Journal of World History 15.1 (2004) 91-92
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1688: A Global History. By John E. Wills Jr. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Pp. xii + 330. $27.95 (cloth).
Professional scholars study world history in many different ways. William H. McNeill has written an incredible array of books based on the assumption that contacts and collisions between previously separated peoples have operated historically as the mainsprings of human inventiveness. Philip D. Curtin has demonstrated the value of tracing a particular topic such as cross-cultural trade over extended periods of time. Alfred W. Crosby has relied heavily on ecological approaches, Andre Gunder Frank on world-system theory, and Theda Skocpol on the comparative method. Two recent volumes, one by Clive Ponting, the other edited by Richard W. Bulliet, have treated twentieth-century world history in terms of major themes. We also have globally oriented textbooks that present human history from a variety of artfully conceived perspectives, notably "traditions and encounters," "technology and the environment," and "common ventures."
Efforts to capture the whole of the human experience—or at least substantial portions of it—at a seminal point in time have provided yet another rewarding means of practicing the craft of world history. In the last several years two substantial endeavors of this kind have appeared in English: first, Olivier Bernier's highly readable The World in 1800 (Wiley, 2000) and now a stimulating book by JohnWills.Whereas Bernier, an art historian, is somewhat more Eurocentric and conventional in his interpretations, Wills, an East Asian specialist, adopts a more original and genuinely global approach. Bernier focuses on a pivotal moment when the French and Industrial revolutions had just begun to transform the world in which we live, while Wills concentrates on the late seventeenth century, properly emphasizing Europe's rapidly growing presence throughout the planet.
Wills writes unusually well—often elegantly—and demonstrates an impressive erudition from start to finish. He does not set forth an analytical framework within which global history can be interpreted, nor does he provide answers to a particular set of historical questions. But he skillfully weaves together many disparate stories that collectively convey a sense of humankind's amazing diversity. He succeeds by emphasizing comparable changes—those associated with commercial development, for example—that occurred simultaneously in various localities as well as the connections that linked distant regions in and around the year 1688. Wills takes us to places as familiar as the court [End Page 91] of the Sun King and as exotic as the Australia of the Aborigines, the societies of the West African coast, and the mines of Potosi.
Among the more conventional topics, Wills's handling of Istanbul and the Ottoman controlled Balkans is especially insightful, primarily with regard to the problem of frontier defense. It is his unique choices, however, that reveal the true strengths of this book. Over and over again, he is able in a series of strikingly brief passages to establish the significance of apparently obscure subjects, indicating how and why they were "remarkably important and effective pieces of the world of 1688" (p. 289). One representative story illustrates this capacity with admirable effectiveness. In less than four pages, Wills introduces his reader to the Chinese poet and painter Shitao, a descendant of a princely line related to the Ming dynasty who spent his adulthood struggling to live under the rule of the Qing. A writer about painting whose own works reflected enormous stylistic range, Shitao saw the source of all styles "in a primordial, undivided One Stroke." In Shitao's paintings and in his ideas, Wills finds sufficient resources to comprehend the over-arching realities of the late seventeenth century. "The historian seeking to sketch a world," Wills observes, "tries not to be confined to any style, any set of questions but to follow hunches, to let one thing lead to another. Like Shitao letting the One Stroke appear in many forms, he hopes to avoid system, reflecting the unconfineable variety, splendor, and strangeness of the human condition" (p. 112). In 1688: A Global History...