Professor Hendrik Willem Van Loon

By Scott Sanders, Archivist

Written nearly three months after H.L. Mencken penned a screed to him about Antioch College, Professor of History Hendrik Van Loon’s letter to his famously acerbic friend may not be in direct response, but it is the closest thing to it in the Antioch College Archives. From its disarming style, clearly Van Loon could be a lot of fun to be around, though he reveals a certain arrogance about him as well, perhaps one of the things that had infuriated his colleagues in the history department at Cornell University.

An illustration of the Antioch College campus by Van Loon dated October, 1921 featuring an attempt at a new seal symbolizing work and study.

Note Van Loon’s playful use of language, particularly his almost comedic transition between English and German; Mencken’s letter from the previous May contains the same word play. Van Loon demonstrates the eclectic nature of his interests and expertise, and perhaps just the few culinary (vol-au-vent is a French pastry, literally translated “blown by the wind”), musical (JS Bach’s “mathematical puzzle” could refer to any number of works patterned on math formulas), and religious (his use of the Latin phrase “nunc dimittis Domine” loosely translates as “Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, O Lord” from the “Cantile of Simeon” in the book of Luke) references to be found here are indicative of an author capable of a broad-based world history such as The Story of Mankind, the “nightmare” he refers to in the second paragraph. He has no idea at this point the extent to which the public will disagree with his assessment that it is not a great book. His “next book,” the one that he hopes to coax Mencken back to discuss, R.v.R.:The Life and Times of Rembrandt Van Rijn, would not come out until 1930.

Then-president of Antioch College Arthur Morgan is most likely the “esteemed Chief” in question, set to visit Van Loon at his Greenwich Village home in about a week. It is not known if Mencken availed himself of the chance to meet Morgan or not, though since there was no better promoter of the College in its entire history, we might hazard to guess that even the intractable “Sage of Baltimore” might have become convinced.



8 Barrow street. New York 13 August xxi

My Dear Mencken,

Why did you not stay? Bach’s Concerto for Zwei Geigen without a piano is more or less like vol-au-vent without the vent. Besides, I had rediscovered those two very lovely sonatas for two violins of Handel (both G moll and as far as harmony and melody goes much pleasanter than Master Johann’s mathematical puzzle) and we had quite an evening of fiddling. As Mrs. Robbins and I are the only two good amateur players in New York (I heard of another one in Pittsburgh but he does not have the price of a ticket to New York and does not count) as, as I said, we are the only two good fiddlers in these US, even the double notes in the finale of Bach would not have frightened you away from the clavecin.

Mrs. R. tells me that she has a cook every Thursday and intends to feed us next Thursday, mit musik afterwards. I hope that you can be there for I would like to talk to you about my next book (not this damn thing that has become a nightmare, means endless fussy unpleasant odds and ends of work and shall, in the end, expose me to the wrath of the great Baptist Jehovah, the great Methodist Joshua and all the other partikularistische Joshes who will and shall be more than willing to kill the author for his insistence upon a fifty-fifty percent Patriotism and Religion) but, as I said when religious considerations made this detour necessary, I would like to talk to you about my next book of which the keel has been laid many years ago. It will be Rembrandt’s life in a sort of roman raisonĂ© – a novel that is not a novel. But I am sick and tired of history pure and simple and shall take this bit of relaxation before we continue with our historical progress. God knows this soon-to-be Story of Mankind is not a great book but it is the first direct step in the right direction and if I make it impossible for the Mass. schoolma’ams of next generation to write the idiotic histories they have written for the generations of the past, then nunc dimittis Domine and the servant shall pass in peace. Amen.

My esteemed Chief is to be here approximately the nineteenth and if you happen to be here I want you to meet him and seeing, be a bit more hopeful about the enterprise. I shall leave here as soon as I am no longer a galley slave. For your entertainment I enclose the sort of book-reviewing the Cornell Alumni news does so well. And there are things they do worse.

Ich habe die Ehre,
HW Van Loon

Van Loon sent this note to the president’s office to make sure that his name appeared the way he preferred in official College documents.