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American Orient

American Orient: Imagining the East from the Colonial Era through the Twentieth Century

David Weir
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    American Orient
    Book Description:

    Surveying the American fascination with the Far East since the mideighteenth century, this book explains why the Orient had a fundamentally different meaning in the United States than in Europe or Great Britain. David Weir argues that unlike their European counterparts, Americans did not treat the East simply as a site of imperialist adventure; on the contrary, colonial subjugation was an experience that early Americans shared with the peoples of China and India. In eighteenthcentury America, the East was, paradoxically, a means of reinforcing the enlightenment values of the West: Franklin, Jefferson, and other American writers found in Confucius a complement to their own political and philosophical beliefs. In the nineteenth century, with the shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the Hindu Orient emerged as a mystical alternative to American reality. During this period, Emerson, Thoreau, and other Transcendentalists viewed the “Oriental” not as an exotic other but as an image of what Americans could be, if stripped of all the commercialism and materialism that set them apart from their ideal. A similar sense of Oriental otherness informed the aesthetic discoveries of the early twentieth century, as Pound, Eliot, and other poets found in Chinese and Japanese literature an artistic purity and intensity absent from Western tradition. For all of these figures the Orient became a complex fantasy that allowed them to overcome something objectionable, either in themselves or in the culture of which they were a part, in order to attain some freer, more genuine form of philosophical, religious, or artistic expression.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-001-7
    Subjects: Sociology, Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    During the days of Lewis and Clark, Americans held out the hope of an easy way west, a path across the continent to the Pacific that would unify the nascent nation and connect its western verge to the wealthy, civilized cities of the Atlantic coast. The quest for the Northwest Passage was also driven by the dream of reaching the Far East, of extending the western reach of America so far that it became east again, a destiny more mingled than manifest, perhaps, but one that would at last achieve what Columbus had set out to accomplish. For centuries America...

  5. 1 The Eighteenth Century From Politics to Theology
    (pp. 15-46)

    In early America, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, no less than their European counterparts, all took an interest in the various Orients of the eighteenth century. All three were aware of the political import of Confucius, who entered into American political thought mainly by way of the great European philosophes that the nation’s founders admired and respected: Leibniz, Condorcet, Voltaire, and others. Jefferson, for example, appears to have derived some of his ideas about education from accounts of the Confucian system that found their way into the enlightened discourse of the Europeans. But Confucian thought ultimately proved irrelevant...

  6. 2 The Nineteenth Century From Theology to Scholarship
    (pp. 47-82)

    John Adams’s discovery of William Jones in 1817 and his distant relative Hannah Adams’s publication of the fourth and final edition of her celebrated dictionary in the same year occur at a critical moment in the history of the American Orient. Both Adamses looked to the authority of mythographic scholarship to support their own presuppositions about the value of traditional Christianity. Their presuppositions could not have been more unlike, however, the elder Adams finding fodder in the mythographers for his conviction that the young nation he had helped create still faced threats from organized religion, the younger one finding—in...

  7. 3 The Fin de Siècle From Scholarship to Aesthetics
    (pp. 83-120)

    During the last third of the nineteenth century, with the demise of the last shogunate in 1867, Japan broke with its feudal past and began to join the community of modern nations. When the Meiji dynasty was restored the following year, it undertook a systematic program of modernization, encouraging scientists and educators from the West to come to Japan and share their knowledge. Around the same time that American scholars began investigating Eastern culture in earnest, the Japanese established Western-style universities to encourage scholarship of a different stripe. Among the Americans who came to Japan as official guests of the...

  8. 4 The Twentieth Century I From Aesthetics to Modernism
    (pp. 121-174)

    The Yankee experience in Japan repeats the pre-suppositions of the fin de siècle and the aesthetic school but with significant variations: yes, beauty exists for the sake of beauty, and art is mostly an end in itself; at the same time, however, the aesthetic sphere has the potential to affect the world at large—not in an immediate social sense but in some obscure, protracted, abstract fashion. Ernest Fenollosa, John La Farge, and Percival Lowell were men of their time who found in the Japanese an intensity of aesthetic experience they had rarely encountered before. But they had, in fact,...

  9. 5 The Twentieth Century II From Modernism to Mass Culture
    (pp. 175-232)

    One of the paradoxes of American literary modernism which orientalism helps to illuminate is the conflicted attitude that modernists have about modernity. Conservative political values, even reactionary political values, can coexist with the most advanced forms of aesthetic innovations. The expression of the American Orient in popular culture is likewise beset with paradoxes, but the conflict of advanced aesthetics and reactionary ideology is not among them. At the same time, the medium of popular culture is no guarantee of democratic values or of social progress. But since popular culture by definition involves media and institutions that, for commercial reasons, are...

  10. Afterword
    (pp. 233-256)

    After more than two centuries, the American Orient remains a steady presence in the social and cultural life of the nation. From the earliest conflation of Confucianism with absolutist politics and rationalist morality to the nineteenth-century incorporation of Hinduism into Unitarian theology and transcendentalist philosophy; from the scholarly investigations of ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts to the fin de siècle explorations of Japanese aesthetics; from the modernist revision of almost all the prior treatments of Far Eastern traditions to the exploitation of those traditions by means of mass culture: the American Orient has undergone myriad transformations but continues to attract...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 257-286)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 287-300)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 301-301)