Lindsay Wilhelm, “Bright Sunshine, Dark Shadows: Decadent Beauty and Victorian Views of Hawai‘i” (pp. 495–526)

Inspired by the recent global turn in aestheticism and decadence studies, this essay considers how late-Victorian discourses surrounding beauty, pleasure, and morality inform contemporary literary representations of Hawai‘i as both supremely inviting and dangerously languorous. The essay begins with a short overview of the broader geopolitical and historical circumstances that helped shape nineteenth-century understandings of Hawai‘i—a place renowned abroad for its beauty and hospitality, but nonetheless still notorious as the site of James Cook’s death in 1779. Next, the essay traces the peculiar ambivalence with which travel memoirs such as Isabella Bird’s The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875) and Constance Gordon-Cumming’s Fire Fountains (1883) describe their authors’ experiences in the islands. In these memoirs, Hawai‘i evidences the same convergence between beauty and decay that undergirds the controversial aesthetics of Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Wilde, and other adherents of the creed of “art for art’s sake.” Focusing particularly on Robert Louis Stevenson’s fairy tale “The Bottle Imp” (1891), the essay then examines the ways in which Victorian writers utilize Hawai‘i’s leprosy epidemic as an occasion for exploring the perils of aesthetic hedonism. The essay concludes by briefly turning to the work of nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian Samuel Kamakau, whose own depictions of the decaying Hawaiian village reveal, by contrast, how these British accounts enlist the language of decadence in the service of empire.

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