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In Memoriam: Ainslie T. Embree

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Photo of Ainslie EmbreeOn June 6th of this year, Ainslie Embree died at the Collington residential community on the outskirts of Washington, DC, where he and his wife, Suzanne, moved not long after his retirement from the Department of History at Columbia University in 1991. His was a life of stunning accomplishment—as teacher, writer, administrator, editor, diplomat, friend, and superb conversationalist—and a great many of those accomplishments were in the cause of education about Asia.

For all of Ainslie’s deep involvements in American institutions, when it came to being American, he was always a little “more or less.” Let’s start with the “less,” though these days it seems to many of us actually more: Ainslie was Canadian. Born on Cape Breton just off the coast of mainland Nova Scotia, he was educated at Dalhousie University, first as an undergraduate and then at the graduate level, and it was through the Royal Canadian Air Force that he became a navigator for the British Royal Air Force in the nighttime bombing missions they conducted over Germany in the Second World War. Ainslie’s way of speaking English retained some of that Canadian crispness, and so did his independence of mind.

That brings us to the “more” part. Deeply enmeshed in organizations where Americans have tried to understand the world and become responsible actors in it—the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Institute of Indian Studies (President 1971–1973), the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the AAS itself (President 1983–1984)—Ainslie always seemed to be channeling India at the same time. The experience of living there shaped all he was. His earliest classroom responsibilities were at Indore Christian College, where he and Sue both taught from 1947 to 1957, and his sense of gratitude for being welcomed by Indians into their own circles of intellectual and human exchange was profound. Ainslie was keenly aware of the criticisms that his Columbia colleague and friend Edward Said directed against Orientalism and Orientalists, but pressed forward into the world of common associations and shared histories that connected him to his many Indian friends. He insisted that, whatever else, sheer curiosity had been a great factor in Westerners’ engagement with India, and he certainly possessed a deep well of it himself.

One of the most fascinating events of the twentieth century was, as he put it, “the transformation of an imperial possession, with surpassingly rich historical experience, into a modern, independent nation.” He was honored and energized to be part of that twentieth-century experience, especially as cultural counselor to two US ambassadors to India, Robert Goheen (1978–1980) and Frank Wisner (1994–1995), but he always insisted it was only a foretaste of even greater things to come. Three decades before the turn of the millennium, he began announcing to anyone who would listen that the twenty-first century would belong to Asia. As general editor for the Asia Society’s Encyclopedia of Asian History (four volumes, 1988), he had a chance to assemble and showcase the incredibly rich history that had prepared the way.

Ainslie’s best-known work in the service of education about Asia is the Sources of Indian Tradition, which he developed for use in Columbia’s Core Curriculum starting in 1957; he edited and published the first volume the following year. Shortly afterward, he completed his Columbia PhD with a thesis about the evangelical politics of Charles Grant, once chairman of the British East India Company (1960); the book emerged in 1962. Other monographs followed (India’s Search for National Identity, 1972; Utopias in Conflict: Religion and Nationalism in India, 1990), and it is hoped that with help from Mark Juergensmeyer, the book he was writing well into his nineties can be added to the list. One working title that emerges from his personal archives is A Worrying Narrative: Defining the Borders of the States of South Asia, 1765–2012.

Yet Ainslie’s special gift was for collaboration. The capaciousness of his intellect and experience made that a natural domain, and he often worked with the classroom in mind. In 1997, he and the Japan scholar Carol Gluck edited the massive Asia in Western and World History: A Guide for Teaching (1997). It was an effort to modify some of the presumptions that might seem to underlie William McNeill’s masterful global history entitled The Rise of the West. Here the focus shifted from the West in (or over) Asia to Asia on its own—and in the West. A second and much-changed edition of the Sources of Indian Tradition came out in 1988, with Ainslie still responsible for volume 1, and he was also a member of the editorial team that produced a vastly expanded and revised version of volume 2 under the title Sources of Indian Traditions: Modern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh in 2014. Note the plural in “Traditions,” and please note that Ainslie was ninety-three when the book appeared. I can still see him sitting with the other editors just outside the Barnard office of the general editor, Rachel McDermott, engrossed in conversation. Ainslie also worked with Mark Carnes to produce Defining a Nation: India on the Eve of Independence, 1945, as part of the celebrated “Reacting to the Past” series in which students play the roles of the historical actors they read about.

Ainslie was famous in the classroom. Sue reports that when he won Columbia’s Mark Van Doren Award for scholarship and teaching in 1985, it was one of the proudest moments of his life, since students themselves had made the nomination. Yet the classroom was not entirely sacrosanct. Ainslie could sometimes be seen dropping off for a tiny nap while someone else was addressing a seminar—he needed the rest because he slept such short nights—but he could always be counted on to ask the first penetrating question, as if he had been listening intently the whole time. And who knows? Maybe he was. It was rumored that he could take a little nap while he himself was lecturing.

“Let us now praise famous men,” said the author of Ecclesiastes, “and our fathers who begat us.” I suppose I have been doing just that. But men don’t beget all by themselves, even in an academic setting, and the progeny are not invariably male. Ainslie knew this well. Caroline Bynum remembers how wholeheartedly he welcomed her into Columbia’s History Department when he was Chair, relishing the sea change he knew she would help bring to the university and smiling as he saw it unfold. Ecclesiastes goes on to say, “And those there be who have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been.” In addressing the annual commemoration service for employees of Columbia who had recently died (March 4, 1984), Ainslie drew special attention to that part of the text.

Image of a boyI once showed him a black-and-white photograph I had taken of a boy of twelve or thirteen who had stopped to rest at a fence near the New Delhi Railway Station. His shirt was torn; he was dressed in rags. As he glanced back over his shoulder, I thought I saw a smile—that sense of inner energy and resilience that so many ordinary Indians bring to their lives. Ainslie wasn’t so sure. He thought the boy’s expression revealed not an inner smile but an inner desperation. That sensitivity to the potential underside of every smile was a crucial part of what made Ainslie such a vivid interpreter of the present and the past—and the future. It was also what made him an extraordinary friend. How he will be missed!