The Dictionary of Global Culture
edited by Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Knopf. 717 pp. $35.00

Our culture, Western culture, is one of the few that have ever reached out to know the best of others. Marco Polo went to Beijing; Kublai Khan did not come to Venice. The eponymous hero of John P. Marquand's novel, The Late George Apley, collected Han bronzes; his opposite numbers in Shanghai did not collect scrimshaw. They would have agreed with the Chinese emperor who rejected a trade pact with Britain, saying, “We have all we need.” What we miscall Western culture is in fact the most diverse culture in the world, drawing from societies as different as Homeric Greece, contemporary America, and Anglo-Saxon England.

Now comes The Dictionary of Global Culture, with a first printing of 50,000 copies. The editors, both of whom teach Afro-American studies at Harvard, apparently see Western culture differently—as a monolithic, self-referential construction which is only now beginning to realize that other peoples have culture, too. They intend to further our education by putting “some of the achievements of Western culture alongside those of many other cultures and traditions.”

The Dictionary thus parades as something new under the sun, a departure from traditional, “Eurocentric” reference works. To test this hypothesis, I went browsing in that quintessential monument of Western culture, the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1910-11). My survey, limited to material from outside North America and Europe that would have been current by the turn of the century, yielded an altogether predictable result: almost all of the discoveries revealed in the Dictionary are already in the Britannica.

So what we have before us is, at best, a concise redaction of existing reference works. How well is it done?

Toward third-world culture, the general approach seems scholarly in intent and execution, but the selection procedures are frequently tendentious, or weird. Thus, although African leaders like Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda are present, and are even treated with some severity for their anti-democratic policies, other and worse leaders—notably Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa—are inexplicably absent. The effect is not only to suppress information about black dictators as vicious and corrupt as any white ones, but to deprive the reader of material illustrative of ethnic tensions and cultural conflict in present-day Africa. But these flaws are minor compared with the book's treatment of Western culture.

First, the coverage is, to use no stronger term, selective. Among those absent, as a ten minutes' ramble through the Dictionary finds, are the following: Racine, Boccaccio, Dumas père and fils, Walter Scott, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Dryd;en, Spenser, Thackeray, Horace, Cicero, Catullus, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Purcell, Reynolds, Tiepolo, Piranesi, Watteau, Winslow Homer, Kepler, Thomas Hardy, Lewis Carroll, Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, and oh, yes, both Mark Twain and Samuel L. Clemens.

Next, such dead white males who have made it in are treated with pervasive incompetence: the historical howlers in The Dictionary of Global Culture would fill a small volume in themselves. We are told, for example, that Abraham Lincoln “received his law degree in 1836,” though Lincoln probably never even saw the outside of a law school, much less the inside of one, having instead been licensed to practice on the basis of self-study. In an article on the French Revolution we learn that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette went to the guillotine on January 21, 1793—true for the king but not for his queen, who mounted the scaffold on October 16, after (and this is not trivial) months of political and judicial deterioration in France. Magna Carta, we are laughably informed, is known as the Great Charter “because of its massive size,” and had its origin in “a document drafted by English landlords”—no doubt in search of rents due. Chaucer's Legend of Good Women is misnamed The Legend of the Good Woman (from Sichuan?), and his Troilus and Criseyde, improved to The Loves of Troilus and Criseyde (perhaps in anticipation of the Harlequin edition), is said to be “considered one of the great love poems of the English language,” a characterization that would not survive the quickest skimming of this complex novel in verse. Incidentally, the author of this last bit of rigamarole supplies a precise date for each of Chaucer's works, as if they had been published in the modern fashion (the earliest manuscripts, none of which is precisely datable, postdate Chaucer's death), and for good measure we are told first that Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales about 1387 and then, three lines down, that the work is dated “c. 1478.”


