Albert Rawson in How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream

Albert Rawson in How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935 by Susan Nance

This 2009 book from UNC Press explores  the marketing of Arab and Middle Eastern cultures in America during an era when “playing Eastern” provided a livelihood to many entrepreneurs.   The book jacket describes them:  “Over the course of 150 years, until the Great Depression, generations of native- and foreign-born actors took on lavish North African, Middle Eastern, or Indian costumes, accents, and names…in ways that could be controversial or celebrated but always had to be financially viable.”   Among those who scrambled to make a living as intermediaries between east and west, none is more fascinating than Albert Leighton Rawson.  Much of Nance’s third chapter discusses Rawson and the Shriners.  What made it possible for an American like Rawson to travel to Egypt in the 1850s, and meet there Russians and Britons who shared his interest in the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean?  Nance sheds light on the changes of the period:

Growing personal wealth for some as well as blooming communication and transportation industries that integrated the telegraph, postal service, publishing, and rail with the new international steamer service made a Middle Eastern visit much more doable for Americans in terms of time, money, and health  risks, than, say, India, Rhodesia, or the Philippines.  For instance, in 1860 over 19,000 Americans would cross the Atlantic, and five hundred of them toured Egypt.  A typical route saw Americans voyage in winter to Alexandria by ship, south through Egypt by boat on the Nile and back, then by camel and horse caravan across the Sinai, to Palestine, Syria, and perhaps Anatolia…a large minority of these tourists had the skills with which to compose publishable travel narratives and the business or social connections with which to secure publication deals.(p.34)

Nance concludes her discussion of Rawson with a summary of his complexity:

Rawson’s work for Harper’s, his appeal to Biblical scholars, and his esoteric mystical pursuits beg the question of which performance was the real Albert Leighton Rawson, and how he could shift back and forth between a Protestant-friendly persona of Holy Land scholar and illustrator and the complex guise of a brotherly Muslim mystic and confidante to chivalrous Arab warriors.  Rawson presented himself to successions of different people, each in a slightly different way, more or less mystical, more or less Protestant, more or less Masonic, more or less Muslim, to serve his entrepreneurialism and the Ex Oriente Lux message he might need at any given moment. (p. 97)

In 1853 he was already lecturing to the YMCA in Boston about his knowledge of the Holy Land, so marketing himself as an expert began in his early twenties.  His painting career was moderately successful but engravings seem to have been his livelihood.   Rawson was one of eleven founding members of the American Watercolor Society and a fair sampling of his art  is viewable online.  A recent sale of his work  shows a respectable price.  Rawson was recently discussed in Jay Kinney’s The Masonic Myth (HarperCollins 2009), with emphasis on his role in creating the founding myth of the Shriners.  He calls Rawson “something of a fringe Masonic confidence man” since he “claimed to have translated the original rituals from the Arabic and to have provided the new organization with actual contacts with Eastern brotherhoods, most notably the Bektashi order of Sufis.”  This makes for an “elaborate mythos concocted by Rawson and a few others intent on fleshing out the Orientalist motif.”(p. 77)   Another recent book in which Rawson is discussed is Roderick Bradford’s D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker (Prometheus, 2006).  Rawson’s involvement with Bennett in the Free Thought movement developed in New York but extended to Europe where they appeared jointly at an 1880 Free Thought conference in Brussels.  Rawson and Bennett were equally targeted during this period by crusading moralist Anthony Comstock, who exposed Rawson’s history of an 1851 larceny conviction and charges of bigamy.  John Patrick Deveney has deftly unraveled some of Rawson’s automythologizing in a series articles published in Theosophical History, which Nance and Kinney draw upon in their portrayals of him.   His Bible engravings were the greatest part of his published body of work, yet he was openly disdainful of Christian orthodoxy and played a public role in the Free Thought movement.   It is hard to imagine him taking Sufism or Islam seriously while creating such a mockery as the Shrine rituals.   But in 1893 he gave his full support to yet another venture, and perhaps the real Rawson in old age is to be found in this final legacy.

Umar F. Abd-Allah is the author of A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life of Alexander Russell Webb, published by Oxford University Press in 2006.   Webb had been US consul in the Philippines in 1887 when he encountered Islam, which he embraced the following year.  Webb created the American Mission as the first Islamic institution in the U.S.   Abd Allah writes that Webb wrote “numerous books intended to introduce Islam to Americans, started the first Islamic press in the United States, published  a journal entitled the Moslem World, and served as the representative of Islam at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.”  Rawson enters the narrative as an important ally of Webb’s enterprise: “One of his distinctive organizational principles was the creation of study circles `of five persons each…for study and improvement, and with the view of bringing the desired moral influences to bear upon evils now prevalent’…the most productive organizer of Webb’s circles was A.L. Rawson, a convert from Woodcliff, New Jersey, with close ties to [William Henry] Quilliam.  Rawson eventually formed his own American Moslem Institute as a branch of Quilliam’s society, although he contributed to the Moslem World, which duly announced the foundation of Rawson’s organization.”  Quilliam was the first native Briton to become a Muslim convert and propagandist, and his Islamic Institute in Liverpool was quite successful in attracting converts.  Quilliam created an Islamic Press active in the UK from 1893 through his immigration to Turkey in 1908.

Rawson’s travels present a series of puzzles for the historian, and his 1874 Eastern Mediterranean journeys included a long stay in Cyprus with a host who soon became powerful in the New York art world.  My next blog post will explore the career of Luigi Palma di Cesnola, founding director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Rawson’s artistic talents were applied to cataloging an archaeological dig that made Cesnola highly celebrated in New York while denounced as a looter in Cyprus.