Pacific Crossings: Travel, Writing, and Literary Transition in the Sino-American Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
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Animated by the goal of drawing substantial comparisons between the transitions to literary modernity in China and the United States, Pacific Crossings explores the beginnings of Sino-American transpacific travel in the early nineteenth century and the subsequent rise in production of cultural knowledge about the transpacific other for the home audience. While the impact of travel on the development of modernism has been widely observed in many contexts, this study attempts to address a general lack of scholarly attention to this particular field of transnational production—the zone centered on the Pacific—in the literary histories of both national contexts. Through a bi-partite analysis that juxtaposes Chinese and American traditions of travel and writing, historical trajectories and geographics, interrelationships, and depictions of the Chinese or American other, it shows that travel comes to have a negative effect on the possibility of writing “domestic” literature in both national contexts. Whereas travel renders the foreign present in national space (whether embodied or as text or object), depictions of locality as domesticated, enclosed, and totalized evaporate in the modern era, and are supplanted by “local” fiction that by its very nature shows interfluence with what is outside. The traits associated with global modernism, such as shifts in perception of selfhood and the fragmentation of epistemological coherence, are prefigured in nineteenth-century travel accounts, which, by their essential engagement of unassimilable foreignness within, always unsettle universalisms and foreground the lien of the transpacific imaginary on the production of literature. The process of comparison reveals several parallel discourses in the contexts of China and the American west—including “failure” narratives, preoccupations with essentiality and authenticity, and discourses of utility and benevolence—which propose further frameworks for fruitful Sino-American comparison. Part One traces the shifts in Chinese fictional space-time from the transitional nineteenth century, as exemplified by Li Ruzhen’s travel novel Jing hua yuan, to the early twentieth-century Chinese local fictional representations by Liu E, Li Boyuan, Xiao Hong, and Qian Zhongshu that employ the American and foreign as trope. It explores the impact the generic changes in international travel writing had on these shifts, through the lens of the early eyewitness accounts of America by Zhang Deyi and Lin Zhen. Part Two follows a similar methodological and historical trajectory. It draws connections between the shape early American travel writing in China took (as exemplified by eyewitness accounts by missionary Samuel Wells Williams and journalist Bayard Taylor) and the traditions of American westerly travel writing (including the nonfictional accounts of Lewis and Clark and Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional “hoax,” The Journal of Julius Rodman). It connects those traditions to the development of modernism in the American west and the configuration of fictional images of Chinese in America by Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, and John Steinbeck.