When the Personal Goes Global: Private Musings, Political Commentary, and the Forging of 20th-Century Transnational Identities

AHA Session 266
Sunday, January 10, 2016: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Room 311/312 (Hilton Atlanta)
Atina Grossmann, Cooper Union
Atina Grossmann, Cooper Union

Session Abstract

This panel brings together scholars from diverse fields -- American, Jewish, European, Russian/Soviet, and women’s history – to explore the promises and pitfalls of using private papers, including correspondence, travel photographs, autobiographies, and memoirs, to understand global migration, travel, and transnational identity throughout the twentieth century. It aims to appeal to a broad cross-section of historians: those who mine personal papers, who explore identity formation within a global context, and who investigate the intersections between the private and the political. It will provide insight into what private correspondence and memoirs reveal about the inner lives and texture of everyday experience of tourists and migrants as well as about their engagement in broader political/religious movements, including feminism, Judaism, Zionism, communism, and capitalism.

Rebecca Kobrin of Columbia University argues that a body of late-twentieth century autobiographies she collected during a contest run by the Harriman Institute in 2009 provide intimate information about Jewish life in the former Soviet Union that nuance understandings of what motivated Russian Jewish emigration.

Sharon Ann Musher of Stockton University focuses on the correspondence within a family, examining the letters and photographs exchanged from 1932-1933 between Hadassah Kaplan, her three sisters, and her parents during the year that she spent studying and travelling in Palestine under British Mandate. Musher argues that the exchange served both personal and political functions. It maintained interpersonal relationships within Kaplan’s social world, while also articulating her growing connection to Palestine and strengthening the Zionist commitments of those in her writing network.

Julia Mickenberg of University of Texas at Austin analyzes the correspondence, diaries, and other writing of North American women who travelled to revolutionary Russia in the early twentieth century. She argues that such sources provide a unique window into women’s utopian longings for emancipation by revealing conflicts between their public celebrations of Soviet Russia and their private criticisms of Soviet bureaucracy, violence, and repression.

Lisa Kirschenbaum of West Chester University studies intersections between the personal and the political by examining the sentimental political letters exchanged between the so-called proletarian mother of Spain, Dolores Ibarruri, the leader of the Spanish communist party who was exiled in the Soviet Union after the fall of the Spanish Republic in 1939, and the international network of communists in Russia, America, and East Europe with whom she corresponded. Kirschenbaum argues that such letters forged both international solidarity and personal memories across the iron curtain from World War II into the cold war.

Overall, this panel highlights the types of knowledge about self, others, political movements, and the world more generally that private papers created by tourists and migrants both invoke and evoke.

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