Reflections on the Richard Bartlett Gregg Papers

Salvete, fellow libronauts!  As the old hymn goes, “the strife is o’er, the battle done.”  The Culture Class Collection has been successfully cataloged, and so off we all go to new pastures.  I was originally hired to help get the Culture Class Collection cataloged on time, but Regan has been more than gracious and kind.  She has retained me beyond the expiration of my original purpose, and I am now on the archives side of our operation.  Under Holly Mengel’s tutelage I have completed my first project, the archiving of the Richard Bartlett Gregg papers.  Through it I gained experience reorganizing a collection, using Archivists’ Toolkit, and creating a finding aid.  This experience however has been more than a training session.  It’s been an unquestionable high point of all my work at the Van Pelt Library.  This project elicited a number of powerful emotions and filled my head with quite a few thoughts.  The following reflections comprise my attempt to untangle them and lay them out for you, and to make clear what an absolute privilege we enjoy when working on projects such as this.

The Richard Bartlett Gregg papers consist of correspondence and newsletters collected largely between 1930 and 1933 by a now virtually forgotten American social philosopher who nevertheless was inspired by and in turn inspired guiding lights of the 20th century. The son of a minister, Gregg (1885-1975) was a Christian of deeply-held convictions whose faith inspired his lifelong work on behalf of those he believed oppressed by power.  He earned his B.A. and J.D. from Harvard, and in his crusade for the beleaguered Gregg served first as a labor lawyer and later as a railroad union functionary in Chicago.  While working for the union in 1925 he discovered literature on Gandhi and his nonviolent satyagraha (a Sanskrit neologism coined by Gandhi literally meaning “truth-insistence”, and normally understood as “resistance”) to British colonial rule of India.  Gregg almost immediately packed his bags for the subcontinent, where he lived between 1925 and 1929.  He fully immersed himself in the country and its independence movement.  He taught in a school, lived for several months at Gandhi’s famous Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad, formed friendships with leaders of the Indian independence movement, and experienced first-hand the lives and sacrifices of the satyagrahis (the nonviolent freedom fighters inspired by Gandhi).

Pause for a moment and reflect upon this.  Gregg had solid employment, and after a bit of reading, was so inspired that he left his job and transplanted himself to India for four years to live a life of learning and self-sacrifice.  What would move you to do such a thing?  It reminds me of a recent story about Mike Spencer Brown, a Canadian business owner who in 1990 sold his business, picked up a worn-out backpack with a few necessities, and proceeded to take a 23 year-long “vacation” to almost every country on Earth.  He didn’t merely travel to a bunch of different lands, but immersed himself in each, and didn’t even try to avoid dangerous countries like Somalia and Afghanistan, but travelled through them with alacrity.  Gregg’s example also reminds me of missionaries who will leave their home countries to spend years on foreign soil spreading the faith. Gregg’s time abroad of course falls far short of Brown’s, and many missionaries spend the rest of their lives on foreign firmament, but the principle remains the same: to drop everything we know and leave the country, to give up a chance at a stable life, a family, and material success for an extended period of time, all because we are inspired, be it by a guiding light, our own itchy feet, or our faith.  What would drive us to do the same?

Also consider the environment Gregg happily moved to.  The Sabarmati ashram was located between a prison and a crematorium.  Gandhi believed a satyagrahi would end up in either place and believed the site for his ashram perfect, not out of some dark sense of humor, but as a way to encourage the satyagrahi to grow in fearlessness.  Imagine willingly living for months in the twin shadows of incarceration and death.  Imagine being constantly confronted with your own physical insecurity and mortality in a hostile territory.  All because you are fighting for right.  If we can imagine that from our comfortable decadence of 2014, even if for only a moment, we can tap into the feelings that animated Gregg, the satyagrahis, the freedom riders, members of the Continental Army, the disciples of Christ, etc.  All those brave souls we admire from afar, but whom we fear to join.

