The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination
Human Creativity Has Overcome Substantial Obstacles
JANUARY 01, 1994 by RAYMOND J. KEATING
In The Creators historian and former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin celebrates the individual’s power of creation and imagination, literally across the span of human history. Boorstin’s fine writing and intriguing insights—devoid of any ideological hyperbole—refresh the reader.
Boorstin illustrates how the creative nature of man often has had to overcome substantial obstacles, while being bolstered under alternative circumstances. For example, theological teachings have long influenced views about and incentives for creativity. Boorstin observes about Buddhism: “If there was a creator, it was he who had created the need for the extinction of the self, the need to escape rebirth, the need to struggle toward Nirvana. The Lord of the Buddhists was the Master of Extinction. And no model for man the Creator.” In a chapter entitled “The Uncreated Koran,” the author concludes, “For a believing Muslim, to create is a rash and dangerous act.”
Other beliefs nurtured man’s creative nature. Boorstin states: “Across the world, the urge to create needed no express reason and conquered all obstacles. Still the West, whose unusual hospitality to the new was rooted in many causes and many mysteries, found added incentives in the vision of a Creator-God and a creator man.” Throughout The Creators, Boorstin masterfully communicates the awe-inspiring creativity of man—in such realms as architecture, painting, sculpture, music, and, of course, the written word whether reinforced or undermined by theological or cultural beliefs.
The author presents a wide variety of innovators and innovations. For example, in terms of architecture and building, Boorstin notes how the ancient Egyptians have survived through “their indestructible original works”—the pyramids. Meanwhile, the “Greeks survive through styles and motifs.” Boorstin touches upon major architectural developments from these ancients to the “Gothic architecture of light” all the way up to the present day skyscraper.
In the world of music, Boorstin introduces the reader to Gregorian chants, and from there moves forward to touch upon the great composers, including Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner, and Stravinsky. The chapters covering Verdi and Wagner are representative of much of the book. Not only are the respective contributions of these great composers explored, but so are the personal lives, contrasts, and competition between these two contemporaries.
To say that Boorstin explores innovations in the written word fails to do justice. Theologians, historians, philosophers, essayists, biographers, novelists, poets—Boorstin reflects upon numerous literary arenas and developments. Again, he deftly ties together the personal lives, philosophies, and writings of great literary figures, such as Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Ben Franklin, Dickens, Whitman, Melville, and T. S. Eliot—naming but a few.
Seeking to write a history of heroes of the imagination is an epic undertaking. In the end, what Daniel Boorstin has achieved is an epic history of man’s ability to create and innovate in the arts. Whether they were exploring the world around them, the self within, or both, these individuals examined in The Creators somehow influenced the world through their work. Some did so immediately, such as Dickens as reflected by his great popularity in his time. Others posthumously, ‘like Melville, whose Moby Dick “twentieth-century readers would pour their own frustrations and ambiguities, making it one of the most popular vehicles for the modern self.”
Still others influenced both their contemporaries and all posterity, with Shakespeare being among the most prominent. Boorstin notes what many in the so-called arts community today would deem a dichotomy: “For Shakespeare the claims of immortality were not pressing, it was more urgent to please contemporary London playgoers. . . . Within his twenty-year London career he had produced the poems and plays that made him the idol of English literature. The English- speaking community in all future centuries would be united by familiarity with ‘the Bible and Shakespeare.’”
Interestingly, Boorstin’s “Epilogue” touches upon the modern art of film-making. He makes a fundamental point that Shakespeare understood, but still many modern-day artists do not: “[T]he public had become the patron and had to be pleased.”
There seem to be few historians today poised to meet the arduous criteria of both current “popularity” or respect, combined with the scholarship and writing abilities that withstand the tests of time. It is clear, however, that with such an auspicious effort as The Creators, in addition to a long list of previous triumphs, Daniel J. Boorstin shall prove to be more than just a temporal success.