Abstract

This essay investigates Emily Dickinson’s depictions of Asia by looking at the notion of material, especially narcotic, consumption in five of her poems. Although she rarely travelled, her Asiatic landscape oscillates between literary Orientalism, sensationalist reportage, and patriotic commentaries to account for the geopolitical contestation between Asia, Europe, and the United States. The relationship between the East and the West in the mid-nineteenth century was punctuated by several international encounters, such as the Anglo-Sino Opium Wars and Sino- American peace treaties. These poems of Asian representation, with their focus on the intricate relationship between possession and consumption, especially as seen through the Western employment of Asian workers and consumption of Asian material and cultural goods, reflect Dickinson’s deeper understanding of the transglobal interchange of her time. The paper looks at how her Boston Chinese Museum experience, in which opium consumption featured prominently, might have influenced Asiatic representation in her poems. It also examines the depictions of Chinese immigrants in the American West by Dickinson’s correspondents, such as Samuel Bowles and Helen Hunt Jackson, to see how they provide a fertile ground for Dickinson to conceive her Asiatic landscapes. By exploring how the social and cultural portrayals of Asia are adopted and appropriated in these poems, the essay suggests that they indicate Dickinson’s consistent engagement with an emerging consumer society in America that involved a transglobal circle of production and consumption, and her poems expose its problematic process that promoted international exchange but did not necessarily guarantee equality, progress or liberty. Furthermore, Dickinson’s positioning of the United States between the old worlds of Asia and Europe implies her early receptiveness to the patriotic discourses of her time, and her later, more reflective stance on United States culture. Her Asian “consumption” in these poems, particularly her association of Asia with consumerism and narcotic consumption, simultaneously evokes and unsettles the intended control of contemporary Orientalist discourses concerning the racial other.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1096-858X
Print ISSN
1059-6879
Pages
pp. 1-25
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-25
Open Access
No
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