239 Days in America

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

Day
236
 | 
December 2, 1912
Op-Ed
Storify Feature

‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Modern American History

DURING THE AMERICAN Bicentennial year, in 1976, the Smithsonian Institution produced a special exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery titled Abroad in America: Visitors to the New Nation, 1776–1914. The exhibit, composed of large portraits accompanied by short essays, profiled more than fifty of the most noteworthy visitors to the United States during the nation’s first century and a half.

Some of them, such as José Martí of Cuba, or Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore from India, had lodged their places in history as intellectual leaders of anti-colonial political struggles. Others became known as national political leaders: Georges Clemençeau of France, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento of Argentina, and the first Japanese delegation to America. Still others were popular literary or artistic figures: Charles Dickens, Antonín Dvořák, Giacomo Puccini, John Butler Yeats. Some were noteworthy because of their illuminating analysis or commentary, such as Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville and the Scot James Bryce, whose books Democracy in America and The American Commonwealth, respectively, have become seminal works in American political science. Others were compelling because of their disparaging opinions of the nation, sometimes to the point of comedy, such as Harriet Martineau and Frances Trollope.

With the exception of Bryce, who served as Britain’s Ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913, none of these foreigners who traveled in America, I believe, have left more documentation about their visits than ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Yet in 1976 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s portrait did not appear in the Smithsonian’s exhibition. Around the world there are millions of people — from every country, language, and background — for whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s example is central to their lives. But by American historians he appears to have been left out.

Why?

I believe the reasons have to do partly with the way historians approach their craft and partly with the way ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s story has been told across the century.

Historians of the Progressive Era have always been hard pressed to decide which figures during that watershed period in modern American history were worth examining. “This may seem to be a strange topic of debate,”Arthur Link and Richard McCormick wrote in 1983, “but really it is not. Progressivism engaged many different groups of Americans, and each group of progressives naturally considered themselves to be the key reformers and thought that their own programs were the most important ones.” Historians, likewise, “have succeeded in identifying their reformers only by defining progressivism narrowly, by excluding other reformers and reforms when they do not fall within some specific definition. . . .”

The lenses that American historians have trained on the Progressive Era have simply not been focused on a visitor such as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Even as he addressed the central dilemmas facing the American nation, he never engaged in political controversies. Although he offered a challenging view of world order, he never became associated with nationalistic movements who rewrote their own national histories to place their thinkers and leaders at the center of historical action. American historians like Benjamin Parke De Witt, Richard Hofstadter, Robert Wiebe, John Higham, and Arthur Link weren’t looking for someone like an ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and so, when they looked back at the vast historical evidence from 1912, they never saw him.

We can see, I believe, an inverted process at work in authors who have chosen to write about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Since the early years of the century, they have almost all been Bahá’ís, whose primary concern was to communicate stories designed to edify the faith of other Bahá’ís, not to present ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as an integrated voice in a mainstream American narrative. Over the past couple of decades, or so, this has begun to change, in the work of authors such as Robert Stockman and Gayle Morrison. An additional challenge has been that virtually all of the work produced about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has been printed by Bahá’í publishing organizations, whose distribution outside Bahá’í circles is limited, instead of mainstream publishing houses.

Over the last eight months, we have attempted to establish a narrative about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that embeds him in the rich context of American life in 1912, told in a language crafted for a broad audience. We have sought to present ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as an original voice, who engaged Americans of all kinds in conversations about the way they understood themselves and their place in the world, instead of primarily as a religious figure for a particular community. We have found that this approach reveals ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s American discourse to have been far more nuanced and complex than we imagined. Paradoxically, understanding how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá engaged deeply with the specifics of America in 1912, and placing him in the detailed context of time and place, makes him more relevant — not less — to the challenges America faces today.

