Members will soon be receiving their copies of the June 2009 issue of the American Historical Review. It contains an article on Tamil migrants to Malaya in the 19th century, an AHR Roundtable entitled “Historians and Biography,” and an AHR Forum on Simon Schama’s History of Britain. There are also four Featured Reviews, followed by our regular Book Review section.
In “Tamil Diasporas across the Bay of Bengal,” Sunil S. Amrith examines the history of Tamil migration to the Straits Settlements and Peninsular Malaya since the beginning of the 19th century. He begins by showing that until the 1870s Singapore and Penang hosted several overlapping communities of migrants and sojourners from the Tamil region: Hindu and Muslim traders, dockworkers, and laborers routinely moved back and forth across the Bay of Bengal. They brought their culture and religious practices with them, shaping public life in the Straits Settlements. With the advent of mass migration from rural south India to Malaya’s plantations after the 1870s, however, the situation changed; movement across the Bay of Bengal increased dramatically, but the political and cultural boundaries of these migrants’ lives contracted. The majority of the Tamil population in Malaya now resided in remote plantations, restrained and regulated both by their employers and by the colonial state. Consequently, a more definite, but at the same time, a narrower sense of Tamil diasporic consciousness emerged as a result of this increased sense of immobility and control. The self-awareness of the Tamil diaspora in Southeast Asia was at once enabled and constrained by the gulf between the port cities—with their expanding worlds of print media and public discussion—and the plantations. In this article, which offers a case study in the formation of modern diasporas, Amrith shows how the consciousness and cultures of displaced communities are always defined in terms of their interaction with “others.”
Roundtable, “Historians and Biography”
Many academic historians tend to take a somewhat ambivalent view of the genre of biography. We acknowledge its importance and its venerability as a mode of historical writing. Most historians read biographies and many use them as sources in their own research. And we certainly are aware of the public’s continuing fascination with biographies—their prominence on best-seller lists, the recent vogue of “Founders Chic,” and in general readers’ persistence in wanting their history delivered through popular biographies rather than other, more scholarly, or at least different kinds of historical writing. The AHR too maintains a mixed view of the genre: in most cases we do not review biographies, except when they convey something new and important to a historical period or question. And we almost never publish articles of a biographical nature. Clearly, however, there is no reason why biography should not be treated as a legitimate mode of historical scholarship. Indeed, there seems to be a turn toward biography among many contemporary scholars, a turn which is only in part fueled by the desire to reach a wider reading public.
For this Roundtable, “Historians and Biography,” we have invited ten historians to write about their own experiences with the genre. A few have long experiences as biographers; several are entirely new to the genre; and a couple take very novel approaches to thinking and writing about biography. David Nasaw, who is well known for several important biographies of major American figures, provides an essay that introduces the Roundtable. In “Biography as History,” Lois W. Banner defends the legitimacy of biography as history and also argues against critics who deny the notion of a unified, individual personality as biography’s subject. In “Life Histories and the History of Modern South Asia,” Judith M. Brown discusses the approach she used in recounting the lives of M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, suggesting that biography can provide an avenue into the wider study of societies and institutions. Kate Brown takes an autobiographical turn in “A Place in Biography for Oneself,” reflecting on how her own experience growing up in a town in economic decline prompted her to turn her scholarly attention to postindustrial wastelands in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the American West. “Writing Biography at the Edge of History,” by Robin Fleming presents a biographical sketch of a nameless Englishwoman who lived in the seventh century, CE, who left no textual evidence, only physical remains. Alice Kessler-Harris asks, “Why Biography,” and answers her own question by way of reflecting on her experience in researching and writing the biography of Lillian Hellman. Jochen Hellbeck’s essay, “Galaxy of Black Stars: The Power of Soviet Biography,” is an example of multiple biographies, derived from the many life stories produced by ordinary people under the Soviet regime. Susan Mann explains the enduring importance of biography as a genre of historical writing about China in “Scene-Setting: Writing Biography in Chinese History.” In “Separations of the Soul: Solitude, Biography, History,” Barbara Taylor offers an episode in the life of Mary Wollstonecraft as a way to explore the meaning of solitude in the 18th century. Finally, in “Rewriting the Lives of Eighteenth-Century Economists,” Liana Vardi argues that appreciating the wider biographies of the Marquis de Mirabeau and Jacques Turgot is essential for a full understanding of their economic theories.
Forum: “Simon Schama’s A History of Britain”
Interestingly, the AHR Forum on “Simon Schama’s A History of Britain,” like the Roundtable, “Historians and Biography,” also deals with a genre of historical representation about which historians are somewhat ambivalent. Though it also appeared as a three-volume publication, Schama’s A History of Britain is most widely known as a BBC production in 15 episodes. We asked three historians to consider this popular program, as well as the book. Miri Rubin looks at it from the perspective of a medieval historian; Linda Levy Peck as a specialist in the early modern period; and Peter Stansky as a historian of Modern Britain. In his Comment, Schama discusses how he conceived and wrote the series and offers as well some thoughts on the medium of television for the presentation of history to a wider public.
October’s AHR will include a Forum, “Truth and Reconciliation in History” and another Forum that takes a critical look at Taylor Branch’s three-volume history, America in the King Years.
Robert A. Schneider (Indiana Univ.) is the editor of the AHR. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Cover Illustration: This image shows the gopuram (tower) of the Mariyamman Temple in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, built in a quintessentially Tamil style. Among the many colorful statues of deities in the 23-foot structure are different manifestations of the goddess Mariyamman, to whom the temple is dedicated. The temple was first constructed in 1833, although there is evidence that the site hosted a small shrine from as early as 1801. Tamil traders, craftsmen, and laborers began to arrive in the ports of Penang and Singapore immediately after their establishment by the English East India Company. For most of the nineteenth century, there was a steady, circular movement of Tamils back and forth across the Bay of Bengal; after 1870, this turned into migration on a much larger scale, to serve the needs of Malaya’s expanding plantation agriculture. In “Tamil Diasporas across the Bay of Bengal,” Sunil Amrith examines the cultural consequences of this changing pattern of mobility, and identifies the conditions that produced a growing sense of diasporic consciousness among Tamil communities in Malaya. Photograph by Sunil Amrith.