Through the use of several iconic early American authors (Anne Bradstreet, James Kirkpatrick, Benjamin Franklin, and Edgar Allan Poe), James Egan’s Oriental Shadows: The Presence of the East in Early American Literature explores the presence of “the East” in American writing.
The specter of the East haunted the literature of colonial British America and the new United States, from the earliest promotional pamphlets to the most aesthetically sophisticated works of art of the American Renaissance. Figures of Persia, China, Arabia, and other Oriental people, places, and things played crucial roles in many British American literary works, serving as key images in early American writers’ efforts to demonstrate that early American culture could match—and perhaps even surpass—European standards of refinement. These writers offered the East as a solution to America’s perceived inferior civilized status by suggesting that America become more civilized not by becoming more European but instead by adopting aesthetic styles and standards long associated with an East cast as superior aesthetically to both America and Europe.
In bringing to light this largely overlooked archive of images within the American literary canon, Oriental Shadows suggests that the East played a key role in the emergence of a distinctively American literary tradition and, further, that early American identity was born as much from figures of the East as it was from the colonists’ encounters with the frontier.
“The documents scrutinized in James Egan’s study belong to the long history of English fascination with the Orient investigated by previous scholars. But Oriental Shadows does more than associate his colonial finds to this heritage. More importantly—and this is his transoceanic contribution—Egan considers how the colonial fascination with ‘the East’ provided a means for various negotiations of a colonial cultural identity and reveals new elements in the evolution of British-American literature.” --William Scheick, J. R. Millikan Centennial Professor of English Literature, The University of Texas at Austin
“In a thoroughly readable, adroitly argued manner, combining the density of archival research with the rigors of close textual analysis, James Egan brilliantly demonstrates continuity from colonial British America to the early nineteenth century as major literary figures contend that American culture can rival or outstrip that of Europe by becoming more Oriental. His is an original and compelling analysis.” --Malini Schueller, professor of English, University of Florida