Great Wave: Talking with Christopher Benfey
of English Chris Benfey holds Katsushika Hokusai’s
(1760-1849) Fuji of the Waves, from the series “100
Views of Mt. Fuji” (woodblock print, 1836, Mount Holyoke
College Art Museum. A gift of Helene Brosseau Black ‘31).
The eighteenth-century screen behind Benfey, also part of
the art museum’s collection, is attributed to Kano
Masamitsu. It depicts part of the Tale of Genji.
the end of the nineteenth century, and especially during the quarter
century that followed the Centennial of 1876, there was a tremendous
vogue in the United States for all things Japanese—Japanese
prints and porcelain, judo and Buddhism, geisha and samurai. In
retrospect, this great wave of interest seems both unlikely and
inevitable . . . ”
So begins The
Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening
of Old Japan, by Christopher Benfey, professor of English
and codirector of the Weissman Center for Leadership. Published
by Random House this month, the book has received high praise
from both the New York Review of Books (May 15) and Publishers
Weekly (April 7). Benfey will sign copies of the book at the Odyssey
Bookshop May 24 from 3:30 to 4:30 pm.
The Great Wave traces the importation of Japanese culture
by New England intellectuals disillusioned by the materialism
that emerged in the wake of the American Civil War. During the
years 1868–1913—a period Mark Twain dubbed the Gilded
Age—an unlikely assortment of travelers sought spiritual
fulfillment and a new social order from Japan, a nation just opening
to Western visitors. Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals sought
to shake off years of isolation and forge a modern state. Benfey
brings together the surprising and eclectic historical narratives
of these importers and exporters of culture. The College Street
Journal recently spoke to him about writing The Great
How did The Great Wave come about? This story
has so many dimensions—how did you find it?
The stories really find you. A lot of pieces from my past came
together in the book. The most immediate prompting came from Degas
in New Orleans [Benfey’s 1997 book, in which he explores
little-known aspects of the life and work of the nineteenth-century
French impressionist painter]. This new book is something of a
strange sequel because the kinds of things that New Englanders
were looking for in New Orleans just after the Civil War were
the same as what they then sought in Japan—a simpler society,
a society in touch with raw facts of life and death, a pre-industrial
society, a society that took art seriously. And once you start
down a path, it leads to other paths. The entire story kept unfolding
for me as though I was opening a fan that kept getting wider and
wider. One character led to another character and to another.
Many of them were old friends of mine: Herman Melville, Emily
Dickinson, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the exoticist writer Lafcadio
Hearn, and historian Henry Adams. I think I was just as surprised
as they would be to find themselves part of the same story. But
when you are writing a book like this, what you want to feel is
that the story is giving itself to you. For me, this book had
that sense of a gift.
How long did you work on it?
About five years. The chapter on Kakuzo Okakura is basically the
lecture I gave here in spring 1998. I knew then I was on my way
to a book. But a lot of the characters were really late-breaking
news for me. The last chapter I wrote is the book’s first
chapter; it chronicles Herman Melville’s 1841 whaling voyage
toward the coastal waters of Japan. I hadn’t expected the
book to go back that far chronologically. But what happened was
that while sick during the 2002 winter break, I reread Moby-Dick
in a sort of feverish haze. I kept wondering, “Is it just
my fever that’s making me think this is all about Japan?”
Discovering Melville’s romance with Japan—and his
lifelong attempts to return to the Pacific—really took me
of surprises, the book certainly opens with one—Buddhism
in Boston after the Civil War. Who knew?
Exactly. We associate an interest in the martial arts and the
tea ceremony and Japanese poetry and Japanese Buddhism maybe with
the 1950s, with the Beat poets. But the American fascination with
Japan began so much earlier. And the Japan that these Bostonians
invented is not the Japan of Mary Cassatt’s beautiful prints
or the Japan of Degas and Van Gogh, a sort of happy world of the
senses. Instead it’s sort of dark, brooding, melancholy,
and Buddhist. So that was surprising to me, as I think it will
be to readers. One extraordinary result of all these personal
quests is that Boston now is home to some of the greatest Japanese
art in the world. It’s completely unexpected, and yet there
How did you decide where to stop the story?
