Orientalism and Empire in the United States


Susan Muaddi Darraj

The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore MD

Copyright © 2002 by Susan Muaddi Darraj, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Schueller, Malini Johar. U. S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. 248 pp.

  1. In the recently launched US war on "terrorism," much has been made of President Bush's use of terms and phrases like "crusade" and "root out evil" to describe the massive military effort that has all but obliterated Afghanistan and destabilized an already shaky region of South Asia. These terms reinforce dichotomies in which the US portrays itself as being in the moral right, and the East as the abode of evil, barbarism and danger. Such image-building, however, should hardly surprise scholars and historians who have examined, as Malini Johar Schueller has done, the creation of the US's national identity, especially during the pivotal 19th century.

  2. Since Edward Said's groundbreaking Orientalism first made the power structure behind the West's portrayal of the East evident, most studies that have further examined the discourse that justified colonization of the East have focused on the literature of the European imperial powers, namely Great Britain and France. The United States as an imperial power, one that produced its own literature of empire, is rarely investigated. Thus, Schueller's U. S . Orientalisms: Race, Nation, and Gender in Literature, 1790-1890, is valuable as an exploration of the ways in which depicting both the Near and the Far East, the "Orient," shaped the United States of America's vision of itself as the new empire.

  3. Schueller notes that "the assumed lack of an imperialist tradition in the United States" (17) has prevented any serious study of US orientalist studies before. She dismisses the potential counter-argument that the US was too young as a nation during the "age of imperialism" to create its own literature of empire by offering a sampling of the US's obsession with the Orient that stretches back to the nation's forefathers, including Benjamin Franklin, who wrote a short story entitled "An Arabian Tale" (26). In October 1801, a New York newspaper began publishing installments of the oriental letters of lawyer Benjamin Silliman, a Federalist who used the letters to attack republicanism; they were entitled "Letters of Shahcoolen, a Hindu Philosopher, Residing in Philadelphia; to his Friend El Hassan, an Inhabitant of Delhi," and were so popular that they were eventually collected in a book. Furthermore, the publication of The Arabian Nights in 1794 by a Philadelphia publisher sold over 40,000 copies in ten years.

  4. As Schueller repeatedly emphasizes, the popularity of orientalist literature was not a harmless, fantastical American pastime. Rather, she argues that US orientalism was a key factor in the development of US identity: "An important way in which US nationhood in the nineteenth century defined itself was through imaginative control over various Orients, positioned divergently through different historical and ideological contexts" (viii). Schueller introduces and explicates three major historical contexts through which orientalist sentiment and literature were produced: 1) late 18th century U.S.-North Africa conflict; 2) the popular Egyptology and missionary movements of the 19th century; 3) and the "scholarly" Indology movement of the 19th century. These contexts spurred the sensitivity of the United States, despite its own colonized origin, to the "imperial possibilities" (x) available in the East. While the orientalist works of Edgar Allan Poe, Susanna Rowson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and others illustrated the USAmerican (a term Schueller prefers to "American" because it highlights "the imperialism inherent in the slippage between the terms" [207]) fascination with the East as a potential empire for the youthful, new nation and thus a challenge to the empires of Great Britain and France, Schueller also emphasizes the anxieties and wrinkles within the USAmerican social and political fabric that these works make clear. Though the US saw itself as a young, virile nation and dominator over the old, decaying East, orientalism as a "naturalized discourse of empire, predicated on oppositions, was interrupted by a violent destabilization of these oppositions," as evidenced in the literature of the period (3).

  5. In describing her approach to the literature, Schueller acknowledges Edward Said's work, but also notes that she occasionally departs from his conclusions. For example, she rejects the idea that orientalism was completely a masculine, hetereosexual discourse of power; rather, she presents compelling arguments about the work of female USAmerican writers, such as Susanna Rowson, Maria Susanna Cummins, and Harriett Prescott Spofford, contributions that belie "the idea of Orientalism as a male domain" (5). She also offers a differing perspective by citing US Orientalist works that move beyond the mind vs. body dichotomy, as well as works in which the "Oriental encounter opens up the possibilities of homoerotic gendering that cannot be freely articulated at home" (6). Schueller also breaks with Said in her assertion that Orientalism is an unchanging discourse; rather, she points out that USAmerican writers, writing either contemporaneously or only generations apart, interpreted and portrayed the Orient in different ways and for varying ends.

  6. Schueller's differences with Said, however, may be more due to the idea that European imperialism (which occupies the bulk of Said's studies) is not the same as US Orientalism. European imperialism realized that its systems of violent colonialism destabilized the myth of the unquestioned empirical narratives, thus requiring support in the form of ideas of firm national character; in other words, the idea of "nation" was necessitated by empire. In the case of US imperialism, however, the possibility of empire was spurred by the idea of nation: that is, the United States' national character was used to make geographical expansion of its borders seem natural.

  7. The US altercation with Algeria in 1785, described in chapter 2, provided the context for the first wave of orientalist literature about the East. In that year, Algerians captured US sailors aboard the Boston schooner Maria; they took other prisoners in subsequent years, and after negotiations, released them in 1797, twelve years later. The US public -- and its literary circles -- already thoroughly doused in orientalist writing from Europe about harems and sultans, couldn't help but to imagine what 12 years of slavery in Algiers were like, and, indeed, that captivity became heavily romanticized. The political events also produced a US military intervention, led by William Eaton, the US consul at Tripoli, who performed, as Schueller notes, "like an early Lawrence of Arabia" (46) and coordinated an Algerian-US attack on Tripoli to restore an exiled pasha -- it was "the first dramatic show of USAmerican prowess, as the marines raised the U.S. flag on the city walls" (46).

