” He teamed up with his son, J.R. McNeill, an environmental historian, to write Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History, 2003, producing what he regards as “the best intellectual statement of my understanding of world history.”
When asked why he decided those many years ago to literally take on the world, rather than narrowly focus on a country or time period, his answer is simple yet profound. “I felt the world was one. From a very early time, I realized that humans interacted with their neighbors and their neighbors with their neighbors. If you look around the world you always have neighbors. You have a web.”
By Meredith Hindley
Meredith Hindley is a senior writer for HUMANITIES.