Henry James says that stories don’t really end anywhere
and the job of the writer is to persuade the reader that they
do. I did feel at a certain point that 1913 was going to be the
end; certain parts of the story kept ending there. And it made
me think that the period known as the Meiji era, which corresponds
almost year for year with America’s Gilded Age, also ends
in 1913. And then I thought “Well, that’s when the
Gilded Age ends, too.” It’s also the year Okakura
dies and when Mabel Loomis Todd has a stroke. I began to think,
“I’m going to honor this, too. There’s something
right about this.” So there was both a historical, and for
these figures, a biographical reason to end the story in 1913.
Even today, relatively few Americans travel to Japan. What sort
of journey was it for the characters in The Great Wave?
These were arduous, arduous journeys. After traveling across the
country by train, one boarded a ship that either went around Cape
Horn or, later, through the Panama Canal. That was followed by
a journey of several weeks across the ocean. It was neither an
easy nor particularly safe trip yet the lure of Japan was overwhelmingly
powerful. The journey also was incredibly expensive. So it was
a marker of social status for millionaires like Isabella Stewart
Gardner and Henry Adams to travel there. But Japan was also a
spiritual magnet. Melville wasn’t going there to make money,
except whatever he could make as a writer. It truly was a much
deeper sort of magnet. For John La Farge, Japan was the source
of his deepest artistic urgings. All these people were as much
pilgrims as tourists. This is a book of pilgrimages, a tale of
an eclectic group of New England Buddhists going to the source.
The book has a distinct narrative style in which characters’
stories are intertwined. How did you choose that approach?
It’s the kind of book I like to read. I think that the kind
of nonfiction I’m writing now is culture heavy. That is
to say, I’m trying to find a way to animate a group of artworks
and objects, such as tea bowls and Japanese prints, as well as
aesthetic and cultural ideas for the reader. I’m also trying
to show where these things fit into individual lives, not just
the lives of the people who made them but also the people who
they were made for, and the people who came later. In this case,
the lives of questing, desperate, hungry Americans. So the challenge
was bringing both these people and these luminous objects to life.
I think the narrative style best accomplishes that.
Given that The Great Wave focuses on little-known details
in the lives of artists and intellectuals, how did you approach
In some ways, this is a book stitched together from footnotes,
single lines in other books, along with bits and pieces from archives
and old journals and letters. At the Massachusetts Historical
Society, I was holding Henry Adams’s travel journal and
travel albums with his own wavering pencil sketches of Mount Fuji.
The process is very intimate and yet you sometimes feel as though
you are learning secrets that these people didn’t want known.
Along the way, connections reveal themselves. To discover, as
an example, that Henry Adams knew the Baron Ryuichi Kuki [the
Japanese ambassador to the U.S.] before Adams went to Japan and
that Kuki’s wife then became the lover of Okakura, etcetera,
etcetera, etcetera, just reveals a whole side of Adams that nobody
knew about. This is what I mean about the story unfolding itself
to me. But I also believe that if you have an instinctive sense
of where to look, the details will be there for you.
You note in the book that you spent a year in Japan when you were
sixteen. Did that experience subsequently change the lens through
which you view the world?
I studied mainly Japanese ceramics and judo that year in Japan—and
the Japanese language. And those three things are so central to
this book. I also studied traditional calligraphy. So—and
I’m only realizing this as I speak—the story of an
American going to Japan in search of those old traditional arts
was my story, too. At age sixteen, I was unknowingly recapitulating
a journey that Americans had been making since the 1870s.
What draws you to cultural history?
This book, the Degas book, and the ones that came before—The
Double Life of Stephen Crane and Emily Dickinson and
the Problem of Others—they’re all anchored in
American literature. I do feel that it’s important to come
from somewhere. And where I come from, where I live, is in American
literature of the Gilded Age. That’s where my roots are.
I also like to travel—across national borders, and linguistic
borders and artistic borders. I like to go from literature to
the arts. But I always come back to American writing in the Gilded
Age. These books enact that journey; they’re about going
to New Orleans and France, going to Japan and the South Seas and
so on. I want to follow American literature in its wanderings.
And I’m as interested in connections and border crossings
as I am in the borders themselves. My training was in comparative
literature so in that sense, I am sort of coming home, too. I
am a comparatist who turned into an American literature specialist
and now I’m turning myself back into a comparatist.