  8. The incident of the enslavement of USAmericans and the attack on Tripoli also demonstrated the virtuosity, respectability, and virility of the nascent nation, constructed in contrast to "immorality, excess, and slavery, all of which are signifiers of the North African Orient" (49), all in attempts to define the new empire of the US, which saw itself as a natural successor to Europe. However, as Schueller writes, partly due to the fact that slavery was at its height in the United States, some texts produced in the period blurred "the distinctions between virtuous empire and despotic empire, virtous body and licentious body" (49), such as Susanna Rowson's Slaves in Algiers (1794). Most male USAmerican writers of this period portrayed the virtuous USAmerican male hero, embodying the nation, penetrating the East, but Rowson "recast the rhetoric in terms of the liberty/slavery of women. [Her work] is particularly fascinating in its attempt to negotiate an emancipatory feminist discourse through the possibilities of the Algerian Orient while simultaneously striving to keep the discourse hierarchically raced" (61). Faced with conventional restraints on writing about women's issues, Rowson found the Orient could be a convenient backdrop that dispensed those constrictions and simultaneously offered "an enabling sexual space for women" (65). Indeed, Rowson presents that most licentious trope of all, the harem, as "a social space where women can form bonds free of the society of men" (65). Of course, Rowson's work was still a product of empire, as Schueller is quick to note: oriental women learn that the US is the moral harbinger and defender; one proclaims, "I am sure the woman must be blind and stupid, who would not prefer a young, handsome, good humored Christian, to an old, ugly ill natured Turk" (67). This statement elucidates Rowson's "split position as woman and imperial subject" (67), illustrating that, despite addressing US American feminist issues, Rowson remains an American who subscribes to notions of the Orient as backwards and in need of Christian conversion.

  9. In the book's third chapter, Schueller discusses the second context in which US orientalist literature was produced, that is, the trends of Egyptology and missionary colonialism. Both occurred in the larger frame of increased travel to the Middle East, and also spurred the culture of journeying to the East to explore, learn, and convert. Schueller spends very little space discussing Egyptology, summarizing it in a few pages; her discussion of missionary colonialism, however, is fascinating, especially because she highlights female missionaries to the Orient and their role in empire construction. Male missionaries were depicted as embodiments of the sanctity of the Christian nation, who, like Crusaders, set out to convert not only Muslims, but also to save those Arab Christians in the Middle East of whom they knew little save that they had been "contaminated . . . from centuries of contact with Islam" (78). Female missionaries, on the other hand, also represented the nation, but as victims of its patriarchy; missionary work was a liberating experience as it offered meaningful careers and travel opportunities that were not accessible at home. However, their "emancipation" was "symbiotically dependent on the childishness, dependency, and ignorance of Eastern women" (78), who were in need of America's physical and Christianity's moral rescue from the licentious world of the harem.

  10. In the last third of the book, Schueller examines Asian orientalism, and the US interest in the Far East, which was mainly sparked by "trade . . . that was most heavily invested with visions of the westerly movement of empire and with imperatives of national destiny, fulfilling Columbus' original mission" to find the East (142). The Asian orientalist bug infected writers such as Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and others who are usually considered staunchly "American" writers, writing about "American" themes. In her discussion of Asian orientalism, Schueller's prime example is India, which was then colonized by Great Britain, a fact neglected by the poets and writers, who were more intrigued by India's mythic past and omitted its present turmoil. Such a focus on the past, to the complete exclusion of the present, was useful: "The Asian Orientalist discourse of the mid-nineteenth century insistently constructed the Orient as passive, spiritual, and fatalistically tied to the past, in comparison to a vibrant, active, present-centered United States" (150) -- thus making the imperial project over India justifiable and a national imperative by providing the "enabling condition for the construction of the imperial body" (150). Schueller's discussion of Asian orientalism is especially enlightening; she explains how focusing on Asia's "past grandeur" and its spirituality at the exclusion of its present body to construct the youthful USAmerican empire enabled Emerson to bypass the issue of slavery at home that conflicted the US. Emerson himself, who dabbled in abolitionism but essentially subscribed to the popular notion of the inferiority of African-Americans, was himself confused and torn. Thus, like many USAmerican writers, Emerson uses the Orient as a tool to portray the image of the strong nation, while also deflecting domestic anxieties.

  11. Shueller concludes with a glimpse into the literature of the twentieth century, illustrating the persisting trend of using the Orient, including works from Madame Butterfly to John Updike's S; modern orientalist writing portrays the USAmerican not as a missionary or as a traveler, but as "an acquisitive speculator or cynical drifter" seeking "self-realization" in the tradition and stability of the Orient to escape from an increasingly technologized US (199). U.S. Orientalisms is marked by this foresight, as well as by Schueller's habit of moving beyond literature, and frequently delving into history, in her examination of the methods of constructing the US as an imperial body. She unearths intriguing historical facts about US politics and culture during 1790-1890 and connects them back to the nation's awakening imperial consciousness. This study will be important not only to American literary and cultural study, but also to understanding current attitudes in America's various levels of involvement in the Middle East and South Asia. The relevance of this persuasive and meticulously supported study to what many consider today to be a modern imperialist and expansionist project is seminal; the dichotomies of east vs. west, old vs. young, and immoral vs. moral are part of the rhetoric used to describe this modern conflict and US involvement in these troubled regions.

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