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THE GREAT WAVE by Christopher Benfey


Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan

by Christopher Benfey

Pub Date: May 13th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-50327-7
Publisher: Random House

The author of Degas in New Orleans (1997) attempts to define the nexus that arose between the US and Japan in the late 19th century by examining its effect on key cultural and social arbiters of the day.

Benfey (English/Mount Holyoke) alludes to the subject of the well-known print by Hokusai in finding that a cultural “Great Wave” from Japan loomed over the US for decades after Commodore Matthew Perry’s thinly disguised mission of intimidation in 1853. It crested following the Centennial of 1876, asserts the author, principally on New England’s shores, where wealthy, influential Boston Brahmins languished in ennui, looking for some infusion of mysticism to revive a shopworn Protestant climate. Benfey chronicles the infusion of Japan (or a least the concept of “Old Japan”) into the writings of brooding Herman Melville and quirky Lafcadio Hearn, the paintings of John LaFarge, and the collections of connoisseurs like Edward Morse and Sturgis Bigelow. On the flip side, the reader will find an account of Manjiro (a.k.a. John Mung), the castaway boy fisherman who, after being raised in Massachusetts, returned home to Japan as a champion of education in the English language, Western ideas, and modern technologies. Fortunately, these extensive documentations are often relieved with juicier bits of gossip that place, say, an enrobed Samurai gigolo—possibly bisexual, definitely an utter snob—sipping tea in a paneled drawing room on Beacon Street. Anecdotal gems such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s admission to being “bored to extinction” by the formal Japanese tea ceremony also help lighten the author’s forced march from art history through literary criticism to geopolitical ruminations. He barely notes, however, the 1905 event that signaled the unprecedented coming of age of Japanese military technology: the battle of Tsushima, during which the imperial navy destroyed the Russian fleet.

A sweeping cacophony of about a half-dozen condensed books.