WillyLogan.com

Technology, History, and Travel

Front facade of Teen Murti Bhawan, New Delhi.

A tryst with research

When he served as the first Prime Minister of independent India from 1947 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru lived in Teen Murti Bhawan in New Delhi, a palatial residence originally built for the British Commander in Chief of India. Teen Murti Bhawan sits on a large landscaped plot due south of the president’s palace (Rashtrapati Bhawan), formerly the Viceroy’s House. A long circular drive leads from the compound gate to Teen Murti house itself. Behind the house is a formal garden planted with rose bushes. After Nehru’s death, the house was preserved as a memorial to the man and his times, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Schoolchildren flock to the free museum, tramping through the big house’s empty corridors and taking in a show in Hindi or English at the planetarium on the grounds (built after Nehru’s death).

Behind and to the east of the house, tucked in among the trees, is a remarkable research institution, the library of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. Housed in a modern concrete building with dark wood paneling on the interior, the Nehru Library has an elite air, fitting for a place established in memory of wealthy, England-educated Nehru. The regular collection of the library is focused on modern India, and the Nehru Library is without a doubt one of the best places in India to study the late colonial and independence periods. In the back of the library, reached by its own stairway, there is also a small reading room for the library’s archival division, which is supposed to hold the world’s largest collection of manuscripts related to modern India.

The lobby of the library sometimes hosts public exhibitions, but the main stacks are only open to serious researchers, who have to apply for a membership and pay a nominal fee. (When I did some research for my dissertation at NMML two years ago, I paid Rs. 300 for a two-month membership. There are also options of a one-week membership for Rs. 100 and six months for Rs. 500.) Getting permission to access the archives requires its own application, with a letter of introduction from the researcher’s home institution and a form from the researcher’s diplomatic mission in India (for international scholars; I used a photocopy of a form I got for the National Archives of India).

The Nehru Library has open stacks, which is a rare treat in specialized research libraries. The archives, of course, are not open, and the holdings can only be accessed by filling out a request slip. Not all of the archival records are accessible even to legitimate scholars. The papers of Jawaharlal Nehru are only open to 1947. Nehru’s papers from his tenure as Prime Minister are off-limits because they are still classified. (The Indian government’s policy for declassification is not transparent. Even though Nehru has been dead for more than fifty years, his papers are kept out of public view because they theoretically still hold state secrets.) But scholars of modern India need not despair, because the papers of many other post-independence leaders are accessible.

When I did my research at NMML, I ran into two challenges that made my work there harder than I expected it to be. The first was just getting there. Teen Murti Bhawan is located in the sprawling neighborhoods of colonial bungalows on the south side of Rajpath in New Delhi, an area that is poorly served by the city’s metro. I rode the 604 or 620 city buses from Sansad Marg (still sometimes called by its English name Parliament Street) to Teen Murti Circle, but the street was frequently blocked by sit-down protests staged by one or another disaffected part of the population. When that happened, the bus would be routed down a different street, and I never did figure out where.

The other challenge was a result of my not understanding how government business works in India. The National Archives of India is closed for only a few holidays every year: Republic Day (January 26), Independence Day (August 15), Gandhi Jayanti (October 2), and the lunar festivals of Holi (February or March) and Diwali (October or November). NMML and most other offices are also closed on India’s many regular gazetted holidays, which are posted online on the official government calendar, but are not posted anywhere in the building itself. This was at least the case two years ago. I kept making the long trek to Teen Murti Bhawan only to find that the library was closed for a religious holiday celebrated by one of the minority communities. One day, the library was dark and empty for Mahavir Jayanti (Jainism), and the next it was closed for Good Friday (Christianity). If I had known to check for gazetted holidays, I could have planned accordingly and used my time better.

These challenges aside, researching at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library was a rewarding experience. The private papers I read at NMML provided a human counterpoint to the formal, technical documents I found at the National Archives. The landscaped setting of Teen Murti Bhawan was a refreshing place to research. When I needed a break from manuscripts, I could go walking outside. I enjoyed spending a few weeks at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library while researching my dissertation, and I hope I get the chance to return there for a future project.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The Little Big History

What stories matter in history? If you had posed this question to a historian in the United States or Europe a hundred years ago, he probably would have told you in a roundabout way that only the experiences of white men mattered—more specifically, powerful white men. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost to a man (and they were all men), only studied the lives of kings, prime ministers, presidents, senators, and generals; or great artists, great thinkers, great industrialists, and great inventors. These historians didn’t pay any attention to the common man and woman, because these people simply didn’t matter in their worldview.

This sort of thinking about history seems silly and old-fashioned now, as well it should. All people are a part of history, not just the white and powerful, and their stories deserve to be told too. One outcome of this contemporary understanding of history is a profusion of books, movies, and museums about minority experiences—for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Chinese in America, Roots, and Hidden Figures. Another outcome is the rise in popularity of genealogical or family history research. If all people’s experiences are a part of history, then one’s ancestors are a legitimate subject of research, even if they were not powerful or influential.

Even though they are studying the past, family history buffs don’t really have the same objectives as historians. The job of a historian is to ask questions about the past—not only what happened, but why. (“History” comes from a Greek word meaning inquiry. The discipline of history is not, and has never been, just about facts.) Historians need to make connections from event to event, to understand why something was important. For family history researchers, significance is a given: this person is my ancestor, therefore he or she is important. Because family history isn’t exactly history as historians understand it, I prefer to use the term family heritage instead.

