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Reviewed by:
  • Essays on Twentieth-Century History
  • Kenneth L. Shonk Jr.
Essays on Twentieth-Century History. Edited by Michael Adas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. 350 pp. $81.50 (cloth); $37.95 (paper); $36.95 (e-book).

Intended to serve as a corrective of the dearth of general texts on the twentieth-century world, Essays on Twentieth-Century History takes bold steps in attempting to construct a new narrative on this era. This collection of essays is part of a larger attempt to overturn the problematic periodization of the twentieth century that—at least in the schema of the global narrative—tends to serve as a coda to the nineteenth century. Alternatively, the authors of the essays in this collection highlight the major trends and developments endemic to the twentieth century. This includes transformations in global conceptions of gender and sexuality, human rights, law, and urbanization endemic to the twentieth century, thereby necessitating this particular approach.

While many of the essays more than adequately serve the editor's aims, three contributions best exemplify this particular goal. The first is Howard Spodek's essay on the changing nature of the global urban paradigm. Written with an anticipation of twenty-first-century developments, Spodek notes the changing manner in which cities have developed. Whereas at the beginning of the century, cities emerged as centers of commerce and wealth, urban centers developed later as the result of a decrease in rural labor. Further, Spodek argues that the development of urban centers in the "Third World" is akin to [End Page 454] the radical changes of the foundation of village life, the formation of cities, and the creation of industrialized cities. Following the end of the Second World War, and the decline of European colonization, urbanities were less regulated by the mandates of the American and European hegemons, and have thus began to develop as unique "systems," arising "anew on the strength of the resurgent world economy, the new information technology, and dramatic changes in global politics" (p. 73). Through these new global networks, Spodek argues, the urban paradigm has become more nebulous and less bound by the nation-state.

In terms of periodization and the role of the twentieth century within the global narrative, Carl J. Guarneri's essay, "Locating the United States in Twentieth-Century World History," does much to challenge the propensity of historians to view the century in terms of national narratives. While his conclusions are more relevant to the teaching and framing of the United States within the field, Guarneri's work makes a convincing argument for a thematic or at least transnational approach to teaching American history within the global framework. Such an approach undermines the exceptionalist or triumphalist rhetoric associated with the nationalist narrative of American history, as well as the notion that the United States largely followed European precedents formulated in the long nineteenth century. Rather than situating America as the inheritors of this tradition, Guarneri offers novel approaches to the teaching and understanding of American history that position the United States as a central character in an exchange of goods, ideologies, and technologies. "An enlarged U.S. history," Guarneri argues, better represents "how American history has embodied the fact of human connectedness" (p. 261).

Most successful in supporting the argument for a long twentieth century is Jean H. Quataert's essay on the gendering of human rights in the twentieth century. Quataert argues that the development of a global human rights discourse was not the result of a rebirth of Enlightenment-era concepts of humanity, but rather a development endemic to the new globalized nature of the twentieth century in which cause belle was not individual rights, but human rights. In describing the issue of women's rights, Quataert examines how organizations of women "turned a gender-specific issue into a matter of grave international urgency" (p. 129). Additionally, the formation of multinational human rights organizations underscored the transnational scale of human interconnectedness, as human rights became the basis of a global dialogue on such things as human trafficking, prostitution, and various health concerns. The result was the creation of a new, globally "shared [End Page 455] language of rights" (p. 153), that developed in...


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