Book Reviews

Heike Schaefer, Ed. America and the Orient

Heike Schaefer, Ed. America and the Orient. American Studies: A Monograph Series, Vol. 130. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2006. ISBN: 3-8253-5183-1. 370pp., includes bibliography.

America and the Orient collects nineteen of the fifty-one original papers presented at the 51st annual conference of the German Association for American Studies held at the University of Mannheim in June 2004. The essays in the volume explore the multifaceted cultural, historical, and political terrain designated by the conference/volume title. The interdisciplinary nature of the volume allows readers to view the topic of “America and the Orient” from different—intersecting and complementary—viewpoints. More specifically, the articles address such topics as the European American recourse to the Orient as a means of national self-definition and cultural renewal, the emergence of distinctly American forms of orientalist rhetoric and imagery, the formation of Arab American literary traditions, the imagination of the West in Arabic and South Asian cultures, the position of Muslim immigrants in the US, and the impact of US foreign policy on the Middle East.

The volume is divided into five sections—“Edward Said’s Orientalism and the Future of American Studies,” “The Orient in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century US Literature,” “Intersections between Arabic, South Asian, and American Cultures in Contemporary Literature,” “The Orient in Twentieth-Century Film, Painting, and Music” and “The Clash of Civilization Revisited”—and opens with a brief introduction that outlines its conceptual and theoretical framework.

Section 1 consists of Gesa Mackenthun’s essay “‘Between Worlds’: Edward Said and the Rediscovery of Empire in American Studies” which appropriately frames the discussion in the volume with a reflection on the legacy of Said’s work—a work to which the majority of the papers in the volume critically respond. As Mackenthun insightfully points out, Said’s premise that the Orient represents not only a geographical region but, most importantly, an ideological concept construed by the West to advance its colonial expansion and to generate national cohesion is of paramount importance in the examination of American representations of the Orient.

Section 2, “The Orient in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century US Literature,” assesses the functions of orientalist discourse in the culture of the Early Republic. The section is structured chronologically and opens with Sylvia Mayer’s reading of William Munford’s Almoran and Hamet (1798). Mayer illustrates the ways in which the play dramatizes Oriental despotism to make a case for a Federalist course in the future development of American democracy. The essays by Jörg Thomas Richter and Marcus Heide both discuss Royall Tyler’s novel The Algerine Captive—the former focusing on Tyler’s poetics of satire, and the latter on Tyler’s appropriation of nativist discourses of inclusion/exclusion. Bayard Taylor’s Poems of the Orient (1854) constitutes the focus of Ralph Poole’s article that argues for the necessity of a critical space which promotes the reflection upon cultural heritage while simultaneously encouraging cross-cultural learning. Along the same lines, Jeanne Cortiel reads Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and makes a case for the way in which Douglass’s text participated in the American fascination with ancient Egypt at the time.

Section 3 examines the intersections between Arabic, South Asian, and American cultures in contemporary literature. The section begins with an essay by Lisa Suhair Majaj who traces the development of Arab American literature in the twentieth century. While Majaj discusses the challenges faced by Arab American writers as they sought to position themselves as “hyphenated” authors in the American literary field, Kareem Abu-Zeid identifies the difficulties confronted by translators of Arabic texts into American English. The issue of the negotiation of cultural boundaries is also addressed by Brian Brodhead Glaser and Mita Banerjee who are specifically interested in the politics and poetics of racial representation. More explicitly, Glaser examines Vijay Seshadri’s and Salman Rushdie’s writing in terms of the underlying repercussions of “color blindness,” while Banerjee reads Rushdie’s Fury as a meta-commentary on postcolonial politics and racial hierarchies.

Section 4, “The Orient in Twentieth-Century Film, Painting, and Music,” opens with Astrid Böger’s essay on the presentation of “Oriental” femininity at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904. Like Böger, Ella Shohat is interested in the nexus of gender and race politics in American displays of Middle Eastern culture, considering not only world exhibitions but also films such as The Sheik (1921) and Kismet (1955). Furthermore, while Siona Benjamin follows the thread of Böger and Shohat and explores the possibilities of intercultural conversation, Ilka Saal, Klaus-Dieter Gross and Gabriele Linke question how intercultural conflicts between Orient and Occident figure in contemporary American culture.

Underlining the significant influence that the trope of a “civilizational clash” exerts on contemporary American cultural and political thought, the volume concludes with a section entitled “The Clash of Civilization Revisited.” In the section, both Martin Genetsch and Konstantina Botsiou examine Samuel Huntington’s essay and book on The Clash of Civilizations (1993, 1997)—the first pointing out Huntington’s inadequate conceptualization of cultural interaction, and the second arguing for the historical inaccuracy of Huntington’s portrait of Islamic resurgence. Last, Alexander Stephan’s essay rounds up the volume’s exploration of the intersections between America and the Orient by highlighting the inadequacy of the binary logic that pits East against West, and by revealing the considerable cultural and political differences that exist not only between but also within the supposedly unified “Easts” and “Wests.”

Overall, America and the Orient is an important contribution to the exploration of the cultural and political history of American encounters with the Orient. Responding to the dialogue initiated by Edward Said and forwarded by Ali Behdad (1994), Lisa Lowe (1994), John MacKenzie (1995), Reina Lewis (1995 and 2004), and Holly Edwards (2000), the nineteen essays in the volume address the continuities but also the clashes and changes in the interactions between American, Arab and South Asian cultures from the eighteenth century to the present. In delineating the shifting concepts, aesthetics and political agendas that have informed the Western imagination of the Orient, the essays in the volume draw readers’ attention to the forces that shape Western knowledge of and fuel Western fantasies about the Orient. Ultimately, the volume as a whole foregrounds Orient and Occident as interrelated and interdependent—rather than separate or even inherently antagonistic—cultural formations.

Eleftheria Arapoglou
Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece