The Hawaiian Islands, Ukuleles & Pynchon

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History of the Hawaiian Islands

The Hawaiian Islands are an archepelago located almost midway between the continental United States and Japan, and are the most isolated group of islands on earth. Once known as the Sandwich Islands, the islands take their name from the largest island in the group, known commonly as the Big Island of Hawaii. The other human-inhabited islands are Kauai, Maui, Oahu, location of the state capitol of Honolulu, and the popular Waikiki district), Molokai, and Lanai. Hawaii is actually the exposed peaks of a great undersea mountain range known as the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chain, formed by volcanic activity over a hotspot in the earth's mantle.

The early history of the Hawaiian Islands is murky and there are several theories about how the islands originally came to be settled. One holds that they were settled first by the Menehune (from the Marquesas Islands), followed by settlers from Tahiti. Whatever the case, the earliest settlements were by Polynesians who came by canoe to the islands.

In the early 1800s, Kamehameha I, using force and foreign weapons, united the Hawaiian Islands where up to that point each island had its own chief. In 1819, Kamehameha II ascended to the throne. The dynasty of the Kamehameha line came to an end in 1872 with the death of Kamehameha V (Lot).

American commercial interests led to increasingly close ties with the United States, until an 1874 treaty between the United States and Hawaii gave the U.S. exclusive trading rights with Hawaii.

In 1898, the United States president William McKinley signed the Newlands Resolution which formalized the annexation of Hawaii by the United States.

In 1896, William McKinley succeeded Cleveland as president. Two years later, he signed the Newlands Resolution which provided for the official annexation of Hawaiʻi on July 7, 1898 and the islands officially became Hawaiʻi Territory, a United States territory, on February 22, 1900.

Hawaii became the 50th state of the Union on August 21, 1959.

The Ukulele

Originated in the 1880s as a Hawaiian version of a small guitar-like instrument brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, the cavaquinho, the ukulele ("uke") is the instrument most commonly associated with the Hawaiian Islands. The name translates to "jumping flea," although according to Queen Lili'uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here”, from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).

Hawaii and Ukulele references in Against the Day

Since their Hawaiian escapades a few years previous (The Chums of Chance and the Curse of the Great Kahuna), Miles had become an enthusiastic ukulelist, and tonight, after securing the scullery and restoring the mess decks to their usual spotless state, he produced one of many of the four-stringed instruments which he kept in his sky-chest, and, after strumming a brief introduction, accompanied the boys as they sang [...]

p. 27:
“I perform the Dance of Lava-Lava, the Volcano Goddess,” she replied.

“I greatly admire the music of the region,” said Miles, “the ukulele in particular.”

“There are several ukulelists in my pit-band,” said Miss McAdoo, “tenor, baritone, and soprano.”

“And is it authentic native music?”

“More of a medley, I believe, encompassing Hawaiian and Philippino motifs, and concluding with a very tasteful adaptation of Monsieur Saint-Saëns’s wonderful ‘Bacchanale,’ as recently performed at the Paris Opera.”“I am only an amateur, of course,” Miles, though long a member of the prestigious International Academy of Ukulelists, said modestly, “and get lost now and then. But if I promised to go back to the tonic and wait, do you think they’d let me come and sit in?”

Overflowing with an all-but-elated idea of how he might actually do someone some good, the old fellow produced as from empty space a ukulele of some dark exotic wood trimmed with tortoiseshell and, after strumming a peppy eight-bar intro, sang [...]

“Look here, Chick, are you quite resolved in this? You remember the last time, over that Hawaiian volcano—”

Picnickers brought with them horseshoes and ukuleles [...]

At the ukulele workshop that summer. He lectured on the four-note chord in the context of timelessness, and described himself then as a Quaternionist. We had quickly discovered our common love of the instrument,” Miles recalled,“ and discussed the widespread contempt in which ukulele players are held— traceable, we concluded, to the uke’s all-but-exclusive employment as a producer of chords—single, timeless events apprehended all at once instead of serially. Notes of a linear melody, up and down a staff, being a record of pitch versus time, to play a melody is to introduce the element of time, and hence of mortality. Our perceived reluctance to leave the timelessness of the struck chord has earned ukulele players our reputation as feckless, clownlike children who will not grow up.”

“Brought your uke, I see.”

“I have learned a ‘snappy’ new arrangement of a Chopin nocturne that might interest you.”

As evening descended, Thorn, who honored smaller promises at least, produced his ukulele and played the Chopin Ε-minor Nocturne, the tenuous notes, as light departed, acquiring substance and depth.

Root Tubsmith whanging away at a ukulele medley including Borel-Clerc’s wildly popular “La Matchiche”

while just in front of the Duke of Cumberland’s Theatre a ukulele quartet were playing and singing a medley of tunes from Waltzing in Whitechapel [...]

and repeating da capo, a tune from the third act of Waltzing in Whitechapel, which Nigel accompanied with ukulele chords, thus [...]

But, like you, the only chords on his ukulele these days are for ‘I Love You Truly.’”

p.1030: There were great waves passing through the Æther, Viridian explained, which a person could catch, and be carried along by, as the sea-wind carries the erne, or as Pacific waves are said to carry the surfers of Hawaii.

Hawaiian References in other Thomas Pynchon Novels

References to the Hawaiian Islands and culture are explored in Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland. There is also an article about the Hawaii connections at

Vacationing in Hawaii

Hawaii is an ideal vacation spot. You can usually find great vacation rentals in Oahu as well as stunning oceanfront and beachfront rentals in Maui any time of year. Vacations in Kauai, as well as Molokai and Lanai are the perfect antidote to the hectic American lifestyle, and beachfront vacation rentals on the Big Island of Hawaii are almost always available.

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