Pulitzer Prize-winner John Toland, who attended the Yale School of Drama from 1936 to 1937, died Jan. 4 of pneumonia in Danbury Hospital in Danbury, Conn. He was 91.
A La Crosse, Wis. native, Toland received his undergraduate degree from Williams College before attending the Drama School. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his nonfiction work “The Rising Sun,” which chronicles the rise and fall of the Japanese empire during World War II.
His daughter, Diana Netzer, said her father’s dramatic training allowed him to adopt a unique philosophy of history in which he would “look at the characters and what they do and write as honestly [as possible] without passing judgment.”
Tamiko Toland, Netzer’s half-sister, agreed that her father’s data collection methods, and works derived from the data, were groundbreaking and unconventional.
“I think the books he wrote stand for themselves in terms of a legacy,” Tamiko Toland said. “In addition, he collected a lot of first-hand interviews with people who are now dead, important historical figures in particular. I think that will continue to have benefits for future historians.”
Netzer said that though John Toland published several critically acclaimed works of historical nonfiction, the fantasy world of drama and the stage was always his first love. Tamiko Toland said she thought her father’s dramatic background colored his writing style and even his personality.
“I think he always saw himself as a playwright,” Tamiko Toland said. “Knowing him as a daughter, he had a very theatrical, though not over-dramatic, way, and he saw life as theater. The playwright never got squeezed out of him.”
In addition to his use of unorthodox methods to tell his stories, John Toland also approached the creative process in an uncommon manner. Danny Parker, a writer who corresponded with Toland before his death and used Toland’s transcriptions as research for a book he is working on, said Toland balanced his personal and professional schedule adeptly.
“He’d have coffee and write all morning nonstop. Then he would stop at noon, then have lunch and break, and the afternoon would be spent piddling and organizing notes and getting materials ready for the next day. During the evening, he would relax. He created a civil, reasonable home life for himself by doing this,” Parker said. “It’s easy to become obsessed with what you’re working on. He was able to develop a balance within that.”
This balance, Parker said, is only one example of the way Toland, whom he referred to as “a regal human being,” impressed others with his kindness and caring in addition to his skill as a writer.
Parker discussed Toland’s meticulousness in his research — he would send transcribed copies of interviews to his subjects for them to review before he published anything.
Tamiko Toland said this technique was key to her father’s ability to gain the trust of his interviewees. Parker agreed that such a habit set John Toland apart from his peers and made him not just a successful writer but an admired person.
“He was a good man and very interested in the human relationships involved in human life,” Parker said. “He put a human face on everything he was writing. In each case if you look at what he wrote, it’s human beings caught in tumultuous events. To me, he was an inspiring person and he also was a person of great integrity.”
John Toland’s extensive interview notes are on file at the Library of Congress. Tamiko Toland said some of his interview notes contain the only transcribed first-hand accounts of historical events.
Even though Toland was never formally trained as a historian, his unassuming, narrative-heavy style made his historical nonfiction interesting and engaging to read.
“He wrote stories that captured people’s imaginations and made them think they were living in that time,” Parker said. “What bigger credit is there to a writer than that?”