Richard Henry Dana, “Journal of a Voyage, 1859-1860”

Richard Henry Dana’s journal of his 1859—1860 voyage around the world was not published until 1968, at a time when interest in the American empire was at a height due to the growing military escalation in Vietnam and the strengthening movement against the war—and by extension the U.S. Empire. Although I doubt it played much of a role in that discussion, I think it is worthy to point out because Dana’s journal suggests an emerging American empire, but it was not published until that empire reached its mid-twentieth-century crisis.

Most striking in the narrative are the many detailed descriptions of port cities and port life the American Pacific that he helped build during his youth (documented in Two Years Before the Mast). He visited California, Hawaii, Canton, Shanghai, and ports in Japan. Most of the journal examines these places. It is important to point out that Dana did not have a plan to publish this journal and it lacks much analysis of what he was observing. Yet we can makes some important observations about empire in the Pacific through this document.

Canton during Dana's visit

Canton during Dana’s visit

First, it is clear that all the locations that Dana visited were heavily integrated politically and economically for the purpose of commercial capitalism. Dana’s description Hawaii suggests the union of the political elite with foreign commercial interests and institutional systems of control. The king is admired by the foreign merchant community. Honolulu has a “Seamen’s House”, schools, churches, other institutions of ideological control. Canton was busy with commercial activity (“What a hive of industry is a Chinese town! . . . “Coolie, is the name given to the mere manual laborers in the open air,—the porters, errand runners, hod carrrier.”) It seems that from Dana’s perspective everything was moving smoothly and he was consistently impressed with the commercial vibrancy of these port cities in the Pacific.

Shanghai during Dana's visit

Shanghai during Dana’s visit

Another view of Shanghai

Another view of Shanghai

Second, we find that Dana—as a beneficiary of U.S. empire—has significant mobility and faced few restrictions to his mobility. We are reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s argument in Globalization: The Human Consequences that global capitalism turned everyone into movers but those movers were of two types: vagabonds and tourists. Tourists had money, a “good” passport, and the direct backing of an imperial power. Vagabonds consisted of dock workers, sailors, economic refugees, political exiles and others who move because they must. The Pacific ports that Dana visited had both, even though he was clearly a tourist.

Third, (and this is connected to the first point) the port cities were becoming more Western looking due to the presence of institutions of empire. Dana felt most comfortable describing and engaging with these. Perhaps this is a good way to identify imperialism. If you go to a distant land and feel immediately at home, you might be from an imperial nation.

Although Dana spent most of his time navigating among the networks of elite and imperial power in the Pacific (he could hardly do otherwise as the empire was becoming hegemonic by the 1850s), he was a fair-minded observer who spent much of his time detailing the presence of working class people, their labors, and their stunning diversity. Every port had a diverse and international working class that again reminds us of his time on the Pilgrim. Empire may have made things smooth for the imperialists, but it brought in plenty of others for the labor of empire. Sailors, coolies, dock workers, and laborers of all types from China, India, and the West populated the ports. At one point Dana even visited the prostitutes of Canton on the “famous Flower Boats.” He smoked opium, observed some of the entertainment and lasted after only 15 minutes. It is to his credit that Dana seemed eager to understand these port cities from both sides of the class divide, even if he could never really escape his colonial privilege.
This is a good document to keep handy for those who want to study the role of class and power in the emergence of the Western empires in the Pacific. Perhaps a bit more research should be done on the relationship between these mid-century tours and the working class experience of empire. Throughout his career, Richard Henry Dana sustained sympathies and curiosity about working class cultures and work place experiences. To his credit, thirty years as a lawyer did not destroy such attitudes entirely.

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?

A Japanese delegation in Hawaii. Was Hawaii always a meeting ground for the Japanese and U.S. empires?

Lafcadio Hearn, “Selected Journalism” (1875–1886)

I have been working rather leisurely through this volume of Lafcadio Hearn’s writings.  I appreciated his beautiful prose, his unconventional life, and his focus on subjects often neglected in travel writing.  While he lived to be 54, he spend only around twenty years in the United States.  His un-Americanism was driven home to him in 1903, the year before his death, when Tokyo Imperial University slashed his pay because he was no longer a “foreigner.”  [Why foreigners deserve more for the same work is a question that is still relevant in East Asia, by the way.  A Taiwanese college graduate, highly skilled, might make a starting wage around half of what a unskilled, illiterate (in the local language), American college graduate can make teaching ESL.  They work fewer hours and often do not need to even put in time in curriculum development.  This is not strictly speaking the Westerner-in-Taiwan’s fault, but it is odious enough to convince me that I should avoid teaching ESL, at least until starvation becomes a real threat.  But, if I took such a job, I would likely be over-paid and under-utilized.]  Hearn probably did not find a real home until Japan, although Martinique was attractive to him.