Upon his return to the United States, Gregg kept close tabs on the Indian independence movement via subscriptions to multiple publications, both British and Indian, both for and against independence.  Copies of the Indian pro-independence newsletters occupy the bulk of the collection, and there were so many I could only give them a cursory scanning.  What I did read however drove home in vivid imagery what the satyagrahis suffered for their country’s freedom.  By and large, these were nonviolent protesters engaged in peaceful acts of civil disobedience.  The response they received in many cases was out of all proportion to their level of agitation.  The descriptions of the brutalities inflicted upon the satyagrahis in prison became monotonous: they were beaten, forced into uncomfortable or humiliating positions for hours, denied food and medical attention, etc..  Some particularly egregious abuses stood out.  One satyagrahi was forced to stand upon his arms and legs in the shape of a chair and a fellow prisoner (one co-opted by the guards by promises of favors) would sit upon him.  Another testified that a fellow prisoner (another co-opted one) under the encouragement of the prison guards committed “an act against nature” upon him.  I’m sure it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what this man suffered.  The most memorable was yet another co-opted prisoner who had been set over his fellow prisoners as a ward in a work yard.  While overseeing satyagrahi prisoners he went absolutely insane and began beating one of his charges without provocation.  When said charge fled, his assailant pursued him with a crowbar, and upon being forcibly relieved of it, did not give up the chase but took up a hammer instead and continued relentlessly until detained.  This all certainly colors Gandhi’s placement of the Sabarmati ashram next to a prison.  An informed satyagrahi living there would hear stories like these, all while looking at where they take place, knowing full well he or she could be next.  Now imagine living like that for months, years, the rest of your life.  Would you toughen or buckle?  We really need examples like this spelled out for us to be truly touched, if not transformed, as Gregg was, by the courage of these people.

Now put yourself in Gregg’s position and imagine reading these reports month after month.  How would you react?  Would you be continually fired up for the cause of Indian independence, or would you become hardened to them?  Would the feeling “this is wrong” eventually be replaced by the cynical “well that’s human nature” rationalization?  There is of course the standard “being exposed to the same horrible thing over and over desensitizes you to it” canard, but at the same time some part of us may just instinctively not want to face the continued, repeated reality of these abuses and feel the same continued, repeated horror at them time and time again.  The heart calcifies to purchase relief.  Gregg, insofar as I can tell, did not react this way.  Rather than stunt his feelings, these reports seemed to have consistently fired his vigor in favor of the Indian cause.  Now there is spirit: to be constantly confronted with horrible realities and not slink away into disillusionment, but to forge ahead for what is right, even if at times it feels like walking against a heavy wind.

Another consideration which jumped out at me from the newsletters was the humanity of the British.  I use this term in the sense of “the totality of being human,” warts and all.  It is almost reflex to convert stories of empires and their discontented territories into binary tales of heroes and villains.  Our narrative is that the British are the bad guys because they exploited the Indians.  Certainly the British are always going to carry a deserved mixed reputation for their activities in India.  On the one hand, British civil administrators, financiers, etc. established the physical infrastructure, legal system, and economic power base which independent India inherited.  On the other, as should be no surprise, some British individuals abused their positions of power.  Gregg’s newsletters give numerous reports of British police raiding villages in which satyagrahis or their families lived.  The officers confiscated houses, livestock, family possessions and heirlooms, and other physical property as punitive measures against the villages as a whole.  The effect was to loot entire families into destitution, rationalized by legal sanction in the name of maintaining order.  In another case, a satyagrahi prisoner named Amritlal was severely beaten by four prison functionaries (two British jailers, two cooperating prisoners) for refusing to submit to a position he found humiliating.  This led to the trial of the four by British authorities.  What quite struck me was that one of them, a Mr. Walker, was known outside the prison as a kind man.  I am not so keen to dismiss the testimony of those who knew him.  I think it entirely possible that Mr. Walker was an amiable man outside work and a cruel one inside.  The reasons are manifold, but they tie back into Gregg’s essential sympathy not just for the Indians, but for the British.  In letters of his preserved in the collection, Gregg does not hold back from applying blame to them, but at the same time he does not hate them.  Rather, he saw imperialism as a system crushing the souls of Indians and British alike, and sincerely believed if it were removed, both would become vastly better peoples.  Dissolve the empire, dissolve the power dynamics that tempt police officers to loot villages.  Dissolve the empire, dissolve the cruel Mr. Walker and leave the kind one.  I think the truth is more nuanced than this, closer to failures in the moral choices of each individual, but Gregg was of a different school of thought, wherein men are essentially good and it is only the systems around them – empires, institutionalized racism, institutionalized greed, etc. – that twist them.

