historians studying historians

I’m in Cornell, buried in the Rare Books section of the splendid Kroch Library (bookporn forthcoming & indeed, backlogged).

I have decided that I am all for concomitant learning. What I mean by that is this: I’m going through some of George McTurnan Kahin‘s papers — he was a seminal historian of the Indonesian Revolution and Southeast Asia more generally — and I find that I am learning things at many, many different levels, simultaneously:

1) Historical level. Kahin was a historian of Indonesia and he corresponded with a breathtaking number of Indonesian politicians, revolutionaries, thinkers, writers, diplomats and academics. So on the most basic level, every page is a little vein of information out of his veritable gold mine of primary source material. This is what I came to the Kahin archive for.

2) Academic-institutional level. As a high-ranking professor at Cornell, academic bureaucracy occupies a vast part of Kahin’s correspondence: the references he wrote for prospective students and teachers, the minutiae of funding inquiries he had to make and field, the delicately-phrased introductions of his students to well-placed members of the Indonesian government and the universities, invitations extended to fill teaching positions, rejections thereof, etc. So while going through his correspondences, I’m learning phenomenal amounts about the backstage of academia, and how it, as an institution, works. This is something I’m incredibly naive about. If it were up to me, everyone and everything would leave me alone to read my books. In part through Kahin, I am finding that this cannot be so.

3) Research level. Kahin’s papers include the material he himself collected for his own work. By piecing together his notes, drafts, folders and his own fieldwork interviews as I go through his boxes, and by looking at how he frames his research, I’m getting an incredibly detailed, methodological sense of just how research comes together into written history — I’m getting to see how a great historian ‘does it’. As a sorry fledgling of a historian, this is somewhat akin to catching a god in the act of worldmaking.

4) Organizational level. Kahin’s boxes, which he labelled and organized himself, are embarrassingly tidy. Each box is filled with labelled folders; correspondences, interviews, speeches and papers are carbon copied and scrupulously dated; everything is filed according to relevance; drafts and revisions follow final copies and often published versions are included. The boxes are also grouped coherently: loosely chronological and topical. Hauling one immaculate box after the other to my table, I am frequently seized with a desire to organize my own life and research — and now I know, just a little more, how to.

5) Publishing level. Through Kahin’s correspondences with Cornell University Press, either for himself or on behalf of some prospective manuscript, I am beginning to see how the publication process works (or at least, used to work in the 1960s); or rather, how it wobbles crazily along over months of indecision, judicious prodding, financial squabbles, criticism, drafts, revisions and an avalanche of missed deadlines. I quake in my shoes at my impending doom.

6) The ‘It’ level. I don’t know what to name this level, so I’ll just say: Kahin kept in vigorous touch with a stupendous number of people — students, ex-students, colleagues, academic admin, diplomats, friends, etc ad infinitum — and to each he could strike just the right tone in his letters. Impeccably courteous and tactful to all, he seems to have offered praise and criticism in nothing but terms of respect. He inquired about and kept up with the health and marital/childbearing statuses of nearly everyone he knew, and was effusive in gratitude to and acknowledgment of others in his interactions with them. He knew how to ask for things tactfully, and was unstinting in his response to those who asked him for things — he was in the habit of dispatching books to people who might be interested, at his department’s or his own expense, and he took immense time and care over the dissertations that were sent to him for his comments, returning to the students pages of virtually line-by-line commentary. He also seems to have entertained and hosted a staggering number of visitors over the years at Cornell and at his own home. And he did all this while running the Southeast Asian Program in Cornell, fulminating to Congress on behalf of Indonesian political prisoners, researching and speaking out against Vietnam, corresponding with Southeast Asian diplomats, teaching hundreds of students, proofing hundreds of submitted manuscripts, and writing hundreds of books, papers, forewards, articles and other publications. I’ve absolutely no idea how he did it, and it’s both humbling and truly inspiring. Here again, quite apart from learning how to file, or how to piece together academic research, I get to see how a great historian ‘does it’, where the ‘it’ in question is perhaps the most important quality of all.

so I am all for this concomitant learning & highly recommend, at least once in your life, trying to look through another historian’s papers. But I have barely slept in the last few days — Cornell’s library has glorious & therefore truly dangerous hours of 7am to 2am — and I am having the time of my life.

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4 responses to “historians studying historians

  • mercuriuspoliticus

    This is a really thoughtful post. It must be great to have the opportunity to get into another historian’s mind like this.

  • Tim

    Sadly, most of my archival experience has been limited to half-mad modernist poets. It is a brilliant idea to work through another scholar’s archive. If you teach a graduate seminar, you should make that a part of (or all of) the course.

  • Belle

    Tim has a great idea there. Working through my archives, I found all kinds of things on different levels, which (as usual) you’ve articulated well. And my students loved hearing about all of it.

    What you’re doing is my favorite part of being a historian: reading other people’s mail.

  • barefootrooster

    thank you for these thoughts — as an aspiring historian preparing to begin graduate school in august, it is wonderful to both read about your exploration and to realize that there are lots of folks out there wondering how, exactly, to do it — let alone do it well!

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