Books for the News, History

In memoriam: William H. McNeill (1917–2016)


William H. McNeill (1917–2016)—historian, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago (where he began teaching in 1947), and prolific scholar—died July 8, 2016, at age 98. One of his most notable works, The Rise of the West: A History of Human Community, was the first University of Chicago Press title to win a National Book Award, and is often considered a major force in resituating “western” civilization in a more global context.

From the New York Times:

Professor McNeill’s opus, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), took 10 years to write. It became a bestseller, won the National Book Award for history and biography and was lauded in the New York Times Book Review by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. “This is not only the most learned and the most intelligent,” he wrote, “it is also the most stimulating and fascinating book that has ever set out to recount and explain the whole history of mankind.”

McNeill went on to write several books for the University of Chicago Press, including Venice: The Hinge of Europe, 1081–1797The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000; The Islamic World (coedited with Marilyn Robinson Waldman); Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of Chicago, 1929–1950History of Western Civilization: A Handbook; and Europe’s Steppe Frontier: 1500–1800His honors included a National Humanities Medal for his work as a teacher, scholar, and author.

From the University of Chicago:

In a 1987 interview at the time of his retirement, McNeill said it was important for historians not to be too narrow in their outlook. “History has to look at the whole world,” he said. “And that means you have to know how the rest of the world is, how it got to be the way it is.”

McNeill was critical in launching the field of world history at a time when the discipline was narrowly focused on the history of Europe and its past and present colonies. In his work, he emphasized the connections and exchanges between civilizations rather than placing them in a vacuum.

“Bill McNeill was a scholar of extraordinary boldness, range and high creativity,” said John W. Boyer, the Martin A. Ryerson Professor in History and dean of the College. “He was able to see patterns and relationships among highly complex and disparate historical phenomena on a global level in ways that enabled him to write magnificent and courageous books of large intellectual compass.”

The NYT’s obit concludes with an prescient excerpt from McNeill’s 1992 review of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man:

“I do not believe that human nature is uniform and unchanging. Rather, whatever penchants and capabilities we inherit with our genes are so malleable that their expression takes infinitely diverse forms.”

“When Asian models of social and economic efficiency seem to be gaining ground every day, and when millions of Muslims are at pains to sustain the differences, great and small, that distinguish them from Americans,” he continued, “it is hard to believe that all the world is destined to imitate us.”

To read more about McNeill’s work, click here.