- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003


By Christopher Benfey

Random House, $25.95, 332 pages, illus.


We’ve all had the experience of meeting someone, only to discover what a small world it is. They dated your cousin, or you have friends in common, or you are connected by some other uncanny coincidence. It’s not six degrees of separation, often its just one or two.

With even a passing familiarity with things Japanese, that’s what it is like reading “The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese eccentrics and the Opening of Old Japan” by Christopher Benfey.

On nearly every page Mr. Benfey introduces an American intellectual, writer or artist, or fact, or Japanese artifact, or incident, that makes the reader smile in wonder at the web of connection.

Mr. Benfey looks at how a wealthy circle of New England friends and relatives introduced Japan to the United States. Aptly named for the Hokusai print, evoking the tsunami — the social and cultural tidal wave that crashed across the United States and over Old Japan — Mr. Benfey has put together a cultural puzzle, linking Herman Melville, John Manjiro, Isabella Gardner, Henry Adams, John LeFarge, Lafcadio Hearn, Kakuzuo Okakura, Frank Lloyd Wright, Emily Dickinson, Theodore Roosevelt and a dozen others, mostly friends, relatives, lovers and schoolmates, who made it happen.

The book opens with one such coincidence.

Herman Melville boarded the whaling ship Acushnet, in Fairhaven, Mass. Jan. 3, 1841, bound for Japan. Two days later, on the other side of the world, a 14-year-old boy named Manjiro, set out on a day-trip from a fishing village on Shikoku, Japan, only to be caught in a storm, washed out to sea and rescued by an American whaling ship, which eventually took him to Fairhaven.

Coming from opposite sides of the world, they were befriended by the same missionary in Honolulu, missing each the other by a couple of months. Each was destined to be a player in the introducing of East to West, and West to East, Melville with his books, and Manjiro, once back in Japan, as a translator and diplomat.

It would be 13 more years before Commodore Perry sailed into Yokohama harbor to “open” Japan. But from the time Manjiro and Melville passed each other on ships in the night, a handful of individuals, mostly from wealthy New England families, and small group of Japanese diplomats, artists, and writers, were to meet, marry, have affairs, travel, write, collect, catalogue and create art with one another, in an unprecedented intermingling and crosspollination of talent and energy, centered on Japan.

In each chapter of the book, Mr. Benfey picks two individuals and tells their intertwing stories. For example, one chapter is dedicated to Melville and Manjiro. Another to Okakura and Gardner. One of the most fascinating, to my mind, details the lives of Percival Lowell, a Washington astronomer, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who wrote what many consider to be the most erotic diary of the Victorian era. Suffice it to say, you’ll never read your Emily Dickinson the same way again.

While the principle characters are familiar as individuals, Mr. Benfey places each in context with the others and Japan. My only complaint is that I wish Mr. Benfey had provided a schematic or genealogy to keep help keep it all straight.

The book is full of surprises.

Washingtonians know Henry Adams, and the Augustus St. Gaudens memorial to his wife “Clover” in Rock Creek Cemetery. Who knew it was inspired by Japan’s Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of Mercy, and a trip Adams took to Japan, with the artist John La Farge, after his wife’s suicide?

Okukura, who knew India’s Rabindranath Tagore, spoke several languages, studied and traveled with Ernest Fenollosa, and scandalized Boston society, with a rumored affair with Isabella Gardner, also collected art for American museums. He produced several books on art, Japanese tea and culture and was something of a cultural ambassador.

He was one of Adams’ hosts in Japan, when Adams was traveling with La Farge, who managed to merge East and West in his Church of the Ascension mural in New York, a seminal painting that uses Japan’s mountains as background.

His writings influnced at least three American poets: Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

One of my favorite stories in the book is that German philosopher Martin Heidegger after reading Okakura’s “The Book of Tea,” apparently borrowed some of the concepts that were introduced to the West as his own in “Being and Time.”

There is plenty more.

The New England collectors criss-crossed Japan, buying art, religious artifacts, ceramics, prints, and whatever else caught their fancy. The ones bent on preserving the Old Japan, may be most familiar to us today — as we have the Sackler Gallery in Washington, the Gardner Museum in Boston and the Peabody in Salem, all of which grew out of the Asia trade first established by New England whaling captains. who brought home stage and wonderful souvenirs from their travels to exotic lands. The New England collectors added to them to create amazing repositories of Asian art.

I found myself marveling at the web of friendships, kinships, relationships and interests this circles’ legacy. The characters in Mr. Benfey’s “Great Wave” seemed to know every important artist, diplomat, writer and intellectual in the world. It’s an adventure to enter their circle and make their acquaintance.

Tom Carter is assistant foreign editor at The Washington Times.

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