I own almost every book written by John Lukacs—close to 40 now—and several in multiple editions, but never before have I spent so much time contemplating the cover of one of these volumes. It’s not simply that the jacket, designed by Sam Torode, is attractive, a model of simplicity and elegance: It seems significant. A black background frames a chair and a simple wooden desk with a green blotter, in front of a bright window looking out at an even brighter arbor covered with vines, a hint of red and yellow in their leaves that may be a harbinger of fall, yet enough light green that it might also be spring. It is early in the day, but the sun, bright and white on the window frame, penetrates no farther into the room than the sill. The front of the desk and the back of the chair are lost in shadow. The desk itself, though, seems to glow gently with its own light.
Nowhere in History and the Human Condition is the image explained, but those who have had the privilege of visiting America’s greatest living historian in his home will recognize it immediately. This is the desk where John Lukacs writes, in the library that he designed, in the house that he built 30 years ago. Outside the window, the landscape, too, is a product of his imagination and effort, a living symbol of the human creativity and historical consciousness that have been the subject of all of Lukacs’s work.
Like Edmund Burke, whose writing Lukacs regards as the first flowering of a full-blown historical consciousness, Lukacs has often used man’s interaction with the landscape as a metaphor for history. Nature exists before us but for us; we are born not only into a particular time but into a particular place. We can impose our will on the world around us and create something that may have a certain geometrical beauty (or, conversely, a harshness unmatched anywhere in raw nature), or we can work within our place in the world, enhancing its beauty in a way that makes both nature and ourselves more humane. In Burke’s discussion of French and English gardens, Lukacs, like Burke, comes down squarely on the side of the English, not just in landscape but in life. But the English garden requires more imagination, and more humility, and more wonder in the face of a world that is made for man but not entirely by him.
Now in his 90th year, John Lukacs has created a body of work unmatched by any American historian of the 20th (let alone 21st) century. More than a quarter—66 pages—of History and the Human Condition is devoted to a bibliography of that work from 1947 through 2012, an updated version of the one compiled by his granddaughter Helen for Remembered Past, ISI Books’ monumental and indispensable Lukacs reader, published in 2005.
For the longtime reader of Lukacs, this present volume is not indispensable, consisting of four chapters that reprint articles of recent vintage (none older than 2007), and another four drawn (with minimal changes) from previous books, each better read in its original context. The updated bibliography is useful though incomplete, because, as Lukacs notes, “it does not include the considerable number of articles, book reviews, essays, and other miscellaneous writings” he has published since 2003. While the eight chapters make up a representative sampling of the themes and subjects that have occupied the 65 years of Lukacs’s work, the first-time reader can find better introductions to Lukacs’s thought, including his 1990 “autohistory” Confessions of an Original Sinner; his magnum opus, Historical Consciousness; and even Remembered Past, which, at over 900 pages, may seem daunting but, at roughly the same price as History and the Human Condition, is a much better bargain.
But back to that cover image, which drew me in every time I closed this book. What most readers could not know, even after learning what this desk and window represent, is that the scene could not exist in history. When the sun is shining outside of that window, it is shining outside the windows on the other side of the library as well, and the chair and desk would be lit from behind. The darkness pressing in upon the desk conveys a sad truth, reflected in Lukacs’s Preface to this volume, that history waits for no man, not even one of its greatest chroniclers.
While ISI has been promoting History and the Human Condition as “likely to be the final word from one of the most accomplished historians of our time,” A Short History of the Twentieth Century, a volume of original material, is slated to be released by Harvard this fall. That, Lukacs says, will be his last book. Those of us who have profited greatly from his work, however, will continue to hope that the glow from that desk is not soon extinguished.