Monday, August 06, 2007

Unfinished Business

James Cook (Captain Cook)
Mark Twain
Robert Louis Stevenson
Jack London
W. Somerset Maugham

Just a few of the writers represented in A Hawaiian Reader. Unfortunately, I have to take it back to the library today, even though I haven't finished reading it. It's an interlibrary loan, and the renewals are limited. So I'm just going to have to request it again, because it's a fascinating book and I want to read the rest of it.

The selections are arranged in roughly chronological order, beginning with selections from the log of Captain Cook, the British captain credited with discovering the islands. We are so familiar with the islands and their people by now that it's fascinating to read his descriptions; the details he noticed and the interpretations he put on them. It's hard to find a single word to describe the wave of people that came to inundate the Hawaiians. Initially, I believe, it was mostly British sailors, followed by whalers and merchants, then the missionaries who were New Englanders for the most part. Regardless of the label, these people gradually grew more familiar with Hawaii, more accustomed to the people and their ways, but still maintained prejudices that let them trample the Hawaiian way of life underfoot without a second thought. The idea, for example, that native Hawaiians were lazy, which simple observation could have shown to be false. The idea that Hawaiians couldn't fend for themselves, when in fact they had thriving populations of well-fed people.

So, yes, I am reading these excerpts with my own prejudices against the writers, perhaps similar to their prejudices against the Hawaiians. I find them narrow-minded and parochial, and I think I know more than they do about the people they encounter. Even so, I love seeing through their eyes, and love imagining the islands before the heart and soul got developed out of them.

A quote from Mark Twain, that opens the book:

No alien land in all the world has any deep strong charm for me but that one, no other land could so longingly and so beseechingly haunt me, sleeping and waking, through half a lifetime, as that one has done. Other things leave me, but it abides; other things change, but it remains the same. For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surfbeat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like island above the cloud rack; I can feel the spirit of its woodland solitudes, I can hear the plash of its books; in my nostrils still lives the breath of flowers that perished twenty years ago.


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