At 92, William H. McNeill goes to the White House to receive National Humanities Medal
The rhythm of my country life includes evenings with a long-retired world historian, William H. McNeill, who has in many ways inspired Berkshire Publishing. I drive southeast, often with one of my children, to the farmhouse Bill’s wife Elizabeth inherited from her aunts. It takes about 35 minutes. I telephone Bill when I get in the car, both to give him an ETA and to make sure someone knows I’m on a country road with no cellphone signal and few houses–and even fewer occupied in winter.
We sit around the woodstove, warmed by firewood he’s chopped in the basement and pulled up on a kind of dumbwaiter, with nuts and drinks and whatever books and manuscripts we have to share. Then we have a supper he’s prepared, or something I’ve brought along–a casserole, or spaghetti and meatballs. My daughter says the conversations there may have spoiled her for college–no lecture or class discussion ever came up to the standard of discussion at Bill McNeill’s table.
Last night Bill was in more elegant surroundings and enjoying, I hope, the warmth and hospitality of the White House as he and the other recipients of national arts and humanities awards waited for President Obama to arrive from the Health Care Summit. You can see him here with the president. The press stories and announcements (Washington Post here) mention Bill’s book, Plagues and Peoples, rather than his first, and bestselling and National Book Award winning, Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. But that would have been a hard choice to make, as Bill has written rather a lot of books, including the remarkable Moving Together in Time and his latest work of world history, written with his son J.R. McNeill, The Human Web. Bill is also the senior editor of Berkshire’s Encyclopedia of World History, which comes out in June in a second edition–with several new articles by Bill, including one on “Economic Cycles” (known in the office as our “Boom and Bust” article) . Perhaps that would have been something for him to give to President Obama. (The president’s remarks are here.)
I cannot resist mentioning his latest book, a childhood memoir set on Prince Edward Island, and published by Berkshire. Summers Long Ago: On Grandfather’s Farm and in Grandmother’s Kitchen is as precisely and elegantly composed as any of his other books but different from them in being a personal account about places and people he loved, and early experiences that shaped him. The cover shows Bill at eight, displaying a prized pocketknife. I guess I need to get a similar photograph of him now, displaying his newest prize, the medal presented to him by President Obama.