While it is well known that Will Durant was a prolific writer, penning over 6 million words for The Story of Civilization alone, what is less known is that he also was a prolific letter writer. His fan mail was extensive and every week would see him taking time out from his professional obligations to answer letters from friends, fans and colleagues.

We encourage visitors to Will Durant On-Line who may have some correspondence from Dr. Durant to share them with us by sending a copy to John Little’s attention via our e-mail address, along with some information on the background of the letter. Each month, Will Durant On-Line will feature a new installment of "Dear Will Durant" which will highlight some of his more interesting correspondence, from "letters to the editor" sections of newspapers, to answering general queries from fans, to acknowledging missives from Presidents and old friends.

-- J.L.


The novelist Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) died on December 28, 1945. Dreiser had been a friend of Will Durant, and Durant had served as pallbearer at his funeral. After the funeral Durant had sent a brief note to journalist and literary critic H.L. Mencken, whose enthusiastic reviews of Dreiser’s work had lent a hand in allowing Dreiser to fame. Mencken wrote to Durant from Baltimore the following reply:


January 9, 1946

Dear Durant,

If you ever feel like it, I wish you would send me a more or less particular account of the Dreiser funeral. I'd like to know, for example, what sort of religious service, if any, was held, and where the poor old boy is buried. You speak of the ceremony as "weary," so I assume that some gentleman of God had a hand in it. Were there any speeches?

My apologies for bothering you, but I am curious to know more about the last act in what to me was an almost lifelong drama.

Sincerely yours,

H. L. Mencken



January 21, 1946

Dear Mencken,

Your letter of the 9th has just reached me here in Spokane, where I am peddling philosophy.

I knew Dreiser only in the last two years of his life. He lived in comfort, and usually, so far as I could see, in good spirits. His new wife took fond care of him; he had many friends; and his childlike faith in Russia as the realization of the brotherhood of man held him up in the face of the imperfections of our life. I had him in my home on several occasions, and found him a friendly old bear, whose gruff ways never succeeded in concealing his almost sentimental tenderness.

He was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Los Angeles, on the afternoon of January third, after services in the Chapel of the Recession there. The body had lain in state that morning, but no attempt had been made to secure a procession of sightseers. Some 200 persons attended, and some fifty of those followed him to the grave. The services were conducted by a Rev. Hunter, a Congregational minister and friend of the Dreisers. He introduced John Howard Lawson, also a friend of Dreiser's, who spoke with a quiet eloquence for some thirty minutes, chiefly in praise of Dreiser's recent enlistment in the Communist Party. He was followed by Charles Chaplin, who read with his usual skill the poem "Drums" from Dreiser's book called Moods. Then the clergyman spoke for perhaps half an hour; not theologically, but chiefly in reminiscence of Dreiser's career, and ... suggesting with polite vagueness that, after all, Dreiser had been an essentially religious soul, a creative fragment of some Great Spirit.

The spectators then filed past the coffin. Dreiser looked handsomer in death than in life; his face expressed a repose and an acceptance which his pugnacious idealism had seldom permitted him before. The pallbearers (Dudley Nichols, Chaplin, myself, and five others, whose names have escaped me -- chiefly Dreiser's relatives and friends) carried the coffin to the hearse. Some twenty cars followed this to almost the highest hill in the picturesque cemetery, overlooking many miles of Los Angeles. We carried the body from hearse to grave, and stood aside while the minister read the usual funeral services of the Congregational Church.... As we walked back down the hill the body was lowered into the grave, and the covering earth was completely overlaid with flowers.

You, who helped him to recognition, should have been the one to pronounce his final eulogy. We missed you keenly.

Sincerely Yours,

Will Durant