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The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japanby Christopher Benfey
Synopses & Reviews
When the United States entered the Gilded Age after the Civil War, argues cultural historian Christopher Benfey, the nation lost its philosophical moorings and looked eastward to “Old Japan,” with its seemingly untouched indigenous culture, for balance and perspective. Japan, meanwhile, was trying to reinvent itself as a more cosmopolitan, modern state, ultimately transforming itself, in the course of twenty-five years, from a feudal backwater to an international power. This great wave of historical and cultural reciprocity between the two young nations, which intensified during the late 1800s, brought with it some larger-than-life personalities, as the lure of unknown foreign cultures prompted pilgrimages back and forth across the Pacific.
In The Great Wave, Benfey tells the story of the tightly knit group of nineteenth-century travelers—connoisseurs, collectors, and scientists—who dedicated themselves to exploring and preserving Old Japan. As Benfey writes, “A sense of urgency impelled them, for they were convinced—Darwinians that they were—that their quarry was on the verge of extinction.”
These travelers include Herman Melville, whose Pequod is “shadowed by hostile and mysterious Japan”; the historian Henry Adams and the artist John La Farge, who go to Japan on an art-collecting trip and find exotic adventures; Lafcadio Hearn, who marries a samurai’s daughter and becomes Japan’s preeminent spokesman in the West; Mabel Loomis Todd, the first woman to climb Mt. Fuji; Edward Sylvester Morse, who becomes the world’s leading expert on both Japanese marine life and Japanese architecture; the astronomer Percival Lowell, who spends ten years in the East and writes seminal works on Japanese culture before turning his restless attention to life on Mars; and President (and judo enthusiast) Theodore Roosevelt. As well, we learn of famous Easterners come West, including Kakuzo Okakura, whose The Book of Tea became a cult favorite, and Shuzo Kuki, a leading philosopher of his time, who studied with Heidegger and tutored Sartre.
Finally, as Benfey writes, his meditation on cultural identity “seeks to capture a shared mood in both the Gilded Age and the Meiji Era, amid superficial promise and prosperity, of an overmastering sense of precariousness and impending peril.”
"The close-up brilliance of Christopher Benfey?s depiction of the early stages of the encounter between sophisticated representatives of the American Gilded Age and those of nineteenth-century Japan required an assured grasp of both cultures, their assumptions and envies, their gifts and weaknesses, their humor and lack of it. He has portrayed this mutual loss of virginity with grace, wit, and a range of reference that re-echoes the original astonishments and is a pleasure to read." W. S. Merwin
"Benfey...brings to his subject a scholar's thoroughness, a critic's astuteness and a storyteller's sense of drama. Sometimes he gets bogged down in excess detail, and sometimes he stretches evidence beyond the breaking point, but his tact and humor almost always carry us through." William Deresiewicz, NY Times
"Benfey...offers an enjoyable collection of eclectic and surprising historical narratives....his account is consistently enjoyable and always informative." Publishers Weekly
"Conveying both rapture and disappointment with Japanese culture, Benfey draws a sophisticated portrait of the period's personalities." Booklist
"Well documented, this scholarly and very readable account provides thought-provoking viewpoints that will appeal to scholars and students who enjoy history." Library Journal
"The Great Wave beautifully re-creates that distinctive fascination with Japan that so touched the hearts and minds of many on both sides of the Pacific." LA Times
This beautifully rendered meditation on the subject of cultural identity and on the consequences — both good and bad — of cultural cross-pollination proves that what important history does at its best is transform our worldview. Notes.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -323) and index.
About the Author
Christopher Benfey teaches literature at Mount Holyoke College, where he is co-director of the Weissman Center for Leadership. Benfey is the author of Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others, The Double Life of Stephen Crane, and Degas in New Orleans. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife and two sons.
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