Carnegie Mellon University

The Imperialist Imaginary: Culture, Capital, and the Formation of an American Pacific

Author: John Eperjesi
Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2001

This dissertation is part complement, and part critique, of recent efforts in the fields of American Literature and American Studies to understand one of the more embattled terms in American political rhetoric: imperialism.  At the turn of the century, public circulation of this term accelerated in the context of three interrelated events: the economic crises that punctuated the 1890s, the shift of the Spanish-American War into a Filipino-American War, and the panic that China was about to be divided by Europe and Russia into "spheres of influence."  I argue that an American Pacific emerged from the literary, political, and economic representations of Asia and the Pacific that were either direct or indirect responses to the three events listed above.  Such representations were a necessary part of America's assertion of authority in the region. 

Literary and cultural critics often read the 1890s as a period of transition during which the continental frontier was replaced by a Pacific frontier.  In the first chapter, "The Superlative and Poetry of Commerce," I question this periodization by arguing that desire for the China trade preceded the continental frontier in the national imaginary of the nineteenth century.  In the second chapter, "An American Pacific Jeremiad," I argue that Frank Norris uses the symbol of the wheat in The Octopus to deconstruct the liberal, agriculturalist utopias of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, and thus replace the mission of westward expansion with a mission to China as the destiny of national becoming. 

Through a reading of the Journal of the American Asiatic Association in the third chapter, "The American Asiatic Association and Imperialist Imaginary," I argue that "Asia and Oceania" was not a geographical given.  Rather, through the play of geographical signifiers structuring the Journal's discourse, an entity about which knowledge could be accumulated was projected: the regional imaginary of an American Pacific.  Capital needs a regional imaginary in order to overcome spatial barriers to expansion.  In the fourth chapter, "Becoming Hawaiian," I turn to Jack London's travelogues and Pacific tales.  London's travel writings evince a strong identification with the Hawaiian other, and disavowal with the subject position of tourist.  This play of identity and difference was symptomatic of London's desire to distance himself from potential complicity with the project of United States imperialism in the Pacific.