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The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa

by Gerald W. Haslam and Janice E. Haslam

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8032-3764-3
Publisher: Bison/Univ. of Nebraska

Biography of a polarizing popularizer of general semantics and one-term senator from California.

Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa (1906–1992), born in Vancouver of aristocratic Japanese parents who returned to Japan when he entered college, never learned Japanese and always thought of himself as North American. He studied and taught English literature in Canada and the United States and aspired to be a modernist poet like one of his heroes, T.S. Eliot. By the time he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1936, he had affected the manners and speech of an Oxford don, a self-presentation that led others to give him the nickname of Don, which would stick. Hayakawa first made his mark as the author of a manual for students of writing that came to be called Language in Thought and Action, based on the idea of general semantics formulated by Alfred Korzybski, a supposedly scientific means of analyzing the meanings of words. Always restless in mind and ambitious in spirit, Hayakawa used the magazine he founded, ETC., to muse about favorite subjects like jazz, automobile design and civil rights. His early liberalism, which made him suspect in the McCarthy years, yielded to an eccentric conservatism in the ’60s, particularly in his iconic role as acting president at San Francisco State University. Haslam (English Emeritus/Sonoma State Univ.; Workin’ Man Blues: Country Music in California, 1999, etc.), a student and colleague of his subject’s, admits that while he thought much of the left’s criticism of Hayakawa was unfair, he and the senator drifted apart politically as well as professionally. Nevertheless, the book is a promise kept to Hayakawa’s wife. Haslam (with his own wife as partner) was a good choice for biographer. He clearly admired his subject but is fair (though discreet) about his flaws, including a reputation for philandering.

Absorbing study of a surprising, multifaceted life.