This thought pervades Gregg’s correspondence, which comprises the other series of the collection and reads like a who’s who of the Indian independence movement circa 1930-1933.  As stated above, during his time in India Gregg cultivated the friendship or acquaintance of many Indian nationalists and kept up correspondence with them upon his return to the United States.  Some of those letters are preserved in this collection, and I must report, it was an absolute treat to hold and study them.  During processing I read (or attempted to read) hand-written letters from Mahadev Desai (Gandhi’s secretary), Jivraj Mehta (Gandhi’s personal physician), and Pyarelal Nayyar (Gandhi’s later secretary after Desai’s death).  As you may remember from a previous post, I’m no expert when it comes to reading handwriting, so this project provided an opportunity to exercise my muscles on that front.  I’m happy to report that Desai writes in a beautiful and flowing cursive, completely legible even to me.  Nayyar’s penmanship was also legible, though some words escaped me.  Mehta’s…not in any way, shape, or form, I’m sorry to say.  I’d make the old joke about doctors and their handwriting, but I’m sure you already know it.  I could read the date of Mehta’s letter and where he got the paper from (both his letters came with the official Edward VII Memorial Hospital letterhead), but those two details were stamped!  Nayyar attached with his letters newspaper clippings detailing his role in negotiating an end of the 1932 Bombay cotton boycott as well as the newsletter telling the abovementioned story of Amritlal and Mr. Walker.  There is only one letter from Desai, thanking Gregg for writing and containing these words which jumped out at me:

photo2“Well, dear man, to the front once again.  And this time there is going to be a grimmer struggle, and may we hope and pray, a more glorious victory?”

Words like these embody what strikes me most about these letters.  They are utterly ordinary – thanks for a received letter, daily goings-on, etc. – and yet they are utterly suffused with this sense of sublime purpose and determination to see right prevail.  I researched Desai and discovered he approached the Platonic form of not just a secretary, but a companion to Gandhi.  Each day he would rise before the Mahatma, see to all of Gandhi’s personal affairs, and record the details in his journal after Gandhi went to bed.  From this and from his words, I can tell he was an extraordinarily gracious, loyal, and warm man.  His devotion remained unbroken until his struggle ended on August 15, 1942 at the Aga Khan Palace in Pune where he died, having been imprisoned along with Gandhi and Gandhi’s wife Kasturba.  Indeed, Gandhi lost both Desai and Kasturba while interned at this palace-come-prison, six years before his own departure from this world.  The strange thing is, the Aga Khan Palace was built by the ruler whose name it bears to provide employment and food to famine-struck villagers.  The British converted a landmark built to save lives into a place where two of modern India’s guiding lights lost theirs.  Today the ashes of both Desai and Kasturba Gandhi lie on the grounds of the palace, which has been converted into the Gandhi National Memorial.  Desai and Kasturba are poignant reminders that even a nonviolent campaign for freedom has a body count.

Given the centrality of Desai to Gandhi’s life for 25 years, I thought Richard Attenborough’s remarkable historical film Gandhi (which I checked out and watched soon after beginning the project) gave the poor man remarkably short shrift, relegating him to a nonspeaking background role.  One man the film absolutely did not overlook however was Jawaharlal Nehru, friend of Gandhi, powerful leader in his own right, and eventually India’s first prime minister.  Gregg has one typewritten copy of a letter he sent to Nehru, and Nehru’s handwritten reply.  The gravitas of holding a letter from a major world leader was matched only by the absolute informality and almost comical quality of the subject matter.  In his letter, Gregg says that while he is loath to give unasked advice (though reading Gregg’s letters, I can assure you the opposite is the case!), he proceeds to give Nehru quite a bit anyway, and also plugs the book (another thing Gregg frequently mentions in his letters!) he is writing on Gandhian economics and social philosophy.  Gregg cautions Nehru against Western-style socialism, which he believes is unhelpful at best and harmful at worst to India, and instead counsels a more Gandhian approach.  Gregg ends the letter with a verbal tremble, saying he has no idea if anything he has written is welcome or not, and if not, “I’m sure you have a hospitable waste-paper basket.”  At the time Gregg wrote this letter, Nehru was years away from being India’s prime minister, and yet Gregg seems to be as nervous writing to him as a child calling his congressman’s office!  Nehru’s reply is nothing but gracious and calls Gregg’s ideas “interesting.”  I had to chuckle at that.  While Gregg counseled Nehru against socialism as commonly conceived, Nehru himself was absolutely committed to this socialism, and upon becoming prime minister reshaped India’s economy in its image, nationalizing numerous industries and fathering the byzantine bureaucracy that inevitably accompanies such policies.  So to read Nehru in his own words call Gregg’s warning against this “interesting” made me smirk and ask myself desai“Were you just being nice, or did you just not buy a blasted thing Gregg said?”  While Gregg preserved Nehru’s reply, I wonder if Nehru indeed found a hospitable wastepaper basket for Gregg’s original letter!


