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Book Review


Wolf, Ken. Personalities & Problems: Interpretative Essays in World Civilizations, 3rd edition. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005). 208 pp, $35.90.

     In this collection of original essays, which covers the time span from the 1400s until today, Ken Wolfe, a professor at Murray State University, creates fourteen unique comparisons ranging from Prince Henry and Zheng He to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. He discusses people in history who are "presented to you in relation to a particular issue or issues that they had to face or that their careers raise for us—as thoughtful citizens of an increasingly interdependent world." (xiii) Assuming no previous background, each chapter focuses on an economic, social, political, or religious problem of a particular time. "Each personality is also paired with a contemporary who faced a similar problem or issue, either in the same civilization or country or in another one." (xiii) 1
     Wolf compares twenty-eight different people. Twelve are political rulers or leaders. When the reader first thinks about these pairings, one may think that the two individuals being compared have more differences than similarities. Yet Wolf masterfully shows many similarities even while the outcomes may be different. One of the more interesting comparisons is between Juma Chimwere of Mali and Alvin York of the United States. Both were war heroes in their respective countries in World War I. What could two such disparate individuals share in common? As Wolf points out in making his argument about the impact of the First World War: 2

The changes brought by the World War I to Nyasaland were less immediately dramatic than those brought to the United States by its involvement in the war, yet the social and military skills acquired by Chimwere and others would later allow men like him to govern their country after Malawi became independent of British rule in 1964. In this environment Alvin York's heroism made him the symbol of an earlier world that was (or seemed) less complicated. Chimwere was respected because he had found a way to be part of both an older, traditional world and the newer, more complicated one brought by the British. Such are the issues the Great War raised for people as different as these two men and their two countries. (122)

     Students will be familiar with most of the people discussed such as Prince Henry the Navigator, Galileo Galilei, Otto von Bismarck, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Martin Luther King. They will also be exposed to somewhat lesser-known figures such as the Marquis of Condorcet, Juma Chimwere, Alvin York, and Edward Teller among others 4
     Each chapter begins with a blurb outlining the question or issue around which historical figures will be compared. For example, in discussing Eva Peron and Golda Meir, he entitles his chapter "Eva Peron and Golda Meir: Helping the Dispossessed—Two Models." The blurb reads: 5
      Each chapter begins with a blurb outlining the question or issue around which historical figures will be compared. For example, in discussing Eva Peron and Golda Meir, he entitles his chapter "Eva Peron and Golda Meir: Helping the Dispossessed—Two Models." The blurb reads: 6

How did the personalities of two leaders affect the way they chose to help the dispossessed in their two very different cultures? Is power best exercised in formal or informal ways? (143)

      After comparing the two individuals in ten to fifteen pages, a chapter concludes with footnotes and further reading suggestions. 8
      I have only one minor quibble. I would suggest that the author update the "Further Reading" sections. For example, there are more up-to-date biographies of Prince Henry published since 1947. The author cites Sanceau's Henry the Navigator: The story of a Great Prince and his Times. I would suggest looking also at Peter Russell's recent Prince Henry "The Navigator": A Life published in 2000. In addition, Simon Sebag Montifiore's wonderful Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2004) would be very useful for the chapter pertaining to Stalin. 9
      This little book is ideal for the second half of a world history survey course or in the second half of a western civilization course. Anyone who uses a cross-cultural approach in his or her survey course should consider this book. It also allows for class discussion after a lecture on a particular time or issue. For a western civilization course, it would provide a nice corrective to the usual Eurocentric focus of western civilization courses even if some of the coverage such as Xangai, Ito, and Mandela may be outside the scope of the course. As homework assignments, these short, student-friendly chapters could reinforce a lecture point or be used as preparation for class discussion. 10
      It should also be noted that the author also has a first volume. Equally as engaging and student-oriented, this first volume can be a great supplement in the first half of a world history or western civilization course. 11
Sanjeev Rao
Monmouth University

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