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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.)

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A Not-so-great Great Man History of Jaipur

Jadunath Sarkar and Raghubir Sinh (ed.), A History of Jaipur, c. 1503-1938 (1984; repr. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2009).


In the 1930s, the Maharaja of Jaipur State, Sawai Man Singh II, commissioned well-known Indian historian Jadunath Sarkar to write an official history of his state and his own ruling family, the Kacchawaha Rajputs. In undertaking this commission, Sarkar had access to the official records of Jaipur State, which had never been used by historians before. By 1940, Sarkar had finished his manuscript, but because of opposition by the nobles of Jaipur State (who generally come across negatively in the narrative), publication of the book had to be shelved indefinitely. It was not until more than forty years later, in 1984, that Sarkar’s book finally saw the light of day. By this time, the author and the commissioning Maharaja had both passed away. Sovereign Jaipur State also was no more; now it was just a district in the state of Rajasthan. Sarkar’s History of Jaipur was eventually published in a very different world than the one in which it was written.

I had been hearing about A History of Jaipur for a while when I finally got my hands on a copy recently and excitedly started reading it. My excitement did not last long, though. After the first few chapters, I had gotten thoroughly bored, and it ultimately took me more than a month to slog through the book. Had I known a little more about the context of the book and the background of its author, I would have been better prepared for the disappointment.

The most disappointing aspect of the book was that the title did not accurately reflect the contents. It isn’t A History of Jaipur; it is actually A History of the Rulers of Jaipur. Most of the book is just a dynastic history of the Kacchawaha house, from the early sixteenth century to Man Singh II. The narrative follows the Raja wherever he goes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Man Singh I, Mirza Raja Jai Singh I, and Ram Singh I served as generals in the Mughal army, often spending years away from their capitals at a stretch. Sarkar wrote in tiresome detail about all these campaigns, completely ignoring whatever might have been happening on the home front at this time. I would love to know about economic and cultural life in the Kacchawaha kingdom, but Sarkar had nothing to say about these topics.

It isn’t really surprising that Sarkar wrote a Great Man history of the Kacchawaha house, since he was commissioned to write his history by the ruler of that clan. Surely Sawai Man Singh II wanted to be portrayed as a Great Man from a long line of Great Men.

Jadunath Sarkar was best known for writing about the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707, contemporary with Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I). His magnum opus was the five-volume History of Aurangzeb (1912-24), which I now have absolutely no desire to read. As Mohammad Shah points out, Sarkar thought that (Islamic) Mughal rule in India had been oppressive, and British rule was an improvement.1 Aurangzeb comes across in Sarkar’s histories as a temple-smashing religious fanatic, emblematic of the broadly oppressive policies of the Mughal Empire.

In writing the official history of Jaipur State, Sarkar had to change his tack. The reason is that the Kacchawaha house was the first Rajput kingdom to join the Mughal Empire, when the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber married Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1562. Condemning the Mughal Empire would, in effect, condemn the Kacchawaha house, because they had willingly joined the empire through a marriage-alliance. Instead, Sarkar restricted his criticism to certain aspects of Mughal policy. Aurangzeb comes across badly in A History of Jaipur as well, but mainly because of his supposed mistreatment of Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I.

In contrast with Mughal rule, British rule in India was, in Sarkar’s eyes, a great blessing. As a princely state, Jaipur was technically sovereign. A treaty signed in 1818 surrendered responsibilities of defense and foreign relations to the British, but the Maharaja of Jaipur could theoretically do whatever he wanted within the confines of his own kingdom. In reality, the British meddled in the affairs of the princely states, posting residents in the capitals and arbitrating in succession disputes. It was in the best interests of the princes to maintain good relations with the Paramount Power (as the British rulers styled themselves). When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857, the princes stayed on the side of the British, providing essential support for the suppression of the rebellion.

