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Pacific Possessions: The Pursuit of Authenticity in Nineteenth-Century Oceanian Travel Accounts
University of Alabama Press, 2021
Cloth: 978-0-8173-2094-2 | eISBN: 978-0-8173-9358-8
Library of Congress Classification PR788.T72T48 2021
Dewey Decimal Classification 820.9328509034
ABOUT THIS BOOK | AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY | REVIEWS | TOC
ABOUT THIS BOOK
Reframes Polynesia and Melanesia through analysis of nineteenth-century travel writing
In Pacific Possessions: The Pursuit of Authenticity in Nineteenth-Century Oceanian Travel Accounts, Chris J. Thomas expands the literary canon on Polynesia and Melanesia beyond the giants, such as Herman Melville and Jack London, to include travel narratives by British and American visitors. These accounts were widely read and reviewed when they first appeared but have largely been ignored by scholars. For the first time, Thomas defines these writings as a significant literary genre.
Recovering these works allows us to reconceive of nineteenth-century Oceania as a vibrant hub of cultural interchange. Pacific Possessions recaptures the polyphony of voices that enlivened this space through the writing of these travelers, while also paying attention to their Oceanian interlocutors. Each chapter centers on a Pacific cultural marker, what Thomas refers to as each writer’s “possession”: the Tongan tattoo, the Hawaiian hula, the Fijian cannibal fork, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s cache of South Seas photographs.
Thomas analyzes how westerners formed narratives around these objects and what those objects meant within nineteenth-century Oceanian cultures. He argues that the accounts served to shape a version of Oceanian authenticity that persists today. The profiled traveler-writers had complex experiences, at times promoting exoticized exaggerations of so-called authentic Polynesian and Melanesian cultures and at other times genuinely engaging in cultural exchange. However, their views were ultimately compromised by a western lens. In Thomas’s words, “the authenticity is at once celebrated and written over.”
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