Friday, July 18, 2008

Shipwrecks, seashells, and the search for life on Mars - Christopher Benfey's The Great Wave

Or The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), to give Benfey's book its full title. Benfey is a specialist in 19th century American literature - Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane - but here he indulges a lifelong love of Japan to write a unique two-way history of ideas. Ideas flow from the United States (New England, really) to the newly-opened Japan, and from Japan to New England.

In the first chapter a teenage Japanese fisherman named Manjiro is washed to sea with four other fishermen and stranded on a desert island. He ends up in Hawaii, and then Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Simultaneously, Herman Melville leaves Fairhaven on a whaler, and misses crossing paths with Manjiro in Honolulu by six months. Manjiro, aka John Mung, was the first Japanese person to live in the United States, and the first great carrier of Western ideas to Japan. Melville was - I think we all have some idea what Melville eventually did with his youthful voyage in the Pacific.

So this is a history of ideas told through biography, mostly those of the first New Englanders who went to Japan, and the first Japanese who went to America. There are a lot of strange transformations. The seashell collector Edward Sylvester Morse became an expert in No plays and the tea ceremony. Morse's lectures in Boston drew the attention of the everything collector Isabella Stuart Gardner and many others, including Percival Lowell, who wrote several books on Japan before turning his attention to trying to prove that there was intelligent life on Mars. Lafcadio Hearn does everything he can to actually become Japanese.

The small world of intellectual New England helps the book cohere as a story. Edward Sylvester Morse was cousins with Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams. The book closes with a photo of Henry and Clover's Augustus Saint-Gaudens-designed tomb, based on the Kannon Buddha that Henry saw on a trip to Japan. Mars madman Percival Lowell was the brother of poet Amy Lowell (whom he called "Big Fat Baby"). Mabel Loomis Todd, tied into the Mars business by marriage, was Emily Dickinson's (posthumous) editor, and had a long affair with Dickinson's married brother. Some of this may seem a bit distant from Japan. It's all so interesting that few readers will care.

What else is there? Lafcadio Hearn's ghost stories, Teddy Roosevelt learning Judo. At the end, Ezra Pound, Frank Lloyd Wright, Rabindranath Tagore, and Martin Heidegger - in other words, Modernism. Benfey pulls a lot together. He reminds me of how much I have to learn about American literature, much less Japanese.


  1. Great post! I loved Benfrey's book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about Dickinson, Beecher Stowe, Martin Johnson Heade, et al. too. It is another book of 'convergences' of important literary, artistic, religious, and political figures. Your review of his latest is well done! I'm glad I found your blog, there's lots to explore here. Cheers! Chris

  2. Thanks. I completely agree about A Summer of Hummingbirds, which it seems I never wrote about. I should read the book about Degas in New Orleans someday.