Finally my edition of In a Far Country (with editorial apparatus) is out from Bhabani Books. The book first appeared in 1911 and is a biography of Miles Bronson, the American Baptist missionary who lived and worked for four decades in nineteenth century Assam. It was written by Harriette Bronson Gunn, the fourth daughter of Ruth and Miles Bronson. In a Far Country has long been out of print and is not available on the net. So bringing out a print edition seemed justified. Somewhere in his voluminous writings, HK Barpujari dissed the book by calling is ‘an interesting sidelight.’ But he was reading it as a historian. When I bring my literary training to bear on historical sources and texts I find myself noticing the silences and absences that traditional historians often do not see. And so it was with In a Far Country. In my Introduction, I try (among other things) to create contexts for reading the book. One of my arguments is that it belongs to a now forgotten tradition of evangelical writing. Protestants in nineteenth century America created their own print culture and evangelical public sphere by writing and publishing sermons, tracts, hymns, memoirs, and biographies. Missionary memoirs were an important part of this print culture. In a Far Country was written as an inspiring narrative of Christian sacrifice, heroism and achievement in nineteenth century Assam. But while describing the triumphs and tribulations of the Bronson family, the book throws light on a crucial period when modern Assam and modern Assamese was being formed.
Bringing out a book with a local publisher is rather like bringing out your PhD dissertation. Not only are you responsible for what you write, you are also involved in the material process of producing (proof-reading, deciding on composition matters like the layout, providing maps, diagrams, etc ) the printed volume. But I consider myself lucky to have Bhabani as my publisher. They are the finest publishers in north east India and, and thanks to all the orders they get, are doing very well businesswise. For them, publishing books is a hobby (hence the delay in publishing the book) – but their book production values are professional. Professor Ranjit Kumar Dev Goswami recommended In A Far Country to them. They at once agreed to publish it, with no thoughts of profits. (Lately they have published a few out of print or difficult to acquire books.) I like the cover that Prince Choudhury and Nripen Barma have designed. The sepia tone is nice (my view) and the use of red lettering adds the right dash of colour. The cover picture of a ghat is from the original book and has been much enhanced in quality.
There are some intriguing photographs in the book. Is the one captioned ‘First Coverts at Sadiya’ of Nidhi Levi and Thuku, Nidhi’s wife (and their child), since the former is recorded as the first Assamese convert? But dates are a problem. Photography was just about invented in 1841, when Nidhi was baptized. The mission station at Sadiya was abandoned that same year, and photography did not become a prevalent medium for at least another decade or so. Was it taken later? When? I like the photo below of ‘missionary laborers’ on an elephant. Elephants were often used by the missionaries to undertake their tours. It was a fall from an elephant in Dibrugarh which forced the elderly Miles Bronson to finally call it a day and return to America.
In a Far Country put me in touch with several descendants of Ruth and Miles Bronson. A blog post I wrote after first reading it interested Lori Walsh, a descendant of the Bronsons’ fifth daughter, Sophia. After Lori wrote to me I send her a copy of the book in my possession. It had a few pages missing. Later Lori was able to find an original copy of the 1911 edition in an American library. She kindly shared this with me and it is the version that the Bhabani edition is based on. Tom Billard, who is a descendant of Eliza Bronson Cotes Robinson, the third of the Bronson daughters, wrote to me as well. The Bronson family chronology in my edition is partly based on his research into his family’s past. Neither Lori Walsh nor Tom Billard knew each other. It made me very happy to put the cousins in touch. (They were delighted.) I also corresponded with another descendant of Sophia, Mary Anne Titterington. She sent an image of a painting of Ruth Bronson. I didn’t use it in my book but, as I do not remember seeing it anywhere, I am posting it here.
Who is the book for? After my blogpost on the Bronson family appeared a Christian reader from Nagaland (I believe) contacted me saying she would feel blest to receive a copy. She and others like her are the book’s most logical readers. But the book should also be of interest to scholars of colonial Assam, Northeast India, church history (Bronson is locally revered but little known in the global history of missions ) and to those who – often ‘reading against the grain’ – work in such areas as life writing and travel writing, modernity, and feminism (missionary women were an integral, if not always acknowledged, part of missionary projects).