Imagining the East from the Colonial Era through the Twentieth Century
How the image of the Orient has changed in American culture over the course of three centuries
Surveying the American fascination with the Far East since the mid-eighteenth 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 eighteenth-century 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.
"Weir builds on [Edward Said’s] analysis of the European “otherizing” of the East by looking specifically at the role of the “Orient” in American culture, history, and literature. . . . Written in an accessible style, the book is an excellent resource. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice
"Weir argues that American cultural engagement with the East can be organized into a series of overlapping concerns--politics, theology, scholarship, aesthetics, modernism, and mass culture--the nature of which he periodically and judiciously qualifies."—The New England Quarterly
"While American Orientalism is not a novel scholarly pursuit, the scope of Weir's book, not only in terms of periods covered, from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries, but also in the range of disciplines--philosophy, literature, poetry, religion, art, politics--is unprecedented. . . . Weir's scholarship is extremely learned, and yet his writing is readable and jargon-free."—Studies in American Culture