Enlightenment Orientalism in the American Mind
Series: Perspectives on Early America
- ISBN: 9781138358676
- Published By: Routledge
- Published: September 2018
Orientalism, a concept at the heart of Matthew H. Pangborn’s Enlightenment Orientalism in the American Mind, 1770–1807, has been and continues to be an identity-forging device that Westerners use to distinguish themselves in relation to Eastern “Others.” In his watershed 1978 study, Edward W. Said illuminated orientalism as the cultural lens within a colonial mission to affirm Western values by disparaging the East. Said’s appraisal of orientalism applies particularly to the Western outlooks of the late 19th- to early 20th-century European colonial enterprise of global subjugation and its lingering, value-laden legacy in the mid-20th century.
However, orientalism was prevalent in the 18th century as well. It was not yet aggressively condescending, as it later became, but it still served a vital role in Western cultivation of identity. In Enlightenment Orientalism Pangborn assesses American orientalist literature at the end of the 18th century, as American writers employed the East and Easterners as foils in their struggle with self-definition.
Central to Pangborn’s study is his recognition that American orientalist literature flourished amid a jarring economic boom. In the 18th century, Americans were benefiting from a seemingly endless supply of energy resources, including wood from dense forests, wind power available by sailing-ship advancements, water mills lacing the Atlantic seaboard, a thriving whale-oil industry, and the brutal system of human enslavement. This resulted in a massive accumulation of wealth, an elevated standard of living, and the thriving importation of luxury goods.
Pangborn notes that disorientation from abundance prompted American writers to reappraise the American identity, and they often did so by employing the orientalist genre. This typically featured a Western or Eastern traveler evaluating the contrasting culture: sometimes an American traveled to the East; sometimes an Easterner traveled to America. Either way, the interaction juxtaposed these cultures so that Americans could reflect on themselves through an Eastern mirror.
The majority of Pangborn’s book is composed of chapter-length analyses of American orientalist texts. The first addresses Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca (1770), a story some regard as the first American novel. Composed by Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge, undergraduate students at the College of New Jersey (Princeton University), the story tells of the satirical journeys and adventures of Father Bombo, its absurd lead character. An apparition admonishes Bombo for plagiarizing Lucian and, as penance, requires him to convert to Islam and make a pilgrimage to Mecca. For Pangborn, Bombo is a character “disturbingly larger than life” (86), bumbling about rashly and unreflectively amid a carefree abundance of resources (food, drink, houses, ships, etc.). As such, Bombo embodies early American moral hollowness and greed amid a crisis of oversupply.
Pangborn next analyzes Peter Markoe’s The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania (1787). Markoe writes pseudonymously as Mehemet, a fictional Algerian spy traveling to Philadelphia, sending a series of letters back home to report on America. Mehemet notes that American obsession with commerce and luxury has made the Philadelphians oblivious to realizing that there is a spy in their midst. Notably, Markoe wrote and published the book amid American anxieties over Algerian pirates following an Algerian seizure of American merchant ships in 1785, before the American states had unified and could form an effective navy to protect against such predation.
Following this, Pangborn turns to Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive (1797). This is a story about the life of a man who becomes a traveling physician in America. He eventually works on a slave ship, ultimately to be left ashore on a coast to care for sick slaves. There he is captured and brought to Algiers. Pangborn traces the themes of excess and perception in the story, which intersect especially on the issue of racial slavery: slaves are items of excess, premised on viewing them as objects, denying them personhood. Mirroring is a key to the story, with Algiers serving as an American mirror.
Next, Pangborn demonstrates how Benjamin Silliman, who become Yale University’s first professor of chemistry and one of the most significant American scientists of the early 19th century, wrote in the guise of fictional Hindu philosopher, Shahcoolen, to describe America. In his Letters of Shahcoolen (1801–1802), Silliman employs an Easterner persona as an outsider’s voice to describe the natural bounty of the American landscape and celebrate the rich potential of land development.
Finally, Pangborn examines Salmagundi (1807–1808), a satirical New York periodical created by Washington Irving, his older brother William Irving, and their friend James Kirke Paulding. Among the pseudonyms of several farcical characters, they published the supposed letters of Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan. This fictional persona was in fact based on an actual Tripolitan prisoner who had been brought to New York City. Writing as Mustapha, the authors of Salmagundi lampooned the decadent luxury culture of New York.
Pangborn’s book is timely, relevant to the present moment. Once again, the United States (and the world) is navigating tremendous changes due, in part, to energy harvesting and usage. In consequence of these changes (now as was then), issues of identity emerge. As people continually redefine themselves in the light of these changes, it is helpful to consider how earlier thinkers did so at the founding of the United States.
The book is strong in its overall focus and organization. It features well-defined boundaries, a clear thesis, a relevant topic, and copious notes. In addition to endnotes, Pangborn supplies individual bibliographies to each chapter, which (despite overlap in the bibliographies) is helpful to those interested in following his research for further investigation.
The drawback to the book rests in opacity of Pangborn’s argumentation, often muddled by wordiness. The book is insightful, but the insights are sometimes buried under the weight of vague abstractions that blunt the points that the author tries to make. Consequently, this book will appeal to a narrow audience of specialists, despite its strong organization, relevance, and insight.
Craig Evan Anderson is an independent scholar.Craig Evan AndersonDate Of Review:January 1, 2022