An American Looking East: the Holden Furber Collection

furberUniversity of Pennsylvania Professor of History Holden Furber is most likely to be remembered for his important work studying British involvement in India, as well as other Asian studies, mostly focused on the Indian sub-continent. And while Furber’s research, professional papers, published articles and book reviews make for a fascinating read, I am most attracted to this collection because of its extensive personal papers.

Furber was an avid traveler. In his young adult life, both before and after his marriage to Mary Elizabeth Chapin, he made it a priority to see the world. Furber eloquently elaborates upon the wonders and beauties he sees in his letters home to his father and aunt in Boston. Furber was a devoted family man and wrote home regardless of how “interesting” his week was–even though a typical week in the life of Furber normally was quite interesting.

While a student at Queen’s College at Oxford University, Furber talked about the political debates he attended, the friends he made and the lessons he learned. His letters often contain playbills, ticket stubs and song books. These small mementos bring to life his daily activities. In the winter of 1923 and the spring of 1924, Furber traveled throughout Europe (Marseilles, Paris, Florence, Venice, Milan etc.) and the Middle East (Cairo, Jerusalem etc.). From 1937-1938, Furber and his wife traveled throughout India and Africa. When writing home from India, Furber notes the stark wealth disparity between the wealthy Indians with whom he dines and the poor Indians begging him for money on the street. It is these small moments in Furber’s personal writings that shine light onto who Furber was–not merely a historian, but a man eager to understand people from various cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds and nations.