Veiled Strangers

Rabindranath Tagore's America, in Letters and Lectures

in Volume 10 (2009): Issue 1 (Jun 2009): South Asia and the Americas
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The Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore visited the United States several times, though his second trip in 1916-1917 seems to have generated the most excitement. On the verge of American entry into World War I, the Nobel prize-winning writer embarked on an extensive lecture tour critiquing the excesses of nationalism and imperialism. The visit generated a number of remarkable texts, including a series of important letters to family and friends written on the trip and the four long lectures collected and published in 1917 as Nationalism. I argue that the lectures on “Nationalism,” can and should be read as a form of “reverse Orientalist” travel writing, where Tagore aimed to show Americans how their own political and economic system could be seen as rather similar to the European powers. Tagore uses the lectures to develop a series of metaphors for the modern, instrumentalist deployment of power in the nation-state and the colonial world, against which he posited an ideal of modern man cultivated and “perfected,” rather like a work of art.