- American Pacificism: Oceania in the US Imagination
Five years ago you would have been hard pressed to find any academic book about literary construction and production in Oceania. Until recently, Pacific studies drew almost exclusively from anthropology, history, and political science, rather than from literature. Even those trained in literary studies, including scholars in postcolonial and American studies, tended to overlook the region. Yet the few scholars who have engaged the literature of Oceania have not always met the continental-based marketing formulas of the major publishing houses. Thus it is deeply gratifying to see an expansion in the publishing of Pacific Island literatures, an ongoing reminder that creative writers rarely obey the national boundaries of our own disciplinary making. Pacific literary studies, by its very framework, is a regional and transnational endeavor, adding new, global dimensions to the writers who visited and sought inspiration from Oceanic contexts as well as the indigenous and local writers who have decolonized these literary legacies and have drawn from traditional Pacific art forms to pioneer new genres.
Although many scholars have engaged with the eighteenth-century legacies of European colonialism in the Pacific, nineteenth and early twentieth century American inscriptions have received less attention. Paul Lyons's book provides a useful genealogy of the Pacific insofar as it has been inscribed in the masculine US imagination by armchair travelers, tourists, colonists, naval officers, and seamen. Even those well versed in the literary production of the American Pacific will find the list of authors considered here to be vast, underlining how the formulation of US literature was so dependent on Oceanic contexts. The writers addressed in this study include Henry James, Edgar Allan Poe, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Wilkes, Herman Melville, Robert Dean Frisbie, A Grove Day, James Warren Stoddard, Frederick O'Brien, James Michener, and many others. The chapters are organized in chronological order, beginning with a nineteenth-century genealogy of the American Pacific archive. Lyons adopts Edward Said's well-known concept of "Orientalism" to interrogate the US discursive construction of Oceania, an "American Pacificism." While drawing attention to the ways in which each generation of writers drew heavily from its precursors, Lyons also outlines how national, material, commercial, and social demands shifted over time and thus impacted how Pacificism has been inscribed. These are complex and often paradoxical representations, which may combine on the one hand a "nationalistic stepping-stone narrative" of the region alongside a "nostalgic, oneiric, cover story that it never displaces" (27).
In the first chapter of the book, Lyons helpfully adopts the semiotics of tourism theory to address the construction of American studies as it incorporated Pacificist texts, a touristic [End Page 644] desire he traces to Melville's earliest narratives and their reception. The mutually constitutive relation between the omnipresent cannibal narrative of the South Seas and its recuperation in tourist discourse demonstrates how Oceania "remains a vast field for the projection of a deeply racialized and fantasmatic vision of human history" (47). His second chapter outlines the role of American nautical adventure fiction and its indoctrination of young workers into a high-risk profession that coded US upward mobility in terms of its expansion into a mercantilist Pacific empire (49). Lyons points out that the presentation of Pacific Islanders as hospitable or hostile reflected American success or failure in commercial relations, a point that could have been more fully explored in terms of gender relations, particularly the construction of traveling masculinity. Chapter 3 examines the role of fear in the ubiquitous narrative of "eye-witness" cannibalism and its construction of misperception and trust, while chapter 4 turns to masculine friendship between Americans and Pacific Islanders and their inscription of erotics and politics. Lyons's exploration of the homoerotics of the "e inoa" (friend, in Tahitian) or "taio" (in Marquesan) ceremony between US visitors and their male hosts turns to the expected figure of Herman Melville but also expands the analysis to include Henry Adams, the hypermasculine Jack...