As long a shadow as Nehru cast over modern India, it pales in comparison with that cast by Gandhi himself.  Guess what?  Gregg preserved five letters from the Mahatma, and we have them in our collection.  Holding and reading Gandhi’s letters was like a jolt.  I was thinking “How privileged am I to read and hold a letter from Gandhi himself?”  An attitude that would surely be remonstrated by the Mahatma, but one I could not help but feel given his aura.  At first I thought the letters were handwritten by Gandhi (with the associated heart-poundings on my part while I thought “I’m holding paper once held by Gandhi!”), although by the third I had suspicions since they all referred to Gandhi himself in third person.  I compared them with Desai’s and Nayyar’s handwriting, and although they didn’t seem to match, I do not recall Gandhi having a habit of referring to himself in the third person.  Nonetheless, each letter carries Gandhi’s signature, and the heart-poundings continue.  I remember I rushed one over to Liz to show her, as thanks for her showing me a proclamation signed by Napoleon several months ago.  And the most striking thing about Gandhi’s letters?  Again, how utterly ordinary they are.  In them, Gandhi tells Gregg and his wife Nonie (whom Gandhi affectionately names “Govind” and “Radabehn” – Gandhi did actually give Indian names to his correspondents) about how he, his wife, and his children are doing, the state of affairs in India, and apologies for not writing more often.  At the time of each letter, Gandhi’s sons were in jail.  His most striking words?  “My sons continue to do well in prison.”  This is the spirit of the man who so illuminated the 20th century.  Such was the spirit of the man whom Gregg uprooted himself for four years to seek out and learn from.  Such was the spirit of the man whom Gregg returned to the United States considering himself a disciple of.  We know Gandhi had a pure and indomitable spirit.  Here are some simple words which encapsulate that.

photo1Gandhi’s letters to Gregg were not without a moment of accidental humor either.  During the period Gregg assembled these papers he and Nonie lived at 543 Boylston Street in Boston.  One of Gandhi’s letters is addressed to “543 Boytdon Street.”  This is not the first time a major Indian leader was caught messing up Gregg’s address either!  Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the staunch prohibitionist, administrator, and opponent of Nehru’s economic policies whom Gandhi called “the keeper of my conscience” (!), wrote a letter to Gregg on Prohibition Society of India paper concerning a book entitled “Uncle Sham”, supposedly authored by an Indian, which Rajagopalachari believes to be a British forgery to smear the “moral influence of America in regard to World peace and prohibition.”  Rajagopalachari addressed this letter to “543 Boytston Street.”  Alas, Ward Nicholas Boylston, one of Boston’s foremost native sons of the 18th century, came back with a vengeance in the 20th to trip up two of the greatest of India’s founding fathers with his surname!  For the curious, Gandhi’s next letter to Gregg does in fact have Boylston’s namesake spelled correctly.

So now that we’ve had our laugh, having caught two of the more inspiring human beings yet to live in the midst of a typo, let’s return to their words.  For nonviolent protesters, I was struck by their use of martial language.  Gandhi refers to the satyagrahis as troops and soldiers.  We are dealing with an oxymoron: warriors for peace.  You’ll recall Desai said “back to the front” and “glorious victory.”  This is perhaps one of Gandhi’s greatest rhetorical victories: he successfully appropriated the language of war for peace.  I couldn’t read these martial terms in this nonviolent context and not feel there was something ineffably right about it.  Maybe I was just impressed at the rhetorical reversal, but I feel it was deeper than that.

