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American Orient

Imagining the East from the Colonial Era through the Twentieth Century

David Weir

Publication Year: 2011

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.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press


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Title Page

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p. iii

Copyright Page

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p. iv

Table of Contents

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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

The only transcendental experience available at the Cooper Union is in the classroom, so thanks are due to the transcendent students in my seminar on the American Orient, especially Janice Chu, Ugla Hauksd

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pp. 1-13

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...

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1. The Eighteenth Century: From Politics to Theology

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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...

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2. The Nineteenth Century: From Theology to Scholarship

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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...

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3. The Fin de Si

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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...

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4. The Twentieth Century I: From Aesthetics to Modernism

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pp. 121-174

The Yankee experience in Japan repeats the presuppositions 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...

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5. The Twentieth Century II: From Modernism to Mass Culture

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pp. 175-231

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...

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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...


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pp. 257-285


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pp. 287-300

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760017
E-ISBN-10: 1613760019
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498785
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498788

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 794700477
MUSE Marc Record: Download for American Orient

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • East Asia -- Relations -- United States.
  • United States -- Relations -- East Asia.
  • East and West -- History.
  • Public opinion -- United States -- History.
  • East Asia -- Foreign public opinion, American.
  • American literature -- History and criticism.
  • East Asia -- In literature.
  • United States -- Intellectual life.
  • United States -- Civilization -- East Asian influences.
  • Orientalism -- United States -- History.
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