239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
116
 | 
August 4, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

The Challenges of Finding ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

THE MOST EXTENSIVE primary sources for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journey across North America in 1912 come with difficult problems. If you were to ask Mahmúd-i-Zarqání how Americans responded to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, you might always get the same answer. They were — almost every one of them — “astonished” at what they saw and heard from the Master. Mahmúd was a devoted follower on unfamiliar terrain in America, who felt the greatest reverence for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and held him in awe. In his preface he writes that he generally found himself overwhelmed by the events he saw, and in his account he ascribes such wonder to everyone.

Juliet Thompson’s ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is an otherworldly figure whose every look, every slight gesture, is imbued with a magical quality that she flourishes with her own emotions. How close was the real ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to Juliet’s perception of him? It is difficult to say.

Reverend Howard Colby Ives wrote an autobiography of his time with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called Portals to Freedom. Its pages are filled with turns of phrase that mix metaphors and burst with personal drama, yet he seems deeply sincere and his story often brings one eerily close to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The scene he paints of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wiping the tears from his eyes on April 12 at the Hotel Ansonia in New York is so moving that it’s hard not to well up with tears yourself.

Agnes Parsons wrote a nuts-and-bolts diary account of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Washington and Dublin, full of interesting details but largely free of the romantic aura that surrounds Thompson’s and Ives’s accounts. But Agnes’s social circle constrains her perspective. She hosts ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in her home and plans many of his activities, but when he attends events in Washington with African Americans, you wouldn’t know from her diary that they carried any significance.

Journalists portray ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a variety of ways. Their first impressions are sometimes shaped by Orientalist ways of thinking that cause them to see him and his retinue of Persians as strange and foreign: such is Nixola Greeley-Smith’s article in the New York World on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s second day in America. But very quickly these reporters see something new in this visitor that upsets their preconceptions: a man who turns out to be more modern, aware, and active than they have been trained to expect. Kate Carew’s Sunday magazine profile of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the New York Tribune so skillfully combines the light sarcasm of her gossipy style with such an obvious respect for her subject that it seems she must have known a great deal about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá before she ever set foot in the Hotel Ansonia.

The memoirs that recount ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journey focus so deeply on him as their subject that they isolate him from the bustling reality around him. In these accounts there seems to be little else going on in America, this rising industrial nation of a hundred million people, other than the talks he gives and the meetings he holds. In 239 Days In America, we have sought to embed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a rich context of time and place, and to see what this context reveals.

On one hand this means examining the larger issues that define American life, such as the stunning reality of race. On the other, it means realizing that many of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statements, even small ones, were spoken with a keen sense of what was happening around him: the murmurs in the room, the stories that day in the newspaper, the other half of the conversation that was never recorded. To find more of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, you sometimes have to put that stuff back in.

We hope this approach not only makes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s journey in America seem more vivid, but also helps us make clearer connections between what he said in 1912 and today’s pressing issues.

ADD A NEW COMMENT

  • Linda Leeb

    Excellent! This review of your source materials and their differing views of Abdu’l-Baha gives real insight into what we have been reading in this ongoing account.

    • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash

       Agreed.

      • Neda

        your 239 days is absolutely ingenious. it is a source of daily inspiration to heart, soul and mind. it is well researched, beautifuly written, insightful and conceptually grounded. this is a mesterpiece of contexualizing history and making it socially relevant. congratulations to you and your team.

  • Dianne

    Thank you for discussing the difficulty of objectively and accurately presenting what happened during ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to North America.   As you note, the memoirs and first person accounts we have are fraught with subjective information, and sometimes it’s hard to separate the author’s personal opinions and commentary from what we know about ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the Perfect Exemplar.

  • Sue Blythe

    I find it astonishing that the Baha’is on the ground were able to arrange so very many venues for the rest of America to meet ‘Abdu’l-Baha.  I know that it can be difficult to arrange for someone to speak at someone else’s event.  
    It seems that the Baha’is had to be very well connected with like-minded people.  Wherever they mentioned ‘Abdu’l-Baha would like to speak, he was welcomed.
     The Baha’is must have felt the Concourse opening many doors.  Are there any accounts about the process of arranging all these meetings?

    • Alexander M Zoltai

       Great question!

  • Neda

    your 239 days is absolutely ingenious. it is a source of daily inspiration to heart, soul and mind. it is well researched, beautifuly written, insightful and conceptually grounded. this is a mesterpiece of contexualizing history and making it socially relevant. congratulations to you and your team.

