New history book highlights connections between cultures

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- The year was 1300. The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan ruled one-quarter of the world, imposing a masterful system of government and taxation over a giant empire conquered by his grandfather Genghis Kahn.

Cultures mixed and clashed. Global trade began and disease spread. The bubonic plague, transported through the Mongol empire from Asia, was about to wreak havoc across the Eurasian landmass.

From left, Robert Tignor, Gyan Prakesh and Jeremy Adelman were part of a group of seven current or former members of the Princeton history department who worked for five years to write a history of the modern world. The textbook, to be released this spring, is unique in both its time frame and its attention to integrating all regions of the world into a unified narrative.


This is the opening scene of "Worlds Together, Worlds Apart," a forthcoming history of the modern world written by Princeton historians. The book, the result of five years of intensive work by seven scholars, breaks from the conventional approach of world history texts in both its starting place and overall organization.

While modern histories typically start in 1492 with Columbus' discovery of the New World, the Princeton volume uses the story of the Mongol empire to set the stage for a narrative that is less centered on Europe.

"It's still a Eurasian story, but a Eurasian story with a very different twist," said Robert Tignor, chair of the history department and the leader of the collaboration. "We start out by showing that the dynamism was coming from the East and pushing westward, rather than the other way around. I think it shakes the students up a little to see that."

The opening story also introduces the book's major theme, which shows that modern history has been characterized by a growing number of connections between cultures, governments and regions, but that these links have often spurred great upheaval.

"Our volume seeks to point out that globalization is a varied story, in which there are certain groups that are benefited by it and working for it and there are other groups that are feeling less attracted to it and wish to alter or opt out of the global arrangements," said Tignor.

Although the authors did not anticipate the current world events when they began the project, their theme of connections and clashes turned out to be highly relevant to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The text had already been finished but the authors went back and added a brief mention of the attacks, placing them in the context of Islamic fundamentalism that grew, to a large extent, out of a reaction to globalization.

What the authors did know five years ago was that no book seemed to present a thoroughly integrated and balanced view of world history. The project grew out of an undergraduate course called "The World and the West," in which Tignor and colleague Gyan Prakash surveyed major developments in the world from 1500 to the present. The two struggled to synthesize five centuries of history into a coherent story and decided that if they wanted a better text they would need to create their own.

Tignor and Prakash organized a yearlong series of monthly dinners with Princeton colleagues Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Kotkin, Stephen Aron (now at the University of California at Los Angeles), Suzanne Marchand (now at Louisiana State University), Michael Tsin (now at the University of Florida), Natalie Davis and Elizabeth Lunbeck. Although Davis and Lunbeck withdrew because of other commitments, the other seven pressed on and worked out a plan for the book.


It was not an easy feat. In the preface, the authors note that their initial meetings involved "intensive and sometimes contentious discussions." The authors knew from the start that they wanted to tell the story in a unified chronology that avoided the tendency to divide the world into regions with their own timelines. Immediately, however, questions arose about what to leave out and what to emphasize and even what words to use.

Tignor recalled one debate in particular over the word "integration." It seemed to describe the effect of many world events, such as the nearly ubiquitous adoption of silver as a standard of currency in the 17th and early 18th centuries. However, it also carried what some authors thought was an inappropriately positive connotation that glossed over negative effects that such connections brought to many people, such as those whose civilizations were raided for silver and those who were forced to mine it.

"It has a real history in the American vocabulary of being quite a positive term, not value-free and neutral," said Tignor. "We pretty well banished the word from the book."

The word integration with all its positive connotations could, however, be applied to the book itself. The authors did not simply contribute chapters related to their geographical region of expertise. Rather, each author contributed to every chapter, making it a truly collaborative effort throughout.

"Every one of us had an interest in the connections between the region that we were supposed to know well and the larger story," Tignor said.

As a result, each author was forced to broaden his or her perspective and learn more about other areas. "It was a wonderful learning experience," said Tignor, "and I think it benefits all of us in the individual teaching that we do."

The book, published by W.W. Norton & Co., is due to be released this winter. For more information, visit <>.


February 4, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 14
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