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Book Beat: September 1998

Recent publications from CLAS faculty.

U.S. Orientalisms:  Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890

U.S. Orientalisms:  Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890Malini Johar Schueller (English
(The University of Michigan Press, 1998) 
Available through Amazon

U.S. Orientalisms:  Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890 is the first extensive and politicized study of nineteenth-century American discourses that helped build an idea of nationhood with control over three "orients":  the "Barbary" Orient, the Orient of Egypt, and the Orient of India. Malini Johar Schueller persuasively argues that current notions about the East can be better understood as letter-day manifestations of the earlier U.S. visions of the Orient refracted variously through millennial fervor, racial-cultural difference, and ideas of westerly empire.


As with Emerson, however, critical questions about Whitman and the Orient have been concerned with the resemblances between Whitman's philosophical i.e., nonideological ideas and those of Asian, specifically Hindu, thought. The controversy over the intellectual origins of Whitman's poems began with Henry David Thoreau's visit to the poet in Brooklyn in 1856, a year after the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Thoreau had called Whitman's poems "wonderfully like the Orientals" (by which Thoreau meant Hindu poems in translation) but when he asked Whitman if he had read any Indian literature of Hindu scriptures, Whitman replied, "no:  tell me about them."  Emerson, too, had described Leaves of Grass as "a remarkable mixture" of the Bhagavad-Gita and the New York Herald. Yet, in 1857, despite his proclaimed ignorance about Hindu scriptures, Whitman defended Emerson's poem "Brahma" by attempting to explain the status of Brahma as a deity. Later, in "A Backward Glance o'er Travel'd Roads," Whitman admitted reading the Hindu poems before writing the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.  

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