An Interview with Caleb Shelburne

Could you tell us about your project?

My project centers on the construction and first years of the Paris-Constantinople Orient Express. Though national railroad histories are common, few scholars have engaged with international projects—even of such cultural significance—and they have almost exclusively focused on European perspectives and influence. My project aims to reverse that directionality by concentrating on Ottoman voices and contributions: the years of negotiation before the railroad’s construction, the public response to its inauguration, and the stories of Ottomans who took the train in later years. Thanks to a Center for European Studies grant, I’m traveling this August to Turkey and France to begin my primary source research.

What led you to work on this project?

Since my freshman year, I have been fascinated by people moving across presumably closed cultural spaces, from captured Ottoman princes to intrepid Romantic travelers. With the Orient Express, I am able to turn from individual stories of movement to reactions to the possibility of movement itself. The railroad is known as a symbol of modernity, but surprisingly few scholars have examined its early reception in non-Western societies. Bringing together themes of Orientalism and modernity, the Orient Express seems the perfect point of entry to examining late nineteenth-century Ottoman perspectives on foreign societies and their own.

What drew you to SRC fellowship? And how do you see it contributing to your work?

My primary attraction was the SRC’s interdisciplinarity. Unlike most academic opportunities at Harvard, the SRC encourages fellows to engage across a wide range of disciplines in order to examine broader questions of discourses and modern life. More importantly, where individuals inevitably must specialize, the SRC provides a forum for students of all disciplines to collaborate. With those thoughts in mind, I hope that the SRC contributes to my work in two principal ways. First, I hope it provides both models and guidance as I continue to strive for interdisciplinarity in my research and writing. Second, I hope scholars and students from other fields will expose me to new ways of thinking about science, religion, and other central questions beyond the restrictions of my focus.

How do you see your work benefitting from or addressing questions of science and religion?

It seems to me almost impossible to ask historical questions without somehow addressing “science” and “religion,” writ large. I was first interested in the Ottoman Empire for its mythic religious tolerance and pluralism, which seemed a remarkable contrast to descriptions of its former territories today. Now, as my focus has shifted to global constructions of modernity, I plan to examine how new discourses of religion and science—both internal and external—informed nineteenth-century societies. Public technologies like railroads heralded scientific progress and connection in a time of increasing religious conservatism and racial nationalism. Through this project and others, I hope to examine how these discourses were not as separated as is often assumed today, and how individuals in a globalizing world came to understand their own positions and identities.

What lessons does your project provide for scientists, historians, religious scholars, or the general public today?

At this stage in my project, I hesitate to enumerate the lessons my work can provide. Nonetheless, I hope my project will, beyond recommending a thesis, demonstrate the viability and importance of interdisciplinary work focusing on non-Western actors. I aim to both contribute to Ottoman history and provide a helpful corrective for Eurocentric narratives of modernity and cosmopolitanism. I believe that all of us, regardless of discipline, should consider non-traditional perspectives and methods as we seek to answer big questions. In more theoretical terms, I hope to challenge the assumed directionality of West to East, center to periphery, in an effort to build a more inclusive understanding of human society and thought.

What else would you like our readers to know about your work?

During my research in August, I’ll take a series of trains from Istanbul to Paris, following the old path of the Orient Express. While the academic merit of this experience remains to be seen, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of time to catch up on my reading!

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