Letter: Armenian Studies in US Was Result of Effort by Many


To the Editor:

I read with considerable interest in the May 2 issue of the Mirror-Spectator “ALMA Chairman Haig Der Manuelian Speaks at Society for Armenian Studies 35th Anniversary Banquet,” which included some of Der Manuelian’s recollection of the early days of Armenian Studies in the US and, thus, early days of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR).
As one of the three original founders of NAASR, with Arra S. Avakian and Thomas T. Amirian, I, too, remember those times with clarity and vividness, including the role of Der Manuelian, one of the first nine founders of NAASR. He is correct to identify the vital part played by Prof. Richard Frye, who was a catalyst for NAASR and for the establishment of a chair (endowed professorship) in Armenian Studies at Harvard University. There are others whose important roles must also be remembered.

In April 1954, when I was chairman of the Program Committee of the Boston branch of the Armenian Students’ Association (ASA), I invited Professor Frye to address our group. I was taking a class in Middle Eastern History with Professor Frye at that time in the course of my graduate studies. His talk, before a capacity audience, titled, “The Study of Armenian History, Language, and Culture — It’s Need and Importance,” called for the establishment of Armenian Studies on the same footing as Persian, Arabic and other regional studies and for the elimination of Armenian-Americans’ “ghetto mentality.”

In the weeks after Professor Frye’s talk, I spoke with Arra Avakian, who had taught Armenian History in Harvard’s Extension School, and Thomas Amirian, who shared my enthusiasm for what Frye had said. As it happened, one day I encountered Van Aroian, who is today on NAASR’s Board of Directors and who was also a student of Professor Frye’s, leaving the latter’s office. I learned that they had been conversing about the need for a chair in Armenian Studies. I had noted the emphasis Frye had placed on the role of Armenia and in the Middle East and had wondered at his interest in the subject. We also discussed the issue of the need for a permanent program in Armenian Studies at a leading university.

Soon after this conversation, on April 29, 1954, I sent a long memo to Frye outlining a possible course of action towards the achievements of the goal establishing a program in Armenian Studies at a leading university such as Harvard.

It was decided that the next step would be to approach the Armenian Students Association (ASA) at their national convention to enlist them to spearhead the movement for the establishment of a chair or program in Armenian Studies. However, while endorsing the idea, the ASA chose not to take on the responsibility for such a large undertaking, which involved raising a minimum of $300,000.

Thus, it was decided that a new entity would have to be created. A group of nine began meeting and planning: Amirian, Avakian and I were joined by Richard Malkasian, Jack Guveyan, James Etmekjian — all ASA members — along with Eghishe Chrakian, Haig Der Manuelian and Richard Frye.

Meetings and discussions took place throughout 1954 and early 1955. By the time of the public launch of NAASR in March 1955, a group of about 60 men and women had joined and became founding members of the organization. Among them were prominent members of the community such as James Ajemian, Rev. Arten Ashjian, Edna Bogosian, Dikran Boyajian, K. Merton Bozoian, Hamasdegh-Gelenian, Dr. Elizabeth Gregory, G. John Gregory, the Rev. Dr. Yervant Hadidian, J. Mark Kolligian, Rev. Papken Maksoudian, John Mirak, Dr. Thomas Moranian, Zabelle Tahmizian, Zareh Thomajan, Gen. Sarkis Zartanian and notable members of the Harvard faculty such as Prof. Roman Jakobson, Prof. Michael Karpovich and Prof. William L. Langer, at the time the director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, who played a major supporting role and acted as a go-between with the Harvard administration. It would be impossible in a short letter to list all the names, yet all deserve credit and recognition for doing their part to get the ball rolling.

Still others contributed a great deal to the establishment of NAASR and to the creation of the field of Armenian Studies in the US even before NAASR’s establishment. A few must be noted, including Rev. A. A. Bedikian who taught Armenian courses at Columbia as early as the 1930s and was a member of NAASR’s first Board of Directors; Prof. Robert P. Blake of Harvard who introduced Armenian language and history to Harvard in the 1920s; Prof. Sirarpie Der Nersessian of Wellesley College and Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Center who appeared at so many NAASR events in the early days; and Prof. Giuliano Bonfante of Princeton, a philologist who did important work on the Armenian language. These great scholars and a handful of others laid an important foundation.

It is a fact, however, that before NAASR was launched Armenian Studies in the US only existed in isolated instances, including at Columbia University, and not on a permanent basis. The men and women who were the founders of NAASR understood the need for Armenian Studies to take its place as a permanent part of academic studies in the US. I am proud to have been one among them.

One day the history of Armenian Studies in the US will be written. It is important — and not only important, but also only right — that the many who made such great efforts and sacrifices to achieve all we have today and to give worldwide recognition to Armenian Studies are not forgotten.

— Manoog S. Young

Chairman Emeritus

National Association for Armenian Studies and Research