Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy




Bryce Traister


My dissertation examines the literary and cultural history of the term “white elephant” - a phrase that refers to a costly and 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 was historically regarded as auspicious in Siam, these animals were not white, nor were they given away as gifts by the king of Siam in order to “ruin” his rivals, as virtually every text that seeks to explain the significance of the phrase suggests. Rather, I argue, the white elephant’s reputation as a “fatal gift” emerged from a cross-cultural situation in Bangkok in which American capitalism was placed in uneasy proximity to Siamese diplomacy, which placed a strong emphasis on gift exchange. As a figure that - for American writers - represented a point of absolute difference between the East and the West, the white elephant came to embody American anxieties about Southeast Asian economic and social practices, including so-called “oriental despotism” and what Marx termed the “Asiatic mode of production.” I begin by looking at the ways in which contemporary American writing about white elephants remains vexed about the value and importance of these animals, and still casts them as figures of irresolvable cultural difference. In order to establish the significance of the white elephant for antebellum America, I examine the roles white elephants play in the Enlightenment-era writing that preceded America’s first contact with Siam, including travel narratives by early European explorers and philosophical texts by Voltaire, Hegel, and Marx. I accompany this analysis of what I call the “general iii theory of the white elephant” with a reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which offers a sustained meditation on both the conceptual significance of white elephants and America’s political and economic presence in Southeast Asia. Finally, I examine several first-hand accounts written in the wake of America’s 1856 embassy to Siam in order to show how this diplomatic encounter contributed to the white elephant’s pejorative reputation as a fatal gift.



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