There is a genre of historical writing that discusses people who may not have been important in their own time, but their experiences can be used to draw broader lessons about the period in which they lived. This is known as microhistory. When written well, microhistories can be good reads that teach you about much more than the small event that is their main subject matter. (That not all microhistories are this well-written is not a valid reason for condemning the genre as a whole, as some of my classmates did in grad school.)

One excellent microhistory is Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The author takes a well-known but little-understood folk song and uses it to discuss convict labor and industrialization in the post-Civil War American South. The results of archival research are interspersed with accounts of the author’s travels to the places where John Henry lived, worked, and died. I have read more books about convict labor than I would care to count, but this is the only one I keep thinking about long after I read it.

Another great microhistory wasn’t even written by a historian, and it is on its face a creative nonfiction biography. But Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about more than just one man’s sensational life story. Hillenbrand uses Louis Zamperini’s experience of capture and imprisonment by the Japanese to illustrate the experiences of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater.

Can family heritage buffs learn something from the microhistory genre? I hope they can. If I were not a member of my own family, I wouldn’t care about the stories of, say, my Austrian immigrant ancestors who settled in Colorado a hundred years ago. But I would be interested to know how their experiences of migration, acculturation, and ultimately assimilation reflected broader trends in the lives of European immigrants in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century.

(Header picture: B-24 Liberator bomber in flight over Montgomery, AL. USAF photo from Wikipedia.)

Alabama State Capitol

Good Bye Wallace!

Fifty years ago, every American who paid any attention to the news was familiar with George Wallace, four-term governor of Alabama and perennial presidential candidate. To many people who lived outside of Alabama—and especially outside the South—Wallace was a reactionary and antagonist, the stereotype of the race-baiting Southern Democrat and white supremacist. Baby Boomers like my parents remember Wallace’s calling for “segregation forever” in his inauguration speech in 1963, and then making a show of bodily blocking a doorway to oppose the desegregation of the University of Alabama. It was during Wallace’s first term as governor that vigilantes and law enforcement intimidated, beat up, and even killed civil rights activists. The villainous image of Wallace was passed down to later generations by that great repository of Boomer nostalgia, the 1994 film Forrest Gump, which features a scene set at the University of Alabama during Wallace’s desegregation protest.

As I found when I moved to Alabama for graduate school six years ago, Alabamians have more positive memories of George Wallace. He is not a villain but an influential, if flawed, leader. In his later terms as governor, Wallace reversed his stance on segregation and voting rights, and ultimately welcomed racial minorities into his administration. In 1972, while running for president, he was shot by a would-be assassin. The attack left him paralyzed below the waist. Popular memories of Wallace usually identify this attempt on his life as the Damascus Road experience that led to the reversal of his views on race.

It may be that Wallace had a real change of heart, but it is also true that he was, to his core, a politician who always knew what would appeal to voters. His first bid for the governorship, in 1958, ended in defeat when his integrationist platform was a flop with Alabama’s overwhelmingly white electorate. Between this defeat and his first victory four years later, Wallace reinvented himself as a segregationist, the image that would define him for so many Americans outside Alabama. By 1972, Alabama’s African Americans had been enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act, and Wallace needed black votes to stay in office. An accurate image of Wallace is neither a racist, nor a man who (like Darth Vader?) became good in the end. Rather, he was a cunning politician and a populist, who played to the fears of voters.

Six years ago, George Wallace’s name and image were everywhere in Alabama. Wallace’s likeness stared out from plaques at rest areas on Interstate 85, which was constructed during his tenure as governor. On the campus of Auburn University, where I studied, several of the prominent buildings were built in the Wallace era. On my way to assist for history classes in Haley Center each day, I walked by a plaque with the name Lurleen Wallace, George’s wife who won election handily in 1966 when he was forbidden by state law from running for a second consecutive term. I occasionally went to the architecture library in Dudley Hall, which had a plaque of George Wallace himself.

The rotunda of the state capitol has spaces for four portraits of governors. In 2011, I was surprised to find that only two of the spots were occupied by recent governors; the other two featured George and Lurleen Wallace. The capitol tourguide claimed that these paintings were on permanent display because George was Alabama’s longest-serving governor, and Lurleen was the state’s first “lady governor.” To me, this seemed like a rationalization, the real reason being the state’s Wallace cult.

Two years after moving away from Alabama, I recently returned to attend commencement, and I used the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the state. I was surprised to find that George Wallace was much less visible in 2016 than he had been earlier. The plaque at the Alabama Welcome Center on I-85 was hidden behind a brochure rack and a Christmas tree. The portraits in the rotunda of the state capitol were gone, having been replaced by more recent governors. At Auburn, Lurleen’s plaque on Haley Center was still in place, but George’s plaque on Dudley Hall had disappeared entirely. The building was recently remodeled, and the plaque didn’t survive the renovation.

The ghost of George Wallace has finally been served its eviction papers. Good riddance, I say. Even though George Wallace was not the meat-headed segregationist and racist that many people remember, he did support views like this for much of his political career, and by memorializing Wallace, it seemed as if Alabama was giving tacit approval of the ugly parts of the governor’s legacy. Alabama shouldn’t forget either the good or bad things Wallace did, but he has no right to be a hero. I’m glad to see that Alabama has begun to move on from the cult of Wallace.

Links

Page 1 of 27

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén

© 2009-2017 Willy Logan All Rights Reserved

This website uses a Hackadelic PlugIn, Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5.