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Karen’s Letter: Celebrating William H. McNeill (1917-2016)

William H. McNeil reading “Birthday Swan Song” at his 93rd birthday partyI write today to share the sad news that William H. (Bill) McNeill died on Friday, 8 July 2016. He was 98 years old, and rooting for Roger Federer at Wimbledon right until the end.

Bill and I worked together for many years, and he was the senior editor of Berkshire’s major publication, the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History. He was friend and mentor and inspiration to me, and to my children, who spent many evenings listening to our conversation and eventually joining in themselves. Tom, who lives in China, has been home on vacation and had a chance to talk to Bill for the last time last Saturday, and to say good-bye. Bill used to quiz Rachel about wolves and aspen trees, and about her exploration of his woods in Colebrook, and only last week he wanted to know how many words there were in her draft novel.

Writing was one of the things Bill lived for, and he continued to write for decades after his retirement. Much of that writing was for Berkshire Publishing, and he published several other books, including an autobiography called The Pursuit of Truth. In that book he details his experiences on the 1992 Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission. Bill was no proponent of European superiority, and his knowledge of the importance of disease, the subject of one of his most famous books, Plagues and Peoples, came to the fore as he tried to explain the biological dimensions of the Columbian encounter. It was a frustrating experience as Bill had been pigeon-holed by the radical environmentalists as a promoter of Western civilization, while in fact, he was largely responsible for what he later called, in a speech and article, “Leaving Western Civ Behind.” His focus on the ecological dimension of world history began very early and came through in everything we did together.

Our paths had crossed obliquely when he was on the Columbus Commission, but we didn’t meet till 1996, when I was urged by Robert Ferrell of Indiana University to contact Bill about a world history project. “He lives near you,” Ferrell wrote. And indeed he did. That physical proximity and our shared interest in the workings of human community brought us close. We talked about community as a concept but also exchanged stories about our efforts to create community in real life, and I agreed with him when he wrote that “finding a new accommodation between rural and urban segments of society constitutes the most fundamental human agendum of the twenty-first century.”

William H. McNeill with President ObamaI was also taken with Bill’s thinking about the human dilemma in the 21st century. No matter what the issue – and he was particularly alert to environmental threats, and to the dangers of ethnic and national conflict – he could provide examples drawn from other times and places. We were chatting one evening about party political conventions, for example, and I asked if he paid much attention to them. “I haven’t listened to one,” he said, “since 1932.” He proceeded to tell us about that Democratic Party Convention at which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was eventually made the candidate and thus became president of the United States. One of the highlights of Bill’s last years was a trip to the White House, where President Obama awarded him the National Humanities Medal.

Bill McNeill April 1932
Bill McNeill April 1932

Bill’s fascination with military drill and dance – the way shared movement creates emotional bonds – was something we talked many times. Not long ago, Rachel and I turned up for a visit when Bill was about to go to a concert at the nursing home, so we went along. Bill was almost deaf (I managed by perching on the arm of his chair and shouting into his ear) but he said he could feel the music, and we watched the audience of elderly people who had arrived on canes and in wheelchairs tapping their feet and clapping their hands. Bill told me that one thing he wished he had done is write more about music in Moving Together in Time.

Bill coauthored The Human Web with his son J. R. McNeill in 2003, and wrote for the New York Review of Books until 2008. When we came to do a second edition of the Berkshire Encyclopedia of World History in 2010, Bill took a greater role, writing new essays and helping to refine our coverage in a variety of areas. I particularly remember his assessment of our articles on warfare and technology in different parts of the world, and his wonderful essays on salt (listen to a reading of “Salt” by clicking here) and the global influence of ancient Greece.

In 1996, about the time we first met, Bill began corresponding with a professor in Australia, David Christian, who was in early stages of writing about something he called “big history.” Many people of eighty would have rejected such an ambitious new way of looking at history, but Bill welcomed it, urged me to learn about it, and helped and encouraged David Christian in every way he could. I’m thrilled that we will soon publish an edited collection of their letters, and we have just uploaded a podcast with David Christian in which he and I talk about our first meeting at the McNeill house in 2002.

In retirement, Bill also began a series of personal writing projects, starting with a lovely memoir of his grandparents that Berkshire produced in a limited edition. In 2012, he wrote a collection of biographies of “friends and acquaintances,” starting with me. That was a terrifying experience. Bill always wanted the truth and had no inhibitions about asking about details of my personal life that I would not have otherwise chosen to discuss with an eminent professor forty years older than I.

