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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“A Very Yankee Sort of Oriental”: Cosmopolitanism and Orientalism in Henry David Thoreau’s Engagements with Eastern Religions

Until quite recently, due to the prevalence of the myth of American literary autonomy during the early national period, few studies have addressed the international influences upon American works. Following the work of Wai Chee Dimock, Paul Giles, Susan Manning, and Andrew Taylor which positions American literature as a form of world literature, this paper explores the interactions between American Transcendentalism and Eastern religions in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Segments of Eastern texts appear in Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and his journals, and Thoreau translated Eastern texts into English (from French and German translations) in the “Ethnical Scriptures” column in The Dial. Thoreau’s writings on the East can be conceived in two ways. First, they reflect an emerging cosmopolitan American identity that features a positive opening to the richness of foreign cultures. For example, in the Artist of Kouroo parable, Thoreau combines Eastern and Western perspectives to create a culturally harmonious work. Conversely, Thoreau’s writing is as a continuation of a conventional Western Orientalist perspective that essentializes the East and uses its representation as a means of defining the West. In Walden Thoreau portrays the East as backward, mythologizes different religions and cultures, defines the East with a Western lens, and commodifies religious practice. Thoreau’s writings are therefore cosmopolitan and Orientalist and, this conflicted state of being reaffirms Laura Dassow Walls’ argument that the two identities frequently overlap.

While there has been a lull of scholarly interest in Thoreau’s connection to Eastern religions, my research paper aims to spark the debate by demonstrating the theoretically problematic nature of this relationship. Furthermore, given Thoreau’s foundational role in American literature, his works suggest that the early American canon was an international product that permeated borders.

Sarina Isenberg, Queen's University

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