Great Waves of Cultural Change
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle, May 20, 2003
By Tess Taylor
The Great Wave
Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics and the Opening of Old Japan
By Christopher Benfey
RANDOM HOUSE; 332 Pages; $25.95
In this carefully wrought, accessibly written cultural history, Christopher Benfey, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, traces the influence of Japanese traditions on America's Gilded Age, an era when late-19th century tea parties gave way to first stirrings of American modernism.
"The Great Wave" refers to the tsunami of change that took place after Commodore Perry, aided by a fleet of ships and a cannon, opened Japan's ports to Western trade in 1854. While Japan set a course toward Western-style modernization, Japanese customs and artifacts began influencing Westerners around the globe. The world, it seemed, was struck with japonisme: In the background of Edouard Manet's portrait of Emile Zola a series of Japanese drawings reference this new-found visual culture. The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam devotes an entire floor to a collection of Japanese prints that helped shape the artist's cropping and composition.
Benfey adds to this chapter in cultural history by documenting a specifically American fascination with all things Japanese. In particular, he focuses on an elite group of New Englanders who were eager to encounter, explore and, especially, repossess vestiges of traditional Japanese culture.
Benfey spins his tale through a series of interlocking episodes that document moments of contact between East and West. Some of these have incredible symmetry: New England whaler Herman Melville travels west through still forbidden Pacific waters, writing about "impenetrable Japans." At the same time, a rescued castaway named Manjiro voyages east to New England before returning to Japan as its first cultural ambassador of Western ways.
Other chapters hold fabulous character studies: Edward Morse, a high school dropout with a penchant for collecting seashells, rises to become a renowned Darwinian biologist with a passion for cultural artifacts. His trips to Japan document old ways of life that are rapidly changing even as he seeks to record them.
Throughout the book, glimmerings of a new modern sensibility are refracted through American responses to contact with Asia. Frank Lloyd Wright reads author Kakuzo Okakura's descriptions of Japanese interiors and savors them as he envisions the forms of a new architecture. Ezra Pound inherits Okakura's notebooks of Taoist poems. Pound forges his own modern style even as he immerses himself in the literary traditions of 6th century China.
By focusing his account of cultural change through several main characters, Benfey admirably avoids writing an arcane and sweeping book. His series of artful portraits hint at the significance of moments of cultural influence and cross-pollination, while at the same time allowing their process to be murky, misguided and sometimes random, much as human lives themselves are.
The result, however, is that Benfey's book often seems not to capture a great wave, but to describe a series of tiny trickles. Benfey focuses less on Japan's changing culture than on the way a few Americans perceive it. As a result Benfey goes to great lengths to describe likes and dislikes of a small handful of Americans. At times it is hard to believe that whether or not the painter John La Farge does or does not like sushi, or what sect of Buddhism Henry Adams prefers, is actually indicative of a cultural moment at large. It is as if sometimes Benfey is rather like the shell collector combing through colorful minutia along a wide shore, and one aches for a long shot of its larger geography.
It's also sometimes uneasy to think of cultural change as quite so site- specific. Aside from a select few Japanese ambassadors to the United States, it can be hard to find Japan behind the details about fascinated print collectors or benighted American Buddhists. One wishes every so often for a few more points of reference in the country that is being explored, if only perhaps to better to cast light on those who explore it.
Nevertheless, the beautifully structured pieces offer a textured, insightful account of a richly fascinating cultural moment.
Tess Taylor writes for Salon.com and San Francisco magazine.