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May 23 , 2003

The Great Wave: Talking with Christopher Benfey

Professor 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.

“Toward 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 Wave.


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 by surprise.

Speaking 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 it is.


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 your research?

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.


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