The glowingly positive terms in which Sarkar describes the British read almost comically nowadays. Take, for instance, this statement about the modernizer Ram Singh II:

The dawn of the modern age in Jaipur was due to the initiative and fostering care of a number of British officers of exceptional ability and generous sympathy, and it was the good fortune of Maharajah Ram Singh II to have been trained by them at the formative stage of his life and to carry to full maturity the reforms for which they had done the spadework.2

Or this one, about Madho Singh II’s visit to England to attend the coronation of Edward VII:

The unifying force of such an Empire [the British Empire] rises above caste, creed, and locality.3

If nothing else, A History of Jaipur is a reminder that the way we interpret history can change drastically over time. No Indian alive today would prefer the British Raj over independence. This attitude can too easily be imposed onto the past, so that all Indians at all times seem to have desired independence. But many members of the privileged classes in India—including Sawai Man Singh II and Jadunath Sarkar himself—benefited from British rule. A History of Jaipur is a relic of a period that most Indians now are willing to forget.

  1. Mohammad Shah, “Jadunath Sarkar’s interpretation of Aurangzeb’s reign,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 28 (Dec. 1983): 133-41. []
  2. Sarkar, A History of Jaipur, 325-36. []
  3. Ibid., 355. []

Citizen of the cold-war galaxy

Warning! This post contains plot spoilers for Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).

I recently read the classic science fiction novel Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein. The book is an engaging space-opera tale of a young man who is a slave turned fugitive turned trader turned military recruit turned industrialist. The book is a good read, and it provided a welcome diversion from teaching and dissertation work.

As a child and teenager, I would read science fiction to learn about the future. Of course I knew that the future portrayed was imaginary, but I liked partaking of the author’s imaginings of what the future had to bring. Heinlein in Citizen of the Galaxy has plenty to say about the future, as his characters cross the galaxy on faster-than-light starships. Nowadays, though, when I read a sci-fi book, I am more interested in what it can tell me about the past. And that is why I found Citizen of the Galaxy particularly interesting.

Heinlein wrote the book in the early years of the Cold War. Even though he imagined the future, his book belongs to the period in which he wrote it, the 1950s. Here are three ways that the book reflects and responds to the world in which Heinlein was writing:

1. Planet Jubbul

The story begins on planet Jubbul, where the main character Thorby is purchased at a slave auction by Baslim the Cripple, an undercover abolitionist. To portray Jubbul, Heinlein drew on western perceptions of the East, which could either represent the Soviet bloc or nonaligned nations such as Egypt and India. The ruler of the planet is known as the Sargon, a name that Heinlein adopted from an ancient Mesopotamian emperor. The capital city of Jubbul is Jubbulpore; “-pore” is an old-fashioned transliteration of the Sanskrit suffix –pur, which means town or city (as in Jaipur, the city of Jai Singh II).1 The inhabitants of Jubbulpore practice real-life traditions that Heinlein’s American readers would have found exotic. One of these is a purdah, the seclusion of (mainly upper-class) women. (Parda is a Persian word meaning “curtain,” as women in purdah would stay behind curtains when in the presence of men who were not members of their family.)

2. Area studies in space

The next phase of Thorby’s journey is as a member of the free traders, who trade from one end of the galaxy to the other but are not subject to any government. The free traders, like the inhabitants of Jubbul, also have strange customs, but rather than letting them remain mysterious and exotic, Heinlein explains them. Most of the explaining is done by a character who is an anthropologist studying free trader culture on Thorby’s ship. The fictional anthropologist represents the factual period of area studies. After World War II, the United States began to pursue a global foreign policy, and a component of this policy was studying foreign cultures and societies so that Americans could interact with them appropriately. Funding for anthropological research spiked in the early Cold War. The anthropologist’s studying the free trader culture is a logical extension of US government-funded area studies of Asia and Africa from the early Cold War.

3. Galactic capitalism

The last act of Citizen of the Galaxy takes place on Earth, where Thorby struggles to regain the fortune that is his rightful inheritance. It turns out that Thorby’s family controls one of the galaxy’s major starship manufacturers. The industrial operation is capitalistic, and Heinlein uses the fictional company to comment on capitalism in America. The Cold War was a period of a great ideological dispute between capitalism and socialism. The United States promoted capitalism; Heinlein the narrator, true to his nation’s ideology, accepts capitalism. He does not accept it wholesale, though; he highlights its potential pitfalls. As the book ends, Thorby has just regained control of his fortune and is beginning to investigate the family business’s complicity in supplying ships to the slavers. To Heinlein, American capitalism is not value-free, either in the distant future or the 1950s. Capitalists must be held responsible for their actions, both domestically and abroad.

  1. Jubbulpore is the name of an actual city in central India, although it is now spelled Jabalpur. []

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