95th Birthday PartyI’ve written before about our weekly suppers, about my fears about losing him, and about the birthday parties that became an annual event (links below to a few of those stories). Bill baked the birthday cakes until I finally managed to take over that task in 2012. My cakes looked and tasted better, but I now think nostalgically of the funny, lumpy cakes he would make from boxed cake mix.

On Wednesday, 6 July, just two days before he died, Bill was dozing with the tennis playing on the television when I walked in. He asked if I had come alone, and what Tom and Rachel were doing. I had brought the bar of dark chocolate he’d asked for on Saturday. He looked at it skeptically, but I ate a piece and then he ate one. I gave him several more, slowly, as we talked, cautious because I once brought him a chocolate Easter bunny and he ate the whole thing at one go.

He wanted to know what was happening with Federer and Cilic (he had the name right – I didn’t even recognize it) so I looked up Wimbledon news on my phone and read the details of Federer’s victory that afternoon. Bill told me about playing tennis with his sons and how they had grown up and eventually beat him (”It was not difficult,” he said). He told me about trying to get on the U High team in Chicago. He said his father had been a good player and that he and another man once lost track of the score, giving Bill the chance, as a little boy who’d been watching through the fence, to set them right.

My plan was to visit again on Friday to watch the semi-final with him before going on to a family wedding in the Hudson Valley. I made a batch of shortbread, prepared strawberries and cream, and packed the makings for a Pimm’s Cup – I was going to give Bill the real Wimbledon experience.

It didn’t happen that way. Instead, we went to say good-bye, to whisper things I am certain he knew: how much we loved and admired him, how much we had learned from him, and how determined we are, in whatever way we can, to carry on the work he began – to show people, as he once said, that the world really is round.

Two of my letters about Bill:

It’s a sad time – his presence in my life was something I had come to depend on – and I know he influenced many people all over the world. I’ve already heard from many people who knew Bill, with their memories and appreciation. I heard, for example, from Martin Marty, one of the remarkable people I’ve come to know through Bill. Please feel free to add your thoughts using the Comment form. Your tributes here will mean a lot to his family as well as to me.

Warm regards,
Karen Christensen
Karen CHRISTENSEN, CEO & Publisher
Berkshire Blog:

10 thoughts on “Karen’s Letter: Celebrating William H. McNeill (1917-2016)

  1. Dear Karen:

    The New York Times etc tells us that Bill McNeill has died. While I knew his father and his wife, I didn’t know his son, and so have no one to whom to reach out.

    Except you! I am well aware of the attention and care you gave Bill in his eighties and nineties, and will never forget an event in which you saw to it that he got there, and sat next to him.

    The obituaries triggered my memory bank. i knew his father well, and transferred my affection and concerns to his son–who was very different from his father. And I’ve treasured the family portrait in “growing up McNeill.” I told Harriet that I’d been in many doctoral exams with Bill and always learned from him, about research, teaching, writing, and more. I think I’ve told you the story of the time Hugh Trevor-Roper walked in to the McNeill house where we were to dinner with the British visitor and the McNeills, and Bill asked father (well into his nineties, I imagine) what he was working on – and the interesting exchange that followed.

    Bottom line, for now: there’s a public memorial or greetings bank and you are involved, would you please slide a print out of this page into the pile, my recognition of the influence of a truly great historian.

    And to you, fond regards and benisons,


    Martin E. Marty

  2. William H. McNeill was one of the greatest historians ever. I had the pleasure of meeting him once at a roundtable in Luxemburg in about 1995, where the draft of an essay of his was discussed. He will be remembered.

  3. Dear Karen,
    You and I corresponded serval times as I was teaching Advanced Placement World History and Honors Asian Studies. My students approached the daunting task of covering AP World…with greater ease, confidence, and perspective because of Professor McNeill'”Birdseye History of the World” , which was their summer reading prior to the course. His was a voice of wisdom and reason, both valuable commodities in this world of tunnel vision and intransigent positioning .

    What a treasure that you shared his friendship. It was clear from our first correspondence that you were his cheerleader and mentee.

    Thank you for providing the podcasts and links to help me celebrate such a fine person, even as I am saddened that the world has lost such a light.

    Most sincerely,

    Jan Davis

  4. W.H. McNeill was one of the great explorers and pathbreakers in 20th century historical writing. His presence amongst us will be sorely missed. We do fortunately have access to his world of thought through his writings.

