Development and Decadent Time in Nineteenth-Century Hawaiʻi


  • Lindsay Wilhelm


The Hawaiʻi of literary renown seems to exist outside the normal flow of time. Charles Warren Stoddard, in his memoir Hawaiian Life: Lazy Letters from Low Latitudes (1894), recalls the beautiful ‘boat-boy of Lahaina’ in just such temporally ambiguous terms: although the travel writer had not seen the native youth in years, Stoddard muses that ‘the finger of Time doubles up the moment it points toward him’, so that ‘he must be still lying in wait for me, […] not a day older, not a particle changed’. In the case of Hawaiʻi, this pervasive trope of stasis exists in tension with alternative and often contradictory models of time as cyclical, regressive, and even hyper-accelerated, such that Hawaiian history appears to unfold in fits and starts, jumping forward and looping backward in ways that resist linear understandings of progress. Later in Hawaiian Life, for instance, Stoddard reflects on the fate of Kane-Pihi, a local fisherman who in the span of a few months transforms from a ‘gentle savage’ into a streetwise petty thief and eventual convict. For Stoddard, Kane-Pihi’s rapid evolution – which ends with his ignominious death in prison – recreates in miniature the story of a race doomed to collapse under the weight of modernity and its steady drumbeat of ‘development’.