MESA Banner
Biographies Across Borders: New Approaches to Writing Life Stories into History

Panel XII-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel features three new biographical projects. All three of the individuals researched in these projects were “border-crossers,” i.e. people whose lives were shaped by the frontiers they crossed and their experiences abroad. The three individuals discussed on this panel were all writers whose published works reflected their border-crossing activities. Chronologically, the three papers begin in the early decades of the nineteenth century and proceed, across overlapping eras, up to the early 1960s. Geographically, a common locus of activity in the three papers is Istanbul, a shared point of reference in the life stories of the three individuals discussed on this panel, who traveled to and from Europe, America, and the Soviet Union. What are the broader historical implications of these individuals’ life stories? How does the application of new sources and methodologies for researching these individuals change how we understand their lives and the eras in which they lived? This panel’s first paper draws upon a variety of primary source material to examine the life of the writer Christopher Oscanyan (1818-1895), an Armenian Christian who moved to New York City from Istanbul in the 1830s. A champion of friendly Ottoman-US relations, Oscanyan became known in the American media as “the Oriental Lecturer” and “the Turk,” due to his efforts to “correct erroneous impressions” of “Turks” and the Ottoman state. This panel’s second paper employs French and Ottoman archival materials, church archives, and other sources to look at the well-traveled life of Georges Gaulis (1865-1912), a Swiss-born French journalist-writer who lived in and wrote about the Ottoman Empire for many years between 1895 and 1912. His published and unpublished writings provide a keen perspective on political, diplomatic, and social developments taking place in the Ottoman Empire, and the Balkans in particular. The third paper on this panel discusses the life of the Turkish poet-communist Nâzım Hikmet (1902-1963) from the perspective of previously untapped archival sources in Moscow, Istanbul, Amsterdam, and Washington, D.C. This paper argues that these new materials do not simply add to what we know about Nâzım Hikmet, but also change the ways in which we can contextualize his life and that of his generation.
  • Nâzım Hikmet (1902-1963) has long been the subject of considerable biographical treatment internationally, and especially in Turkey. The Turkish poet-communist, whose flight by motorboat to the Eastern Bloc captured international headlines in 1951, has been the subject of hundreds of books. Among historical figures from modern Turkish history, only Mustafa Kemal Atatürk surpasses Nâzım with respect to the pure volume of biographical attention received in Turkey and elsewhere. Wherever they have been published, books on Nâzım typically employ three principal sources: Nâzım’s own writings, the memoirs of Nâzım’s loved ones, and other biographies of Nâzım. Partly because of the nature of the sources used in these books, Nâzım’s years in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc (1922-1928 and 1951-1963) have received relatively little attention, focusing mainly upon Nâzım’s somewhat overstated connections to well-known Soviet cultural figures, like Mayakovsky, Meyerhold, and Yesenin. In this paper I discuss the new kinds of sources that I have brought to my research relating to Nâzım Hikmet and his generation. In working with party, state, and personal archival material in Russia and elsewhere, a different Nâzım Hikmet emerges, and the contexts in which he can be seen expand. Drawing upon ten months of research in the Moscow-based archives RGASPI, RGALI, and GARF, among other sites in Amsterdam, Istanbul, and Washington, D.C., this paper discusses the types of information pertaining to Nâzım that can be found in these archives, and the ways in which this previously-untapped material changes our understanding of Nâzım as both a writer and an historical figure. Whereas Nâzım Hikmet is typically discussed mainly in the context of his writing or his politics, this paper looks more closely at his border-crossing, i.e. the ways in which Nâzım’s international travels were reflected in his life and his writing. I further argue that Nâzım’s border-crossing, and its impact upon other important aspects of his life, was something that he shared with many from his generation, and in particular among his former classmates at Communist University of the Toilers of the East, where Nâzım had studied and worked between 1922 and 1928. While Nâzım Hikmet’s adventurous life story may appear, at first glance, to be unique or unparalleled, in other ways his biography is very much that of his generation.
  • Nilufer Hatemi
    George Gaulis (1865-1912) was a Swiss-born, French journalist-writer who lived in the Ottoman capital for many years during the reign of Abdulhamid II and the Second Constitutional Period. As a special correspondent and newspaper director, he recorded this period in his articles and books. The contents of his writings consist of important historical, political, diplomatic, economic, and social events of the time, and as primary sources, they provide a substantial treasury in terms of both volume and continuity. Georges Gaulis, whose articles were published regularly in the Parisian newspapers, Le Temps, La Revue de Paris, Journal des Débats and L’Opinion, and in the Swiss newspapers, La Tribune de Genève, Journal de Genève, Gazette de Lausanne worked also in the direction of the newspaper Stamboul, published in French in Istanbul. The two books, Les questions d’Orient [The Eastern Questions, 1903] and La Ruine d’un Empire, Abd-ul-Hamid, Ses Amis et Ses Peuples [The Downfall of an Empire, Abdulhamid, His Friends and His Peoples, 1913], and the countless articles he authored are unfortunately not yet sufficiently employed as primary sources for research on the late period of the Ottoman history. His articles on the Cretan Question, Greco-Turkish War of 1897, Macedonian Question, Tripolitania War, Albanian Question, and the outbreak of the Balkan War, as well as his letter-style kept notes and dispatches provide a rather unbiased approach towards these events. The prominent political, diplomatic, and military figures, most of whom he knew closely, also find a place in his writings and are described, nevertheless, briefly. I present this article as a preliminary study on the life, books and scattered writings of a special correspondent who deserves to be remembered and acknowledged.
  • Nora Lessersohn
    This paper will look at the life and work of a man named Christopher Oscanyan who, with the help of American missionaries, moved to New York City from Istanbul in the 1830s. An Armenian Christian, he became well-known across the country as “the Oriental Lecturer” and “the Turk.” In this capacity, he used a range of popular American media and entertainment to try to "correct erroneous impressions" of the “Turks" and encourage “mutual diplomatic relations” between his two countries. Through his efforts, he sought not only to create a “friendly” relationship between the United States and Ottoman Turkey based on mutual understanding between equal nations, but also to promote paths to political reform for the Ottoman Armenian community. Using unstudied primary sources including newspaper articles, photographs, and advertisements, this paper will try to answer the following: how successful was Christopher Oscanyan, and what do his successes and failures -- his life story -- tell us about U.S.-Ottoman relations at this time? As we will see, in showing us a nineteenth-century Ottoman American perspective, Oscanyan's story makes clear that while American audiences had access to alternative narratives about the Middle East, they generally preferred to stick to the stereotypes with which they were already familiar.