Hearn in Japan

Hearn in Japan

His American journalism reflected his mobile life.  He was always interested in criminals, the floating underclass, and those whose work required movement.  Like the people he wrote about, Hearn openly broke both the law and U.S. social standards with his marriage to a black woman, he often lived at the edge of poverty, and moved around so often he was often rootless.  I am reminded of Herman Melville’s hero in Omoo, who could never be satisfied with his job and “deserted” as a way to find a better life.  Without his Japanese writings (will The Library of America publish them?), I cannot say for sure what it was about Japan that made him finally settle there.  From the biographical notes in this volume, I see that he was upset with Japanese modernization, the destruction of Japan’s natural environment, and their borrowing of what he saw as disgusting Western institutions.  At the time that this journalism was produced, Hearn was in his mobile phase.

There are two periods documented in this volume.  The first is 1875-1877, while Hearn worked in Cincinnati.  He wrote about the occult, ghosts, the lives of stevedores and “roustabouts,” the girls that keep these “roustabouts” company, and famously the botched and horrifying execution of James Murphy in 1875.  What these stories have in common is that they tell the story of the city from the margins.  Now, I do not know how common this was in 1870s journalism.  I do know from Michael Denning’s work that such heroes frequented dime novels of that era.  I will assume Hearn is not unique in this interest.  His uniqueness and brilliance comes from how vibrant and real his descriptions of these people area, whether marginalized workers, condemned prisoners facing their death, or American ghost stories.

The remaining articles – some of them still written for Cincinnati newspapers – cover his time in New Orleans from 1877-1886, before he takes off for the Caribbean.  We see here, the beginning of his interest in the greater Caribbean.  He believed that New Orleans was at the “gates of the tropics.”  As with everywhere else he lived, he relished New Orleans working class life, its diversity, its often strange folklore and history, and its celebration of Carnival.  These stories cover much of the same ground as does “Martinique Sketches,” which only tells us that perhaps he is correct that New Orleans was the gate to the Caribbean, or at the very least part of the same historical and cultural realm.

We can only hope that The Library of America will publish his writings from Japan so I can revisit this fascinating writer.

Philip K. Dick, “The Man in the High Castle” (1960): A Confucian Millenium

The U.S. victory in the Pacific war resulted in thirty years of a clear American domination over the Pacific.  The occupation of Japan, neo-colonial domination over the Phillipines, participation in the smashing of the revolution in Vietnam, and propping up the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan as the “One China” all were signs that the Pacific was an American lake.  Philip K. Dick wrote, The Man in the High Castle, which imagines the opposite, at a time when the U.S. was at its height of post-war power, before the failure in Vietnam, before the Soviet’s started to match the U.S. in the arms race, and before economic malaise fell over all of the capitalist West.  To look just at the Pacific, since 1970 the United States has faced two emerging Asian powers, both in a sense losers in the 1940s.  Japan, rising from total destruction, defeat and occupation, into the second largest economy in the world.  That position was overtaken in the last decade by China, the second great threat from East Asia.  Although I was young during the concerns about Japan’s rise, I recall people predicting the Japanese purchase of entire states, paranoia about the trade deficit, and constant anxiety over the competitive advantage provided by East Asian forms of capitalism.  None of that has changed since the 1970s and 1980s, only now the economic miracle has shifted to China.  Even in historical scholarship we find scholars suggesting that the rise of China is nothing more than a resetting of global normalcy after a few hundred years of European hegemony.  This is the thesis of ReOrient by Andre Gundre Frank.

