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The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  131 ratings  ·  29 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 transfor ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published August 10th 2004 by Random House Trade Paperbacks (first published 2003)
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I don't have the book with me now; a few days ago my friend came over and I recommended it to her, so she took it from the shelf right away.
I enjoyed it a lot, it's well written and full of interesting facts. Who would have thought that Japan was already so much in vogue in the Gilded Age. And I was surprised to see Percival Lowell among the people fascinated with Old Japan - I read his "Soul of the Far East" and thought it was insufferable Oriental rubbish.
I sort of mildly disliked many of the
So interesting .. but a meandering trail through many interconnected people. It was at times overwhelming with information. However I did learn a lot from it. And it was fun to read something written by my college professor. :)
At the same time I have been enjoying Christopher Benfey's The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics and the Opening of Old Japan (New York: Random House, 2003). Benfey's book is a collection of interrelated essays on Americans, mostly New Englanders following the whaling trade, who interacted with Japan and Japanese in the United States in the late 19th-century. Benfey's writing is easy and accessible opens up a whole world of interest in this cross-cultural trade in ideas and cul ...more
The Great Wave has many interesting facts and anecdotes, unfortunately I think this book is a case of an author doing a ton of research and leaving nothing out. By the end you are just dragging along hoping it will wrap up soon. The first chapter is by far the best which regrettably sets your expectations high for a great read that ultimately does not deliver. I read this book as part of the Mount Auburn Cemetery (Cambridge, MA) Book Club due to the Cemetery residents featured in the book such a ...more
An excellent and absorbing account of the early contacts between individual Japanese and Americans in the last half of the 19th century. How the two cultures influenced one another through these individuals and how they influenced others in their own circles. Good character studies and good culture history.
Michael Anderson
Not so much about Japan itself, this book describes the influence of Japanese culture and philosophy on American thought and art for 50 years after its opening to the West. A lot of biographical detail is given for the major players -- Herman Melville, Robert Morse, Henry Adams, Teddy Roosevelt, Percival Lowell, and quite a few others I'm not familiar with -- much of it having nothing to do with their interest in things Japanese. Slow at times, I did end up liking what I read and learned about t ...more
Finding a popular history of Japan is very nearly impossible. Unlike popular histories about western Europe and the US which can be spotted a mile away hiding in a tree, popular histories (in English) about Asia can't be found on a clear day in an empty field.

This is in fact the FIRST and ONLY popular history I've ever found about Japan. I have theories about why this is so (1) the reading audience is more interested to read about the Founding Fathers and the Tudors and other well-known histori
This is the last of the Meiji-era history books that I bought, and I'll be going off that topic for a little while. It's been really good reading, though, because that's an incredibly interesting time. Japan went from a medieval feudal society to a nation capable of standing toe-to-toe with Western world powers within fifty years. It's an amazing accomplishment, really.

