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The Asian American Avant-Garde: Universalist Aspirations in Early Asian American Literature

  • Author(s): Clark, Audrey Wu
  • Advisor(s): Lye, Colleen
  • Candida Smith, Richard
  • et al.


The Asian American Avant-Garde:

Universalist Aspirations in Early Asian American Literature


Audrey Wu Clark

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Colleen Lye, Co-Chair

Professor Richard Cándida Smith, Co-Chair

My project traces a genealogy of universalism in early Asian American literature that led to the panethnic formation of the Asian American literary canon in the 1960s and 1970s. I contribute to the recent criticisms of panethnicity as the organizing principle of the field by arguing that the panethnic paradigm, based solely on the anachronistically imposed alliance of excluded diverse Asian ethnic groups, did not structure early Asian American literature. Instead, I argue that the authors of these early texts represented the racial particularity of their "Asian American" protagonists as universal. The protagonists' performances of universalism exposed the doubleness of American universalism--that is, the failed universalism that excluded racial minorities and the promised inclusive universalism that is yet to come. My conceptualization of Asian American universalism fortifies the theoretical aspect of the sociological paradigm of panethnicity by offering a different and more historically specific approach than the deconstructive readings of political resistance and melancholic abjection that have very recently theorized panethnicity. Since Americanism was conceived through liberal universalism during the period of Asian exclusion (1882-1943), becoming "Asian American" for these authors and their protagonists impossibly and yet productively universalized their racial particularity to their predominantly white audiences.

For some critics, Asian American subjectivity is imagined through only the impossibility of Asian American universalism. By contrast, I argue that the Asian American is formed through the dialectic between racial particularity as an "alien ineligible to citizenship" and liberal universalism. The aim of the dialectic in each of the works I study is framed by the historical moment of each work's publication: In my first two chapters on Sui Sin Far's Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Sadakichi Hartmann's and Yone Noguchi's modernist haikus, I demonstrate that their protagonists and poetic personas attempt to claim space within the American literary imagination during the Progressive Era. In the latter two chapters, I examine the ways in which the protagonists of Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Caste and Outcast and Younghill Kang's East Goes West, and Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart employ modernist forms of temporal nonlinearity to transcend the capitalist commodification of linear time during the Popular Front era. Through performances of American racial, gender, and class norms, all of the Asian American protagonists of my study not only reveal the exclusions and limitations of American universalism but also attempt to redeem it by articulating new sets of demands for racial, gender, and class equality. The empirical non-existence of Asian American universalism poses a baseline problem of invisibility and thus the demands of racial egalitarianism mobilized by the "not-yet" of Asian American universalism take the visible or more easily identifiable forms of modernist avant-gardism and progressive gender politics in all four of my chapters.

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