china

This threat and anxiety has been accompanied by some cultural fascination with the East.  In the old days of colonialism, some fascination existed but it was framed in the old orientialist way.  Europeans remained confident of the superiority of their thought and read Confucius or Daoist texts with the fascination masters something have for their underlines.  In this new milieu of threat, the interest in the East looks different.  Rather than mere confident curiosity, we can look to the East for answers to why they are so successful and us so weak?  This is the exact opposition of how Chinese, one hundred years ago, look at the West, which they investigated for clues to their comparative wealth and power.  Zizek gave a talk suggesting that Max Weber, if alive today, would have rewritten his book and called it “The Buddhist Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capitalism.”  As evidence, he used the high number of top managers of global corporations who actively embrace Buddhism.  Since Japan’s rise, people have wondered if the Confucian system of management, based not strictly on a free labor market but networks of obligation, would not result in greater efficiencies in the labor market and helps explain East Asian success.  The Man in the High Castle predicts that the domination of East Asia over America, in this case through an alternative history where the Axis won the Second World War, would accompany the assimilation of East Asian traditions into America.  This is not a surprising outcome.   Much of the history of colonialism has been subject people reading the books their masters wrote for hope that it will help them understand their defeat.

castle1castle2

How we face colonialism is a function with many variables.  The first chapter of The Man in the High Castle investigates two men with very different approaches toward the occupation of the West Coast by Japan.  Frank Frink is a war veteran on the losing side and was recently fired for essentially non-collegiality.  Like many other Americans under Japanese occupation, he uses the I Ching to make decisions.  He reads these Asian texts for guidance but feels resentment at the occupation and his lot in life.  Divorced (and still in love with his wife Juliana) he starts the book at a low point in his life.  The other character we meet in the first chapter is Robert Childan.  Childan is a small business owner, running a business that sells pre-war artifact.  His biggest customers are Japanese.  He adopts their customs and clearly profits from the occupation.  He never internalizes Asian values.  Frink and Childan are two sides of the same coin.  Frink is openly hostile to the occupation but seeks wisdom from Asia in his quest for personal freedom.  He is authentic.  Childan is the opposition.  He puts on the facade of contentment but internalizes little.  He is not the reflective colonial subject, like Frink is.  Instead, he is the contemptible opportunistic.  His false image is also a bit ironic, since his major crisis in the novel deals with suggestions that his artifacts are fakes.  Just as the Japanese cannot see that he is faking his acceptance of Japanese rule, Childan can not know if his suppliers are lying to him.  However, in either case it matters little.  Childan can still sell his goods and since he will never sacrifice his financial security in support of his anti-Japanese sentiment, he will never be a threat to the occupiers.  The lie matters little for the functioning of the system.  It is Frink, who poses a real threat, ultimately using his expertise and resentment to try to spread the rumor that his former employer produced fake antiques.

These two characters provide two quests.  Childan’s question is for security and profit.  His anxiety over the authenticity of his sale items is ultimately about the survival of his business.  It does not seem to go beyond that.  He is the quintessential collaborator and profiteer.  Frink is on a search for autonomy.  This leads him to start a business making jewelry.  While the business does not go well and Frink is arrested, his mission seems to provide a true threat to the system.  Even his construction of jewelery seems to wear away on the macro-lie.  This brings us to the third quest.  This one is pursued by Frank Frink’s ex-wife Juliana.  She has become fascinated with a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which is an alternative history that suggests what would have happened had the Allies won.  Importantly, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not based on the real history of the Second World War.  It is in reality a third version of reality.  Juliana, after stopping an assassination attempt on the author of the banned book, finds the author and learns that he used the I Ching to write the book, suggesting a greater truth to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a truth that is subtlety confirmed throughout the novel in other ways.  Notice with me that Juliana is able to transcend the reality.  She is not as resentful of the occupation, even taking who she believes to be an Italian as a lover.  She is also not seeking just to survive and prosper.  She is the authentic individual, capable of rising above these more petty concerns.

Philip K. Dick, like the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, uses the I Ching to write his book.  On the surface this is simply a passive acceptance of fate.  We can make decisions based on an oracle, and by doing that set aside our personal will and freedom.  However, the characters that rely on the I Ching – Frank Frink, most notably, are some of the most assertive.  Childan, who internally resists these Asian imports, does not use it but is one of the most passive characters in the novel.  Acceptance of fate is not a path to weakness.  It is through an awareness of the forces that work against us that we can be willed to action.  The I Ching cannot provide clear answers, only hints through cryptic messages.  The interpretation of each hexagram is where our important decisions are made.  In the same way, mere acceptance of fate does not doom us to passivity, it teaches us our potential and limit and challenges us to make the best of our limits and try to transcend our limits.  Even if we accept the use of the I Ching as passive, remember that the advice it hands down can be passive or active.  More often then not the I Ching commands the user to action.  

iching