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American Literature 72.3 (2000) 521-552

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Exporting Christian Transcendentalism, Importing Hawaiian Sugar:
The Trans-Americanization of Hawai‘i

Rob Wilson

What a help is our Philippine war at present in teaching [American children] geography!

—William James, Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899)

What other writer [than Mark Twain] at this early date better glimpsed the role of America in Asia and in the Pacific, ocean of the future?

—A. Grove Day, “Innocent Abroad in Hawaii: Mark Twain”

California materialized into a coastal center of capitalist accumulation and U.S. Pacific Rim presence with the discovery of gold in 1848 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Capitalist centralization continued in London, Paris, and New York City, but geography was being restructured along oceanic pathways of economic flux and cultural liquidity that were linking the space—and racial frontier—of Asia and the Pacific to international and global designs centered in Europe and the mainland United States. It was during this booming era of uneven development and Manifest Destiny that the coastal area of Alta California, according to materialist geographer Edward Soja, began a “tilt to the global space economy of capitalism that would continue for the next century and a half.”1 Crucial to California’s entry into the dynamic world system being reshaped from Japan and China to the Isthmus of Panama and the neocolonial ports of the Pacific Rim was communication with and representation of Hawai‘i, which served as a mediating space transmitting the cheap labor and abundant resources of the Asian Pacific region to [End Page 521] mainland America through the port cities of the West Coast, especially San Francisco and Los Angeles.2

As a link to the markets of Canton and the whaling waters off Malaya and Japan, as well as an outpost in the uncharted commercial realm of Oceania, Hawai‘i had been linked—from the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 onward—to the outreach of competing national interests. These interests in Hawai‘i were marked by intertwined and contradictory cultural-political strategies predicated first on the continuing commercialization of Hawai‘i through “enlightened” Christian development and expansion of the commodity-exchange and sugar-plantation economy, and second on the repetitive projection of a counterfactual image of Hawai‘i as a quasi-primitive, dance-filled, eroticized Eden “remote from the work-day world” and forever calling “Aloha” to the U.S. mainland from the savage-cleansed Pacific.3

In the seductive words of Sanford Dole, first president of the “revolutionary” Republic of Hawai‘i, Hawai‘i was strategically situated to be a countervailing force against the interests of Japan, Germany, Russia, and England in the treacherous Pacific, “being the western outpost of Anglo Saxon civilization and a vantage ground of American commerce in the Pacific.”4 Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, had protested this usurpation of sovereignty in songs, letters, acts, and prayers—to no avail.5 The island spaces of Oahu and Maui were being transformed materially and culturally into U.S. appendages while being (paradoxically) preserved as pleasure sites of quasi-Edenic fantasy, tourist enchantment, and erotic recreation immune to capitalist destruction. They were to remain (at least in the national imagination) what Mark Twain called (in a barely sublimated military metaphor) “the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.”6

Soja calls this disruptive and uneven modernizing of localities peripheralization, by which he means the differential distribution of power, interest, labor, and capital across space, and the domination of local spaces and cultures by the mandates of military-industrial time. It was during this era of imperial expansion, closed frontier, and the search for foreign ports and extraterritorial markets that Hawai‘i became central to the formation of a peripheralized “American Pacific” linked to a Euro-American core.7 For as California became “centralized” in the transnational flow of capital and the play of geopolitics, Hawai‘i was peripheralized into a plantation resource, military outpost, [End Page 522] and tourist site.8 Given California’s statehood in 1850 and...


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pp. 521-552
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