Rewriting Eastern Wisdom: Buddhism and Hinduism in American Literature from Jack Kerouac to Maxine Hong Kingston

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While recent scholarship on post-1945 American writers has re-examined the role of religion, few scholars have focused on Asian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. My dissertation explores the varied strategies by which American writers inscribe Asian religions in their fiction. I argue that Asian religions have been crucial in post-1945 American literature's engagement with American freedom. Key writers have used Asian thought to critique American individualism, while also reshaping Eastern beliefs through Western political ideals. My study thus illuminates a two-way relationship between Asian traditions and socially engaged American writing. By examining this body of literature, I uncover new ways of thinking about religion, transnationalism, and ethics.

Each chapter links a specific literary trope to a particular aspect of Eastern thought. My first chapter, "Crazy Wisdom and Beat Zen: Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins, and Gary Snyder," explores how these influential Beat writers challenge American conformity by celebrating the Buddhist figure of the eccentric sage. My second chapter, "Secret Arts and Paranoia: Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo," shows how Pynchon's Vineland and DeLillo's Underworld demystify secret Eastern knowledge in order to challenge the assumption that secrecy warrants paranoia. My third chapter, "Asian Religion and African Dreams: Alice Walker and Charles Johnson," demonstrates that Walker and Johnson reinterpret African American identity, portraying Hindus and Buddhists as African Americans' spiritual ancestors. My fourth chapter, "Buddhist Nonself and Asian American Identity: Lan Cao and Maxine Hong Kingston," explores how Cao and Kingston use Buddhist teachings of nonself to question what it means to be Asian American.