Durant, Will

Durant, (William James) Will

(1885–1981) historian; born in North Adams, Mass.; and Durant, Ariel (b. Chaya Kaufman) (1898–1981) historian; born in Proskurov (now Khmelnitski), Ukraine. After working as a reporter, he went to Seton Hall College (now University) in New Jersey to teach and to study for the Catholic priesthood, but he left in 1911 and took up radical politics in New York City. He became director of the Labor Temple School in 1914 while taking a Ph.D. at Columbia University (1917). When his lectures on philosophy at the Labor Temple School were published as The Story of Philosophy (1926), it became such a best-seller that he was able to quit and write full time. After publishing various books, in 1935 he came out with Our Oriental Heritage, the first of his long-planned multivolume Story of Civilization. He moved to Los Angeles and for the next 40 years largely devoted himself to this project; the 11th and final volume appeared in 1975. Chaya (or Ada) Kaufman Durant had been assisting him for some years and she was credited as coauthor of the last five volumes. The 10th volume received the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 and the Durants received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. Academic historians faulted the books on various grounds but their texture and narrative—a colorful tapestry of history, culture, and biographies—made the series one of the most successful popularizations of all time and introduced millions of readers to intellectual history.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.