Gregg had letters from others on the frontlines of Indian independence.  Several are from Verrier Elwin, a British missionary who fell absolutely in love with India and its people, in particular the Adivasi, aboriginals of the Indian subcontinent who live in remote forests and mountains.  Given his writing style, Elwin’s letters and dispatches read like a soulful, romantic adventure novel.  He details in gripping prose the nonviolent activities of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (the “frontier Gandhi”) and his Red-Shirts in the North-West Frontier Province (modern-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan) and British reprisals against them.  He records a moving testament to the death of an Adivasi boy named Lakhoo, who was lashed by British authorities for some minor infraction and succumbed to his untreated wounds.  He was 12 years old.   A large batch of letters come from Mirabehn, birth name Madeleine Slade, the daughter of a British admiral who, like Gregg, was so inspired by Gandhi that she moved to India.  Unlike Gregg, she stayed in India, and adopted Gandhi’s affectionate name for her as her own.  Her letters give on-the-ground reports, and almost always include a personal touch.  Even typewritten circular letters meant to be mass-printed and sent out to subscribers like Gregg contain personalized messages in her own hand, always in a gorgeously legible cursive.  She clearly prefers the personal touch, for at the end of one typed letter she asks Gregg to “please excuse this queer typewritten letter,” stating that she’s gotten some “help” with her correspondence and is “making the most of it.”  Her last letter from 1933, as her personal message on it says, was written from “a very shabby train” (I can imagine her writing this in a carriage like those featured during the train travel sequences of Gandhi, surrounded by people packed in like sardines) and says it will likely be the last time she can write to Gregg until “the end of the struggle.”  Her next letter is from 1938, written from jail on scratchy gray paper.

I’d like to end my reflection upon this project with a few final thoughts.  Through work like this, we get to meet the men and women of the past.  I had never heard of Richard Bartlett Gregg before Holly placed the document box on my desk.  Now, having read his words, I feel like I know him better than some famous historical figures I’ve heard of throughout my life.  He was an erstwhile, committed man of strong faith and principle.  He was a modest individual absolutely assured of the rightness of his cause and was unflagging in the pursuit of it.  This is the character of a man so inspired by Gandhi’s examples of nonviolence and simple, self-sufficient living that he put them into practice.  In one letter Gregg tells Gandhi how, in emulation of the latter’s example, he has begun splitting his time between Boston and a rural village where he has cultivated his own farm.  Thanks to the Internet, I discovered that in his later years Gregg turned this part-time “voluntary simplicity” (to use his own term) into a full-time lifestyle on the farm of his friend, the radical economist and Penn alumnus Scott Nearing.  Gregg’s much-vaunted book, which was published as The Power of Nonviolence, promotes civil disobedience along satyagrahi lines as a morally necessary means for social change.  This book later became one of the five that inspired Martin Luther King, Jr., to make nonviolence the sword of the civil rights movement.  Indeed, a quick Internet search produces correspondence between King and Gregg with the latter encouraging the former and stating he sees God’s movements in King just as he saw them in Gandhi.  Richard Bartlett Gregg, the unassuming social philosopher history forgot, helped pass the torch from Gandhi to King.  Through Gregg’s words I see a man who, despite the separation in years, and despite the many, many places where he and I disagree philosophically, politically, and economically I love and deeply respect as a fellow human being.

Furthermore, I held and read letters written by individuals who today sit in the pantheon of modern Indian heroes.  They do not deal with grave, weighty matters of state, but are just regular correspondence between friends.  There was probably no thought given to what would happen to these letters after they were read once, and they likely would have been lost had Gregg not preserved them.  Holding and reading these pieces of paper once held by great figures of the past was a powerful reminder of just how fortunate we in rare book cataloging and archival work are.  Of all the human beings who have ever lived, currently live, and ever will live, we are among the few who get to reach out and touch history.  Between the writer, Gregg, the original archivist, myself, and any future researcher who accesses this collection, only a precious few hands will ever get to shake across time like this.  That mine get the privilege to be among them is simultaneously exhilarating and humbling.  Remember this on hard days where all seems drudgery: we few among billions get to mingle so directly with the past.

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