- Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics
For the past twenty years or so, the field of American studies has undergone a post-national turn that has elicited diverse scholarship that takes hemispheres, regions, areas, borderlands, and the planet as founding critical geographies. This turn, once cutting-edge, has become more or less the norm for the field. In Transpacific Imaginations: History, Literature, Counterpoetics, a work of post-national American literary history, Yunte Huang brings together readings of canonical American and Asian-American literature, Chinese historiography, and the faux-Hiroshima writings of Yasusada. Huang argues that transpacific imaginations refer to "literary and historical imaginations that have emerged under the tremendous geopolitical pressure of the Pacific encounters" (2).
The first section of the book, "History: And the Views from the Shores," is divided into three brief chapters on the transpacific travel writing of Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and Chinese historian Liang Qichao. In 1866, Twain was sent as a newspaper correspondent to Hawai'i, where he wrote a series of letters in which he celebrated the Pacific as a space of economic opportunity and expansion. Twain's uncritical endorsement of Orientalist and Pacific pastoral mythologies was complicated, though, when discussing Cook, who represented a violent, [End Page 208] exploitative relationship to native culture. Huang writes, "In spite of his apparent enthusiasm over the new age of the Pacific, we can identify in Twain subterranean layers of reservations, concerns, contradictions, and reversals" (18-19). Like Twain, Henry Adams's travel writings from Japan and Hawai'i authorized conventional Orientalist and Pacific pastoral mythologies. For Adams, Japan was a premodern retreat from "overcivilized America" and the Japanese appeared to be "childlike" (25-26). According to Huang, Adams's racism toward the Japanese was the product of a progressive, teleological view of history. Unlike the euphoria expressed by Twain in Hawai'i, Adams felt bored while in Tahiti and Samoa, and opted to fight off boredom by writing a history of his surroundings. Adams decided to write a history of Tahiti based on oral narratives that, as oral narratives do, changed with the telling. Rhetorical instability and cultural multiplicity frustrated Adams as he unsuccessfully struggled to cook a fixed historical text out of raw Tahitian ingredients. In the end, Huang argues, the Pacific came to symbolize a maze of rhetorical and cultural particularities that resisted Adams's desire for historical unity. Adams therefore "turned a blind eye to multiplicity and, as a result, excluded these experiences from his classic autobiography" (39). Liang Qichao, a "prominent Chinese political reformist and historian," traveled from China to Hawai'i in 1899 and to North America in 1903. Liang's meditations on traditional Chinese historiography, and his critique of Sino-centered universalism, were triggered by US imperialist ambitions in the Pacific. In his travels across the Pacific, "Liang feels the increasing need for a historiographical revolution that can serve China, which is no longer the 'world' but merely a nation" (47). In his reading of Liang, Huang contends, "The Pacific is the dead end of historical thinking for premodern China, whereas it is a new manifestation of providential design for the United States" (6).
The next section, "Literature: Moby-Dick in the Pacific," is made up of five chapters on the transpacific setting of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, a setting that critics have tended to ignore. Unlike the travel writing of Twain, Adams, and Liang, which was ultimately complicit with imperialism in the region, Moby-Dick is much harder to fix in terms of aesthetic, ethical, or political categories. Huang reads Melville through the critical terms of "collection" and "collecting," shifting attention away from production in order to gauge Melville's relationship to capitalism. Relying on critical theories of Georges Bataille and Walter Benjamin, Huang argues that the act of collecting involves a withdrawal from exchange: "Ahab wants to take the whale outside of monetary measurement, outside of the system of exchangeability and utility" (63). For Huang, Ishmael's attitude toward history parallels Ahab...