In this essay, Bullen examines the literary and cultural history of the term white elephant—a phrase that refers to a burdensome object that is impossible to sell or give away—by tracing its origin in the American lexicon to the United States' diplomatic relations with Siam in the 1850s. Although a certain kind of albino elephant (chang pheuak) was regarded as auspicious in Siam, these animals were not white, nor were they given as gifts by the king of Siam in order to ruin his rivals. Bullen traces the emergence of the white elephant as a figure for value in European and American travel writing. By the 1850s this animal's association with wasteful expenditure had begun to surface even in prominent American literature, including Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851). He argues that the white whale operates in a manner that calls to mind the white elephant, and that this novel as a whole functions as an allegorical critique of precisely the oriental despotism decried as the corrupt source of stagnant expenditure of which the white elephant serves as a prominent symbol. Finally, he examines the relationship between Siam and America in George Bacon's Siam,the Land of the White Elephant, as It Was and Is (1873), a text that subtly yet unmistakably aligns the white elephant with the figure of the Siamese twin, suggesting that despite their apparent differences, America and Siam might share a fundamental—and, for Bacon, repulsive—intimacy.
Ross Bullen; “This Alarming Generosity”: White Elephants and the Logic of the Gift. American Literature 1 December 2011; 83 (4): 747–773. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-1437207
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