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Book Review


Douglas R. Egerton, Alison Games, Jane G. Landers, Kris Lane, and Donald R. Wright, The Atlantic World: A History, 1400–1888. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 2007. Pp. 530. $48.95 (cloth)


    The Atlantic World is a college-level survey text that not only engages students, but also satisfies teachers and academics by providing a history of the interconnected Atlantic that emphasizes interactions between the four continents.  This is a welcome text because it is interesting, it is consciously designed for classroom use, and it successfully moves between a broad Atlantic world scope and one so personal that it meaningfully introduces the daily life of individuals within this Atlantic world. 

     The chapter organization is a mix of chronological and thematic patterns.  Following the introductory chapter, chapters two to four proceed in a relatively sequential chronology from 1100–1650 and tell many of the traditional stories centered around 1492, but as part of an interactive Atlantic world.  For example, chapter four emphasizes the broader impact of what might appear to be a localized dynamic: "European Rivalries and Atlantic Repercussions, 1500–1650."  Chapters five through seven each focus on the period between 1500–1800 and are arranged thematically, including various laborers and labor systems, migration, settlement, and trade.  Chapter eight covers a topic that interests many students and has the broadest temporal coverage of any chapter: "Racial and Cultural Mixture in the Atlantic World, 1450–1830."  The last six chapters primarily cover the mid-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century and are organized largely by significant political events as well as ideological, technological, and social movements encompassing the Atlantic world.  For example, chapter eleven begins in 1789 and works together with chapter twelve, which ends in 1830, to demonstrate the spread of revolutions and independence movements within the interconnected Atlantic world. 

     The structure of this text is extremely practical for classroom use.  The fourteen chapters align with a typical university semester and, at thirty to forty pages per chapter, provide weekly background content while still allowing sufficient room for additional reading assignments.  For this reason, the organization of the text also provides a suitable framework for the teacher's course outline and subsequent lecture content.  The main challenge of utilizing this organization in a course is its imperfect alignment with typical course offerings.  First, few relevant courses end in 1888.  Second, many relevant courses are not Atlantic in scope, but are instead nationally (U.S. History, French History) or regionally (Latin American History, African History) bounded, or global in scope.  Yet, the value of The Atlantic World in these courses should not be overlooked.  Teachers of national or regional history courses will appreciate that the author's frequent connections to national and regional histories can help their students understand these histories as part of broader dynamics.  Teachers of world history courses will appreciate the emphasis on interconnectedness and intercontinental contact throughout.

     One of the greatest strengths of this work is its consistent demonstration of Atlantic history as not "limited to the literal points of contact."  Instead, it "seeks to explain how conditions, experiences, and events in one place shaped and were shaped by conditions, experiences, and events in another place" (1). To show this, the authors chose to highlight interactions, even if this meant sacrificing ink from the " 'greatest hits' from each region of the four continents" (4). They start by breaking away from a continent-by-continent organization, even within the chapters.  And, even the very few sections that are divided by political units or peoples still emphasize connections and similarities.  For example, although chapter one includes three sections entitled "Europeans," "Africans," and "Americans," they are preceded by a section—"Atlantic People in 1450"—in which the authors argue that unacknowledged commonalities existed between these peoples (such as trade, social hierarchies, and religion) and then critique the previous social and academic traditions that instead promoted distinctions.

     The sixty "Special Topics" sections throughout the book make great teaching "hooks" and discussion generators.  With titles such as "Atlantic Drugs and Popular Music," "Before Starbucks," "Brown Masters," and "Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson" and the accompanying images, you may soon find yourself (as many of my students have) engrossed in reading the "Special Topics" sections throughout the book.  They are just plain interesting!  I have found that students often read ahead and still remember the content after the unit is complete.  For example, the "list of items exchanged for 180 slaves in the Gambia River, 1740–41," includes 1,178 silver coins, 4,391 pounds of glass beads, 164 guns, 119 gallons of rum, 2,556 pounds of salt, 47 reams of paper, as well as textiles from both India and Manchester (194).  This one list alone can illustrate various themes: slavery, trade, commodities, and intercontinental contact.  These sections also highlight primary source documentation; they are often either based on a specific primary document (such as "In Exchange for a Slave" detailed above) or on recent interpretations of newly available sources (in the case of "Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson" this includes DNA testing).  Further, discussion of these sections, as well as of images and maps, are integral parts of the chapter prose.  The result is that the authors model historical analysis, which teachers can then invite students to participate in and emulate.

     The brief "Selected Readings" at the conclusion of each chapter are valuable, but also point to a major point of concern in the text.  On a positive note, the authors have chosen a realistic number of sources (typically fifteen to twenty-five books for each chapter) to serve as a next step for the student following a piqued interest or the scholar wanting an introduction to some significant works from the relevant historiography.  Yet, it is disappointing that the selected readings are relatively weak on historical works written in the last two decades, especially since the authors note the strength of the field during this time (3). This is particularly troubling because the authors do such an impressive job of incorporating scholarship and scholarly debates into this work in a readable and interesting manner.  They encourage analysis by direct and indirect reference to historical debates. This shows students that historical "facts" are not "set in stone," but rather that we continue to develop new interpretations as academic attention shifts and new evidence is discovered.  This, in turn, invites students to join in the on-going reinterpretation process.  Therefore, including more of the most recent scholarship in the selected readings and the text prose would help students to engage in the most current debates in the field. 

     That said, the authors have successfully achieved their intended approach, which is to emphasize both political and social history.  While political events and movements often mark chapter and section breaks, a much more personal human history permeates the pages of each chapter. This achievement is particularly impressive (and valuable) in a work of such chronological and geographical scale. Stories of everyday people not only begin each chapter, but also appear consistently throughout the chapters.  While this could become a somewhat overwhelming parade of characters, the variety of people and the details about their lives easily maintain student interest.  Moreover, this personal human history is more than a collection of interesting details; the authors successfully demonstrate how the lives of these individuals illustrate the larger arguments they are making. 

     The sense of catching glimpses into "real" people's lives from the past makes this work attractive.  It is attractive to students for its engaging readability, and to teachers and academics who want to survey the connections within a multi-continental unit over a five hundred year period while being reminded throughout that it is a history peopled by … well, people. 

Nicole Magie is a Ph.D. student of History at Michigan State University.  She was previously an adjunct instructor of History at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She can be contacted at


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