When I embarked on my recent midwinter escape to L.A., I packed several books to help me pass the time. One was The New Penguin History of the World, leading a friend to jokingly ask if it was a history of penguins. Alas, no. The book was first published in 1976; it’s been overhauled multiple times, most recently in 2002 — and silly me for thinking that, in those twenty-eight years, attitudes in the community of historical theorists has advanced to the point where, when a major publisher releases a mammoth book like this, it would be less…dude-ly. And white dude-ly at that. Will I never learn?
It’s not as if the book is poorly written. Nor does it ever drift into didacticism or condescend to the reader. The problem lies in its focus. If you write a book and are audacious enough to title it with the phrase “History of the World,” then maybe you should be sure that it’s not merely a history of Europe’s experience within the world. Now, can the author write from the personal perspective of being a nonwhite, non-European person? Well, that’s not his personal experience. But at what point does that cease to be an excuse for the exclusion of far too many events (and perspectives) pertaining to those unlike author J.M. Roberts?
Roberts passed away six years ago, and I give him a great deal of credit for the massive endeavor of documenting the huge span of human history that is covered in the book. When I bought History of the World (as I’ll refer to it), I thumbed through it at the bookstore and was excited to find a seemingly exhaustive trove of historical theory and writings, and the aspect of it being a world history was a major selling point. I’ll admit that most of the history books I read have to do with Judeo-Christian-Muslim history or European history. So this seemed like a chance to add to my knowledge of other regions about which I didn’t feel I was well-informed. After the ten days it took to read the book, I didn’t feel as if I’d found what any of what I had sought.
There are two dimensions that I find troubling within the scope of the book, a book that is being touted as a definitive documentation of the whole world: history as it pertains — and is created — by women and non-white, non-European peoples. History of the World is 1,184 pages. Five pages are dedicated to women, and those pages detail only twentieth-century women’s rights. Roberts talks about the Pill without naming Margaret Sanger. He talks about suffrage movements without mentioning Emmeline Pankhurst. The one person named in the women’s movement is Henrik Ibsen. Was A Doll’s House really more influential than Susan B. Anthony?
The women referenced are the following: Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Mary Tudor, Florence Nightingale, and Empress Catherine. The Russian revolution is discussed, but not Tsarina Alexandra; the French revolution, but not Marie Antoinette; Abraham, but not Hagar or Sarah; Emma Lazarus is quoted but not named. Even the Virgin Mary does not warrant a mention despite the influence her promotion had on the ability of Spanish conquistadores to convert — forcibly or otherwise — the native peoples of Central and South America.
There is also a distressing use of the passive voice, as in “the political attacks on the legal and institutional structures which were felt by [women] to be oppressive.” Not that the structures were oppressive, you see. It’s just that the women were offended. It’s the ultimate non-apology apology, as used in historical writings. (The only mention of abortion, by the way, is in a sentence that talks about methods of population control “including female infanticide and abortion.” Even if the two are not consciously intended to be linked, it is at best a careless conjunction.)
And let’s not get started on how many times the word “penetrate” appears.
As for the cultural and racial implications of the Euro-centric, Caucasian-centric approach, it boils down to the fact that a definitive world history is seemingly legitimate if it has a narrow scope. To wit: Latin America is only mentioned in terms of its relations to Europe and America. Slobodan Milosivec warrants a mention, but the genocide in Rwanda does not. The same goes for the American civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. The phrase “Dark Continent” as applied to Africa is not always put within quotation marks. Cultures are frequently referred to as “backwards”; at one point Roberts even says that certain areas of pre-20th century Africa were still “in the Stone Age” — an epoch most people equate with rudimentary cultures — without explaining why he thinks that. The relations between Islamic and non-Islamic cultures are presented solely in terms of us vs. them, not even mentioning any peace accords, however temporary they were.
The reason I’m ranting about all this is that I simply wish the book had been titled History of the World, According To European Males. But it’s not as if you have to be a woman to write about how history affected women, and how women affected history. Or to realize that women live history just as men do. And the broad scope of covering world history is distressingly inaccurate here. Yes, there are chapters on the development of China, Japan, ancient Egypt, and several other non-European areas. But they are scattered amongst chapter after chapter touting the opinion that European history is what defined history for the rest of the world.
I was lucky enough to go to a school that focused each year on one area of history: third grade was Native American history, fourth grade was black history, fifth grade was medieval European and Arabic history, sixth grade was immigration to America, and seventh grade was modern Africa. I mention this because it makes me think that it’s not that difficult a task to view history lessons as inclusive rather than exclusive. If someone plans to write (and publish) a book on history from a certain point of reference that does not encompass the world, and particularly the women in it, that’s all well and good. But just don’t try to convince me that its scope is as broad as the history of the world.