The 1860s were a bad time for Japan and America both. Japan had its Meiji Revolution, America had the Civil War. And after those
Strange and interesting tales of cultural exchange between the United States and Japan during the Gilded Age / Meiji Restoration era (1870s-1910s). During these years, both the USA and Japan were rapidly developing nations looking to expand into empires. Consequently, the two cultures looked to each other for inspiration. A professor of literature and art history by trade, Benfey brings an profound knowledge of American artistic history to this volume and tells it all with a storyteller's flouri ...more
The book promises more than it can deliver. It's really just a random selection of Americans who have a huge or slight interest in Japanese culture after the Civil War and before The Great War. Huge digressions not on this topic were dull. The first chapter, about Manjiro and Herman Melville having opposite experiences over the Pacific, is worth it. As perhaps is the chapter on Okakura.
Benfey relies almost exclusively on secondary sources but he brings his information together in interesting ways. Mostly about the interaction between the Boston bonzes and the Japanese; but Frank Lloyd Wright and the Imperial Hotel find a place here. Benfey loves gossip and Emily Dickinson, her brother Austin, and Mabel Todd Loomis are shoehorned in.
John C.
3.5 stars. It dragged in places, but it introduced me to a lot of interesting people (Lafcadio Hearn- what a life!) and gave me some more reading to do. It's obviously very Western-centric, and at no point does it seem even a little critical of the cultural condescension evinced by most of its New England Brahmin subjects, but if you can get past that, there's a lot of wonderful stuff in here.
An interesting look at many of the connections that literary, artistic, political and other folks -- primarily in the Boston/New England region -- had with each other and with Japan during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Centering heavily on Boston and its art museums and benefactors, you also learn about that region's influence on Japan, and Japan's influence on it and American society in general. It does meander at times, plunging into grand (but interesting!) diversions that seem at first dis ...more
Seth Kolloen
Really interesting book about Americans visiting Japan just as it opened up to the Western World. The book is organized in sections each telling the story of one or two different visitors, and the compelling-ness of the book varies based on which visitor he is talking about. I mostly skipped the section about Henry Adams, because I find Henry Adams to be absolutely insufferable. The parts about Edward Morse, who was one of the first Americans to come to Japan and certainly the most observant, we ...more
Wish I had read this book before I went to Japan! Fascinating!
Leonardo Etcheto
Loved the book. Great overview of a fascinating melding. Great reminder of the power of trade – the whale boats from around the world being the ones with the most contact with Japan. I always find it fascinating that the thoughts and views of the explorers tell us more about them than about the land they are explaining. Benfey does a really good job of showing the mystery and hopes that were attached to Japan by the hoity tots from New England. The enduring allure of Japan as a mystic land of et ...more
Interesting for its unexpected coincidences and enticing historical tidbits, but I was a little bored by the time I reached the last chapter- I think the best bits were mostly in the first half of the book. Still a pretty good read, well-researched but not dense, and covering a subject and time period I'm particularly interested in. I wanted more women though, like the author mentions Isabella Bird multiple times but never elaborates on her experiences in Japan. I guess because she was British a ...more
Very well written. Benfey's attention to detail makes one think these are fictional stories when actually, the book is entirely based on fact. How did he learn so much about all those historical figures? It is a wonderful look at the opening of Japan to the U.S., as well as the fascination Westerners held towards all things Japanese during that era. I found it slightly boring here and there but that could be my own lack of tolerance for extremely detailed history lessons. Otherwise, an interesti ...more
Highly recommend this for those interested in the east-west exchange between US and Japan post-Commodore Perry. Benfey brings the story to you through the individuals who studied, lived in, were fascinated by, and wrote about Japan - from Herman Melville to Edward Sylvester Morse to Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Adams Both an interesting and entertaining read.
ƒun and interesting but not so compelling that I felt an urge to read every word. This book is about Meiji Era Japan in the eyes of numerous artists and writers from Gilded Era America. It's well organized; each featured artist/writer/character gets his or her own short, well-written chapter. Beney is a breezy and entertaining writer.
I read this book right after visiting the MFA show at the National Museum. The Meiji period is endlessly fascinating, and the New England Japanophiles are wonderfully crazy. I have added lots of books to my reading list thanks to their being mentioned here, and there are places I will have to visit next time I'm in Boston.
Shawn Thrasher
A great title, and a great fourth or so, but stalled after that. Lacked narrative thread (or narrative flair, for that matter). Of interest to Japanophiles perhaps (definitely of interest to Henry Adams-philes) but otherwise, meh.
I loved it.

Thankfully , some of the japanese artifacts have been collected.

It's kinda like if a new culture arrives, say for example, only purple is true and beautiful.
What do you do with the old culture? Burn, smash, trash.
The interconnectedness of the Japanophile community in Boston is amazing and Benfey brings the personalities to vivid life. I kept wanting to draw a chart of how all these people were connected.
This book started off well and then got a bit boring since many of the people discussed were in earlier sections of the book. Anyway, not interesting enough to recommend to anyone.
I have been reading selections from the Museum of Fine Arts reading list in an MFA reading group. The books correspond to some of the art we discuss on our tours.
Exceptionally intelligent treatment of Japanese culture both contemporary and at the turn of the century; very good chapter on Melville...
Well constructed study of the flow of ideas between Japan and Boston intelligentsia.
Michael marked it as to-read
Oct 11, 2015
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