  • Dean Hedges

    “The whole duty of man in this Day is to attain that share of the flood of grace which God poureth forth for him. Let none, therefore, consider the largeness or smallness of the receptacle. The portion of some might lie in the palm of a man’s hand, the portion of others might fill a cup, and of others even a gallon-measure. ”

  • William Maxwell

    Another of the virtues of your approach — of many unique virtues –  is to on occasion let us see the Master through non-Baha’i eyes.  It is still a mystery to me as how so many leaders of thought saw ‘Abdu’l-Baha as a “Savior of Civilization” yet were unable to convince those around them of this awareness

    • Loie Mead

      William, I believe we must ask whether the leaders of thought in 1912 and the leaders of thought in 2012 have differing vantage points.  It is true that ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in their very midst in 1912; however, today we have a unique vantage point as we study ”Century of Light” from the Universal House of Justice. This is just one of the vantage points available to leaders of thought in 2012; holding conversations with leaders of thought as we present a copy of “Century of Light” to them could well build upon what the leaders of thought achieved in 1912.

      • 239Days

        Loie, your points are well made and definitely appreciated. You may want to bear in mind that not everyone who reads 239 Days is a Baha’i and, therefore, won’t necessarily know “Century of Light.” We’re trying to facilitate conversation in which all people – not just Baha’is – can participate, so I ask: Is there another way you could present your thoughts which would make them accessible to more of our readers?

        • Loie Mead

          Mod, I am sorry not to have read your comments much sooner. There is sure to be another way to present these thoughts.

  • Esther Bradley-DeTally

    awesome

  • Anne Perry

    Yes! Your approach is marvelous. The journey is too large for any of us to grasp–but all of the perspectives together help.  You mention race, but certainly gender, too, played such a part in the social climate of the day and the response people had to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He is declared a suffragist in one headline; he openly affirmed that women would get the vote and spoke out about equal rights. And then he would make a remark about how women should not hope for too much progress too soon or how both men and women need to strive for equality. There is even a reference to how some of the wealthy women have more freedom than their men, who are tied to their jobs (and to supporting the women, who have time to follow their fancies–such as traveling around to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!) Today (and yesterday) I am in DUBLIN, presenting stories and film clips, and it is so exciting to feel the collective interest in this man who has such appeal and such impact. Here, the past, present, and future seem blended together as we recall the past, see ourselves in the present, and imagine the future (‘Abdu’l-Bahá made several statements here regarding how the area would be environmentally protected and how people would come to see where he had visited. . . .)

  • Bruce

    I agree with so many comments.  Seeing how Abdul-Baha responded to and addressed issues of the west in his journey is equally valuable today.  We, in the west, have never really had such direct perspective brought to bear on our way of life from a Central Figure of the faith.  Thank you for the nice balance of general social dynamics, along with Abdul-Baha’s movements, actions, and words within that context.  Very nicely done.  I do not remember being disappointed with a single day’s presentation.  Thank you.

  • Rooplall Dudhnath

    It seems to me whenever I contemplate on Abdul Baha’s visits
    and talks in the West ie USA and Europe the image of a lone man   walking in a very pitch dark tunnel carrying
    a very brightly lit torch in his hand to create ANEW a new trail for all who
    are following him and also for future mankind, envelopes to my mind. He to me
    has created from His Father’s teachings set/created a new paradigm not only in
    religion’s history but also secular. It also seems to me Mr/Mrs. 239days that
    future historians, both secular and non-secular would benefit from this paradigm
    and would have to make a more profound judgment on His historic travels, the
    like of which is unparalleled in human history so far.

     

    It seems to
    me whenever I contemplate on Abdul Baha’s visits and talks in the West ie USA
    and Europe the image of a lone man   walking in a very pitch dark tunnel carrying
    a very brightly lit torch in his hand to create ANEW a new trail for all who
    are following him and also for future mankind, envelopes to my mind. He to me
    has created from His Father’s teachings set/created a new paradigm not only in
    religion’s history but also secular. It also seems to me Mr/Mrs. 239days that
    future historians, both secular and non-secular would benefit from this paradigm
    and would have to make a more profound judgment on His historic travels, the
    like of which is unparalleled in human history so far.

  • Rooplall Dudhnath

    Sorty about the repeat!

  • Tom Lysaght

    This is a brilliant assessment of the various prisms through which the light of the Master shown, none alone of which catches His full moon reflection of the Abha sun. Please share this more widely with the friends, to help remind us of what Baha’u'llah says in the “Seven Valleys” of how a “globe” (i.e. light bulb) affects the color of the light we see, not the essence of the light that is cast