  5. I am truly saddened by the loss of this wonderful person who enriched our lives with his amazing knowledge, his essential understanding of history and his ability to express it so beautifully. My father had the pleasure of meeting him in the 40’s as part of a Greek contingency and spoke highly of him to our family. William H. McNeill leaves behind a tremendous legacy. He will be remembered.

  6. Dear Karen:
    I was moved by your caring memory of W.H. McNeill.

    I will admit that in 1969 when I was teaching at Boston State College during the turmoil of activism against American imperialism in Asia, especially the Vietnam invasion, I was one of those who “pigeon-holed [McNeill] as a promoter of Western civilization.” It has taken some time for me to recognize that the memory of the past is often “unpredictable.” (Larry Levine).

    After reading Moving Together in Time, I recognized the depth and value of his writings. Working with a valued student, we wrote how the thesis of this book could be applied to the mass movements and parades in North Korea, China, Cuba, and Nazi Germany. In addition, I was moved to watch carefully how political leaders listened to music: e.g. I photographed Lee Teng-hui, President of Taiwan, when he kept time with clicking his thumb on the table while a children’s chorus entertained him. I also observed how my children’s piano teacher had them lay down on the floor to feel the waves of music from the performance.

    After decades of teaching world history myself, I have come to appreciate McNeill’s writings, and through your compassionate composition, recognize his contribution to my own life through his works and his relationships.
    Thank you for a living memory and the testimony to a creative and caring person.

    Richard C. Kagan
    Professor Emeritus

  7. I never had the chance to meet him, and he probably never heard of me, but once I was asked by the American Historical Review to peer-review an article submitted to them on caravan transport in Eurasia. (I didn’t know until after it was published that it was by him.) It focused on the role of camels, above all, in caravan trade in desert regions, especially the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Central Eurasia. But I knew that camels are rarely mentioned in connection with Central Eurasia, where horses ruled from the second millennium BCE to the twentieth century. Moreover, paintings from the medieval period, both Chinese and Islamic, prominently and regularly feature Central Eurasians with large, high-wheeled wagons. Central Eurasia is quite dry, and though the steppe zone is covered with grass, the ground is typically hard enough to drive on. So I said in my report, and forgot about it. Not long afterward, AHR wrote me to say that he had completely revised it, and they were going to publish it. Of course today it is somewhat out of date with regard to Central Eurasian matters because of a spate of research in the past three decades, but it is still a very good, stimulating article, and in the main his argument is right. I was impressed, and remain impressed. Most people can’t actually learn from anyone else (I think Plato is the one who first argues that); they don’t pay attention or don’t want to exert their mind to understand what the other is saying. Thomas Kuhn’s “incommensurability”, in my opinion, is mostly the lack of courage to think hard about a different approach or a new explanation that fits the data better. Anyway, that’s when I found out who it was, the author of the famous Rise of the West and Plagues and Peoples, as well as many other books and papers. I felt honored to have contributed to improving an article by such a great historian.

    Best wishes, Chris

    Christopher I. Beckwith
    Professor of Central Eurasian Studies
    Indiana University

  8. Dear Karen,

    Your incredible commemoration is worthy of such a great historian and model as a human being. I at least had the fortune to hear Professor McNeill speak as a student and at the AHA. I always used his pamphlet, “Why Study History” as the first introduction in historiography courses. His agility of thought, substantive research skills,and ability to be so articulate in communication, inspired so many people. I think our professional legacies remain, but what you have done so well is capture the personal warmth, the human legacy. Thank you for sharing this.

    Marilyn Levine

  9. For a life well-lived in many dimensions and for being a blessing to all of us who love history. We are truly grateful for Prof. McNeill’s insights into the nature of history (myth and history, truth and history) and, for us world historians, also for his dogged determination to bring the Rest into the West and his efforts to create a truly human perspective on our shared past.

  10. To me, William McNeill is a History Hero. As a graduate student at the U. of Chicago in 1974-5, I was lucky enough to take a course from him. He was an excellent teacher and a kind man. I still have the research paper written for his course–one of the very few such papers I have kept from undergraduate and graduate schooling. Later, as I developed an intense interest in truly global world history, I discovered that he was the founding father of the field. I was fortunate to attend the last lecture he delivered in Chicago, when he was 90 years old. His lecture summarized some of the main points he had expounded in The Rise of the West, The Human Web, and The Pursuit of Truth. Prof. McNeill delivered the entire lecture while standing, with no notes. I just hope that, should I reach the age of 90, I am merely able to stand! While William McNeill’s life has ended, there is no end to his legacy as a superb historian.

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