But the myriad errors that disfigure The Dictionary of Global Culture reflect something more serious than sloppy editing; they reflect a truly alarming incomprehension. It is as if a small corps of uneducated undergraduates had been set to work reading other reference books and had then rendered in amateurish prose their imperfect grasp of the information gleaned thereby. But neither carelessness nor incomprehension exhausts the matter. Although there is no entry for “political correctness,” the phenomenon is richly illustrated here. Occasionally this is good for a chuckle—as when Sophocles is said to have been “born . . . to a wealthy arms manufacturer.” More often, it is simply tiresome.

Thus, the Dictionary bravely rescues Rudyard Kipling from the charge of having been “the bard of the British empire,” but it does so only to recruit him for a better cause:

Although frequently dismissed as a vulgar imperialist, Kipling's work has recently received attention for its innovative use of popular forms, its exposure of the grim realities of working-class life, and its critique of Britain's ruling classes.

Evidently, in this view of culture, poetry is to be read only for its politics, while poetic form is worth considering only as it relates to class: Kipling gets a pat on the head for his proletarian prosody. (There is also the inevitable mistake: according to the Dictionary, “Kipling urged U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1899 ‘to take up the white man's burden,’ ” but T.R. did not become President until September 1901.)


Most of the faults of this work can be seen in the entry on the 17th-century Metaphysical poet John Donne.

Errors of fact: although both of Donne's parents were Catholics, we are confidently informed that he was raised in his mother's Catholic faith. The surname of Donne's patron, Sir Thomas Egerton, is misspelled “Edgerton,” and he is referred to ignorantly as “Sir Edgerton.” Though Donne was an Anglican by the time he was thirty, here he is not permitted to renounce his Catholicism until the age of forty-three, when he “took his vows with the Church of England, making possible a career as a member of the clergy”; in fact, ordination as a priest was something Donne put off for many years after his rejection of Catholicism.

Political correctness: victimhood is celebrated by an enumeration of the oppressions suffered by Donne and his family on account of their Catholicism. On the plus side, Donne's early poems are said to exhibit a “coarseness slightly subversive of Elizabethan convention.” “Subversive,” in the vocabulary of the global culture, is always a Good Thing.

Otherwise, the entry on Donne is a desert. There is no mention whatsoever of his importance as a preacher and prose stylist, and the only information given on him as a poet is that (in addition to his “slightly subversive” coarseness) he was “mildly bawdy.” Of his remarkable originality and extraordinary, wrenching, power of language, nothing. Of his pervasive influence on the poets of his own time, nothing. One of the greatest poets of Western and, yes, global culture is thus reduced to a dead white male, raised up from the ruck only because he was (early on) a victim, and perhaps because of that mildly subversive bawdiness.

In the light of all this, it may seem petty to complain that the Dictionary has next to no cross-references; or that Chinese transliteration wobbles mystifyingly between pinyin and Wade-Giles; or that the entries are unnecessarily and almost universally verbose; or that the editors seem to have no consistent view of their audience. Sometimes, indeed, they appear to assume their readers are from Mars, as when a tangential reference to Shakespeare glosses him as an English playwright, or Freud is explained as an Austrian psychologist. But at other times they write for adepts, as in the article on “punk,” dense with pedantry (“American art bands, like Cleveland's Père Ubu, took their dissonant cues from jack-of-all-trades Captain Beefheart,” etc.). Occasionally they seem not merely ignorant but deficient in short-term memory: an entry pegs Beethoven as a German in one paragraph, an Austrian in the next.

What can explain this incredibly shoddy performance, emanating from two distinguished professors at a distinguished university and midwifed by a once-fastidious publisher? “None of the entries is signed,” the editors remind us. “Even when an outside editor penned the piece, we have felt free to edit and to alter it.”

This is tantamount to saying that The Dictionary of Global Culture has subordinated accuracy to other goals. It would have been interesting had the editors seen fit to disclose them. The ones that come to mind are political correctness, making a buck, and not working all that hard.


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