The Great Wave
Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan
Publication Date: August 10, 2004
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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.”
Advance praise for The Great Wave
“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
Praise for Christopher Benfey
Degas in New Orleans
“Yes, Degas in New Orleans involves a haunted house, ghosts, and titillating couplings, but all elements are solidly anchored in historical events and retold by Christopher Benfey in a deft synthesis of art criticism and historical speculation....An elegant introduction to a city that remains a secretive, seductive metropolis.”
—Grace Lichtenstein, The Washington Post Book World
The Double Life of Stephen Crane
“In this astute and subtle new reading of Stephen Crane, Christopher Benfey discovers the mysterious process of a life taking shape from its art. Mr. Benfey writes beautifully and is as sharp on the social and psychological dimensions of Crane’s experience as he is on language and literary craft.”
—Jean Strouse, author of Alice James