‘The World’ Review: History Branched Out

From The Wall Street Journal:

You know you are in for quite a ride when an enormous tome of world history begins: “I am Enheduanna, let me speak to you!” An Akkadian high priestess of the moon god Nanna from the third millennium B.C., Enheduanna had been seized by raiders, likely raped, and then miraculously saved and restored to power. According to Simon Sebag Montefiore, Enheduanna was “the first woman whose words we can hear, the first named author, male or female, the first victim of sexual abuse who wrote about her experiences.”

This is not the history you learned in school.

The World” tells the story of humanity through families, be they large or small, powerful or weak, rich or poor. It is a book for people who want to read about people. There’s little attention paid to impersonal forces. Readers interested in isms—feudalism, imperialism, capitalism, etc.—won’t find these subjects explicitly discussed in this book. Rather, the author addresses the faceless structures of human existence by writing about who advocated for and implemented them, and who benefited from or suffered under them. “The World” pulsates with the hundreds of human stories Mr. Montefiore brings to life in vivid, convincing fashion. Enheduanna has about a page dedicated to her life; other individuals have a bit more; some, a single paragraph. This is history as collective biography, a journey across almost two million years, from the appearance of Homo erectus in east Africa to the rise of Xi Jinping’s China.

Mr. Montefiore has been working up to this ambitious project over his career, from biographies of Prince Grigory Potemkin and Stalin, to a fine study of the Romanov dynasty, to a 3,000-year history of Jerusalem. That book was aptly subtitled “a biography” of the city, for Mr. Montefiore is a biographer at heart. Combining literary flair with keen insight into human psychology, he can evoke a person with a few choice words—“porcine tyrant,” his description of Belarus’s current leader, Alexander Lukashenko, nails its subject.

Among the many strengths of “The World” is its truly global perspective. This is an unabashedly multicultural history that refuses to privilege any particular perspective, be it geographic, cultural or ethnic. Africa warrants as much consideration as Europe, Asia as the Americas. Nor does the book forsake the lives of the common folk for kings and queens, tycoons and presidents. The focus on families allows for light to shine on women, children and others often ignored in our master narratives. In a tactic typical of his original approach, the author opts not to tell the familiar story of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, but instead focuses on Sally’s mother, Betty, a child of rape with a white father, a certain Capt. Hemings, who later tried to buy her and once tried to kidnap her.

. . . .

For the very powerful, family has often meant dynasty. For many others, it has meant intimacy, care and love. But enslaved persons, throughout human history, have been denied such essential goods. “Slavery shattered families,” Mr. Montefiore writes, “it was an anti-family institution.” Where enslaved families did exist, in Roman households or Islamic harems, for example, they “encompassed coercion without choice, and often outright rape.” His account in “The World” pays significant attention to such injustices and acknowledges the victims of the past. Mr. Montefiore tells us that among the first names ever recorded in writing were the enslaved persons En-pap X and Sukkalgir in Uruk roughly five thousand years ago.

At the same time, history shows that, along with being nests of succor, families can be “webs of struggle and cruelty.” The Chinese statesman Han Fei Tzu warned the monarch in the third century B.C., “Calamity will come to you from those you love.” This truth recognizes no constraints of class, power or wealth.

The relentless chronological march of Mr. Montefiore’s book is leavened, and given an aspect of suspense, by his habit of picking up the family stories of significant individuals long before they take center stage. The Kennedys are introduced through patriarch Joseph Kennedy, swanning about in 1920s Hollywood and cashing out before the crash. Barack Obama’s story begins with his father, a Kenyan economics student whose political patron, Tom Mboya, had met Sen. John F. Kennedy at Hyannisport, Mass., and made the case for foreign scholarships. “Mboya chose Obama, who left for Hawaii; Kennedy won the presidential election.” Donald Trump has long been “the personification of American illusion,” Mr. Montefiore remarks: a “bombastic bazooka of complex inferiority.” But he begins keeping an eye on the “quintessential American story” of the Trump family as far back as the 1880s.

The author is equally on target with his account of Vladimir Putin. He highlights Mr. Putin’s rapid transformation from an awkward, clumsy leader into a murderous authoritarian, notorious for his “gangsterish swagger.” Mr. Montefiore rightly rejects the argument that the West and NATO are to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If the war amounts to a needless tragedy, it is not unexpected. After all, such acts of mass violence are nothing new. After decades of peace, as he puts, “normal disorder has been resumed.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “‘The World’ Review: History Branched Out”

  1. “This is an unabashedly multicultural history that refuses to privilege any particular perspective…” – that’s B.S., the history privileges the author’s Western perspective. It doesn’t sound like he really tried to get into the very different culture and perspective of, say, Putin’s Russia. The book would be more balanced if he let the subjects talk in their own words, instead of given his privileged judgments.

    It also sounds like a tenuously connected encyclopedia of biographical sketches that won’t lead to a deep historical understanding of any time or place.

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