ADD A NEW COMMENT

  • Michael Bruwer

    I think you have succeeded admirably in what you set out to do. I am very grateful, as I’m sure are many others. Through 239 Days and through Abdul Baha in America by Robert Stockman I feel I have come to a much deeper appreciation of Abdul Baha and of the society he encountered when he was here, as well as the steps by which World War 1 was kindling into conflagration in Europe.
    You have made Abdul Baha more loving and less stern, infinitely wise and tactful, heroically self-sacrificing and vulnerable, and stunningly direct – such as he was in his talk at Temple Emmanu-El in San Francisco.
    I’m printing out all the stories so that I can study Abdul Baha’s approach – all thanks to you. There seems to have been a very special spirit in your project and it has come through to us. You have rendered a great service. I hope 239 Days In America also finds its way into print as a book.
    — Michael Bruwer, Tubac

    • Loie Mead

      Michael, if you are printing out all the excellent stories, would you be able to share with readers how to do this? My appreciation…

      • Mike

        Loie, I just print it out as I would any web page. But now I want to see what Jonathan is referring to. Mike

    • http://jmenon.com/ Jonathan Menon

      Michael, thanks very much.

      Just so you know, there is no need to print everything out. In the next month we will be attaching footnoted PDF files to every feature for those who want to go into more detail about the references we used and the decisions we made on each day.

      • Karridine

        Oh, EXCELLENT! Going an extra kilometer to deliver extra value!

  • http://www.facebook.com/JustJohns Justin Johnson

    I agree and am also eternally grateful. Your approach was very thought provoking and meaningful. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/OwnerSelfStorAll Paul Reynolds

    This was an enriching and broadening approach to His visit. You have given us so much context about the people, their times; the technology and the historical places. It has been a marvelous 236 days and I would hope be a forerunner of a new way to study historical events in the Faith. For example the mind boggles at what your team could do with the Ten Year Crusade – it would be astonishing and so vivid.

  • http://www.facebook.com/frank.carroll.nf Frank Carroll

    This series was stunning. I hope you publish it in book form with a forward about how you prepared the project.

    • Karridine

      I second this emotion…

  • Ghislaine

    Wonderful. – I can’t wait to get the PDF file. You have done such a marvelous job and given us the bet gift Evernote- a jewel !

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/William-Maxwell/1140616716 William Maxwell

    American history as a craft is very sick. Some years ago a New Hampshire businessman and graduate of Harvard asked me to recommend a book on American history. I explained that I was not well-versed on the subject but had a classmate at Harvard who was, David Fish from San Diego. When I got back to Cambridge I asked David to recommend a book on the nation’s history. He said that the chair of the Dept of History at Harvard had just written a long compemdium, “The Story of the American People.” I went to the Coop Bookstore found Oscar Handlin’s book and checked the index, a quick way to check a writer’s focus with one’s own. In that “definitive book” of the American people the only Cavrer mentioned was not George Washington Carver, but a lieutenant in the Vietman War who earned a bronze star. Handlin was not only a foremost trainer of American historians he had been president of the American Historical Association. I repeat, History is a sick subject in American universities.

    • Karridine

      I reluctantly share your analysis of the current state of historical research, William, the state of active research, findings, reasoning, distillations, acknowledgements and publications… more than at any other time previously those who claim to be ‘historians’ and ‘journalists’ and ‘reporters’ are biased, prejudiced and not at all ashamed to vaunt their opinions as ‘fact’.

  • pascal molineaux

    Well done! Yes, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has come forth in your series of articles as a history-making figure, whose shining examples of selfless generosity and steel-like determination have left a mark on so many and whose words, of deep wisdom, talking to the soul and heart of America, were so generously provided during those 239 days, sometimes speaking up to three different audiences in the same day. This long, extremely trying trip of Ábdu’l-Bahá no doubt will come down in history as one that helped to forge a new nation and inspire thousands to selfless action. You have brought this to our attention, time and again, and for this we are deeply grateful. Bless you.

  • mystici9

    This site with its many wonderful stories became the inspiration to an Opus written about His visit and the responce of the souls around Him to His message. It is available free for download and is called The Rainbow World at http//www.mystictracks.com. Go to the download tab and find it there. Hope you all enjoy it and much thanks for all the hard work you guys did to give us His message so clearly!

  • Michael Bruwer

    The Smithsonian also ran a story recently on famous people who, for one reason or another, missed the sailing of the Titanic. Abdul Baha wasn’t mentioned.