One of NPR's Books We Love in 2022.
Longlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
In this erudite and piercing biography, best-selling author Reza Aslan proves that one person’s actions can have revolutionary consequences that reverberate the world over.
Little known in America but venerated as a martyr in Iran, Howard Baskerville was a twenty-two-year-old Christian missionary from South Dakota who traveled to Persia (modern-day Iran) in 1907 for a two-year stint teaching English and preaching the gospel. He arrived in the midst of a democratic revolution—the first of its kind in the Middle East—led by a group of brilliant young firebrands committed to transforming their country into a fully self-determining, constitutional monarchy, one with free elections and an independent parliament.
The Persian students Baskerville educated in English in turn educated him about their struggle for democracy, ultimately inspiring him to leave his teaching post and join them in their fight against a tyrannical shah and his British and Russian backers. “The only difference between me and these people is the place of my birth," Baskerville declared, “and that is not a big difference.”
In 1909, Baskerville was killed in battle alongside his students, but his martyrdom spurred on the revolutionaries who succeeded in removing the shah from power, signing a new constitution, and rebuilding parliament in Tehran. To this day, Baskerville’s tomb in the city of Tabriz remains a place of pilgrimage. Every year, thousands of Iranians visit his grave to honor the American who gave his life for Iran.
In this rip-roaring tale of his life and death, Aslan gives us a powerful parable about the universal ideals of democracy—and to what degree Americans are willing to support those ideals in a foreign land. Woven throughout is an essential history of the nation we now know as Iran—frequently demonized and misunderstood in the West. Indeed, Baskerville’s life and death represent a “road not taken” in Iran. Baskerville’s story, like his life, is at the center of a whirlwind in which Americans must ask themselves: How seriously do we take our ideals of constitutional democracy and whose freedom do we support?
About the Author
Reza Aslan is an internationally acclaimed writer, producer, and scholar of religions. He is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Zealot, and editor of Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
An engrossing, entertaining, evocative, and unexpectedly cinematic story, a pleasure to read in that specific way where it’s impossible not to imagine the movie or ten-episode series in your head as you go. For both the facts of the story and Aslan’s unique ability to merge literary flourish with accessible scholarship and historical deep-dives, it’s a page-turner the likes of which are rarely produced in the historical biography genre. For its filling of a major gap in the library of geopolitical history, its resonance with the present-day strife in Iran, its echoes of other historical political battlelines in the region, and its celebration of how sincere faith of any denomination can inform a more noble and humanistic view of international relations, it’s required reading.
— Shana Nys Dambort - LA Weekly
Aslan tells us Baskerville’s story with passion and sweetness.
— Tunku Varadarajan - Wall Street Journal
A rip-roaring tale of a fascinating time in history… Aslan’s vivid storytelling evokes an intriguing cast of courtiers, clerics, desperados and idealists.
— Tara Bahrampour - Washington Post
Reza Aslan has a unique talent for showing how piety and politics can merge, or quarrel, in the hearts of people. An American Martyr in Persia is a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing biography. A triumph.
— Laila Lalami, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist, author of Conditional Citizens
An astonishing story that underscores the power of biography. In Reza Aslan’s lyrical voice, Howard Baskerville’s short life comes alive as a fantastical fairy tale—a wild and improbable adventure story. [Aslan] reminds us that Iran’s revolution is quite simply unfinished.
— Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Prometheus
Beautifully written and immensely readable.… Aslan meticulously weaves Iranian–US relations with palace intrigue, Russian and British designs on Persia, and heart-stopping accounts of battles between the forces of democracy and autocracy—some seventy years before another Iranian revolution grabbed the attention of the west.
— Hooman Majd, author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ
Great read, thoughtful and thought provoking. We must all pay attention to Reza Aslan’s timely reminder that ‘the suffering of any person anywhere is the responsibility of all peoples everywhere.’
— Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
Aslan has rediscovered the tale of one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures of the early twentieth century.… [This story] is a poignant reminder of the extraordinary affinity that historically existed between the peoples of Iran and the United States and raises the hope that this closeness might someday be kindled anew.
— Scott Anderson, author of The Quiet Americans
A remarkable history that echoes to this day, with much to teach us about modern Iran and about ourselves. Read this book and be reminded of the common humanity that can transcend even our own cavernous divides.
— Ben Rhodes, author of After the Fall
Reza Aslan’s An American Martyr in Persia is a stirring reminder of the power of idealism, hope, and courage in the face of tyranny and injustice. The story of Howard Baskerville is as important today as it was in his lifetime, and Aslan’s lucid prose and compelling narrative introduces him to a new generation who will find inspiration in his deeds.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer
Replete with fascinating asides into the revolutionary politics of the era and the complex dynamics between Russia, England, and Persia, this is a provocative portrait of an unsung American hero.
— Publishers Weekly
An intriguing read that breathes life into a pivotal moment of Persian/Iranian history.