Home Book editor Thomas Cahill, successful explorer of the Western past, dies at 82

Thomas Cahill, successful explorer of the Western past, dies at 82


Thomas Cahill, who combined a fascination with the ancient world with a gift for exuberantly funny storytelling in bestselling books such as “How the Irish Saved Civilization”, which claimed that Ireland was a haven for Western thought during the tumultuous period after the fall of Rome, died October 18 at his home in Manhattan. He was 82 years old.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, author Susan Cahill. Mr Cahill suffered from heart disease and suffered a stroke in 2017, she said, but had continued to work in recent years.

A dedicated student of ancient Greek and Latin, the Jesuit-educated Mr. Cahill worked in journalism and publishing before becoming a full-time author. Capitalizing on the phenomenal success of “How the Irish Saved Civilization” (1995), which spent nearly two years on the New York Times bestseller list, he wrote five more books on key moments in development. of Western Civilization, drawing on academic research and primary sources while crafting books that are as entertaining as they are scholarly.

Mr. Cahill was not a professional historian and was at times criticized for making sweeping claims without sufficient evidence. Yet his work has been hailed for transporting readers to the distant past and for bringing history to life without getting bogged down in crummy details.

Academics, he once told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “tend to be extremely cerebral and to look for ‘what is the philosophical structure here, or what is the ideological structure?’ They miss the tears and the laughter, the blood, the sweat, all those things that bring us in contact with those people of the past.

Mr Cahill was working as Doubleday’s director of religious publishing when he wrote ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization’, inspired in part by a trip to Ireland 20 years earlier. The book told the vivid – but relatively unknown – story of how 5th-century Irish monks copied classical texts onto sheepskin, rescuing literary and philosophical works destroyed by Germanic invaders after the Collapse of the Roman Empire. It was, Mr Cahill wrote, “a moment of unsullied glory” for Ireland.

The book sold around 2 million copies and was a jubilant affirmation of Irish culture and history after years in which the country’s role in world affairs was often derided or ignored. As Mr Cahill put it, the Irish would generally be seen as ‘a very uncivilized people to save civilisation’.

His book offered a corrective to this view while introducing characters like Augustine of Hippo (“almost the last classical great man”), Saint Patrick (“the first human being in the history of the world to speak unequivocally against slavery”) and the warrior queen Queen Medb of Connacht.

“His writing is in the great Irish tradition he describes: lyrical, playful, penetrating and serious, but never too serious,” wrote New York Times literary critic Richard Bernstein. “And even when his conclusions aren’t entirely convincing — they cling in places to rather thin reeds of evidence — they’re still plausible and certainly interesting.”

Mr. Cahill went on to write a total of six volumes in what he called his “Hinges of History” series, an idiosyncratic study of Western civilization in which he aimed to offer “a narrative of how we became the people that we are”. Its sequel, “The Gifts of the Jews” (1998), was a light-hearted retelling of biblical history that credited the Jewish people – “a nomad tribe of the desert” – with pioneering the concept of individuality, not to mention the idea of ​​the weekend. To research the book, he spent a summer learning Hebrew, studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and traveled to the Middle East to visit Old Testament monuments.

“I tried for several years to live with the people of the Bible,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Finally I got to see Abraham’s tent in the desert heat.”

Later, Mr. Cahill explored the life and legacy of Jesus (“Desire for the Eternal Hills”), the role of art and warfare in ancient Greece (“Sailing Wine and the Black Sea” ), the cultural and political advances that occurred in the so-called Middle Ages (“Mysteries of the Middle Ages”) and the rise of modern individualism during the Renaissance and Reformation (“Heretics and Heroes” ).

His books were filled with long quotations from primary sources as well as familiar asides and comparisons to modern life. A letter from the Middle Ages was “as full of cruel innuendo as the dialogue of an episode of ‘Desperate Housewives'”, while the Greek city-state of Sparta was “the North Korea of ​​its day”. In ancient Greece, he wrote, “the harder the pecs and the tighter the buns, the more spiritual you were.”

“What academic writers forget is that everyone on Earth buys books to be entertained or entertained,” he told The Associated Press in 2006. “Yeah, they want to learn things , but they also don’t want to be bored to death while they learn these things.

Thomas Quinn Cahill was born in the Bronx on March 29, 1940. His parents were the children of Irish immigrants and he grew up hearing songs and stories about life in Ireland from his mother, a housewife. His father was an insurance executive.

Mr. Cahill won a scholarship to Regis High School, the elite Jesuit private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he was introduced to the work of Plato and Augustine at age 14. He then studied classical literature and medieval philosophy at Fordham. University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1964, and studied for the priesthood before deciding against it.

At Columbia University, he studied film and earned a master’s degree in 1968. It was also a dead end: filmmakers, he decided, “either starve or have rich fathers and relationships”.

Turning to journalism and publishing, he worked as an advertising director at the New York Review of Books and as an education correspondent at the Times of London. He has also written book reviews for the Los Angeles Times and taught at schools including Seton Hall University, Queens College and Fordham.

With the former Susan Neunzig, whom he married in 1966, he published his first book, the anthology “Big City Stories by Modern American Writers”, in 1971. They then launched a catalog of mail-order books and spent a year in Ireland researching their second book, “A Literary Guide to Ireland” (1973).

For decades Mr Cahill kept his idea for an Irish history book in his back pocket, pitching it unsuccessfully to five major publishers before meeting publisher Nan Talese, who signed on to the project after they met at of a sales conference in 1990.

At that time, Mr. Cahill was director of religious publishing at Doubleday, publishing titles that included the six-volume “Anchor Bible Dictionary,” which became a crucial resource for his later history books. He has also published an English translation of “Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven”, by German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann, on women, sexuality and the Catholic Church.

Mr Cahill told the Irish Times that when he saw the austere cover that had been planned for the book, he went to the art department at Doubleday and said: “Give me something that will give the apoplexy to a bishop at breakfast. The resulting book was published with a sultry illustration showing a woman in silhouette and was attacked by influential Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who said Doubleday was a “purveyor of hatred, scandal, wickedness, defamation and slander”. (Mr. Cahill said he and other publishers felt “vilified” by O’Connor, but noted that the Cardinal’s comments seemed to have the opposite effect of the intended effect, boosting sales of the book.)

After the success of ‘How the Irish Saved Civilization’, Mr Cahill quit his day job, aiming to write a new book every two years. His later works include “Pope John XXIII” (2002), a short biography for the Penguin Lives series, and “A Saint on Death Row” (2009), about Dominique Green, a Texan who was wrongfully convicted in the case of Mr. Cahill. eyes – of fatally shooting a man during a robbery outside a convenience store. Green was executed in 2004, after Mr Cahill unsuccessfully sought to clear his name.

Besides his wife, Mr. Cahill’s survivors include their two children, Kristin Cahill Iñiguez and Joseph Cahill; three sisters; and four grandchildren.

Mr Cahill was skeptical of institutional religion, saying he had found that “churches often get in the way” of faith. But for many years he led a prayer group in New York, taking time out of his writing to read bedtime stories to HIV-positive children.

“We’re just a bunch of middle-class people,” he told the New York Times in 1998. “None of this is earth-shattering or monumental. It sounds extremely minor, but everything is minor in a way.

“You know Mother Teresa’s famous response when someone asked her how she did it? ‘One by one.’ I think that’s always the answer.