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

3.74  ·  Rating Details ·  177 Ratings  ·  38 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
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
Sep 07, 2016 MJ rated it really liked it
I enjoyed the cast of (real) characters this book chose to follow; I think my favorites were the chapters on Herman Melville+John Manjiro and Okakura Kazuko+Isabella Stewart Gardner. I never thought that reading a book on 19th century tourism would make me want to read The Book of Tea, À la recherche du temps perdu, and the works of Jean-Paul Sartre afterward, but maybe I'll save those after a break of slightly lighter reading…

Only critique is that I wished more women had been included in the li
Jan 25, 2008 Jim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Aug 20, 2015 Denise rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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. :)
Howard Mansfield
May 07, 2017 Howard Mansfield rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Great Wave is a smart book about cultural longing in the Gilded Age and how the West imported the East it wanted. Old Boston longed for Old Japan and created our idea of the “wisdom of the East” by what it collected and displayed in museums. All the while Japan was hurrying toward its new empire, as was America. Christopher Benefy tells the story concisely and with wit.

Aug 31, 2009 Bonnie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
"The Great Wave" by Christopher Benfey is a solid read, and his writing lends a vivid character and detailed attention to the historical figures that he is highlighting, but there are a few issues in the book. The first is with the title and the supposed focus. The surtitle, "Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan," gives the impression there will be a somewhat equal give-and-take on how the author focuses on the early years of the cultural dialogue between the Uni ...more
Jan 31, 2008 Chris rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, japan
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
Aug 16, 2007 Tom rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Jan 27, 2015 Rj rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Seth Kolloen
Sep 24, 2013 Seth Kolloen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 26, 2010 Ron rated it really liked it
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
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
Mar 31, 2014 Alex rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-in-2014
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
Leonardo Etcheto
May 09, 2011 Leonardo Etcheto rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Monica Bond-Lamberty
The title deserves close reading because you do get more of the gilded age misfits than the Japanese eccentrics. And the opening of Old Japan is pretty much through the eye of those gilded age misfits which is not everyone's cup of tea.
The first section was an equal mix of Japanese eccentrics and Gilded Age misfits, but towards the end it becomes much more about the gilded age misfits and about the impact on future writers - Camus, Sartre, etc. and if you are into the genesis of ideas and stanza
Feb 25, 2009 Caitlin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jay McNair
Jun 27, 2016 Jay McNair rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very surprising, unusual structure—kind of artistic, and passionate in a youthful way.

Loved Manjiro. Loved Melville. Loved the professor who had himself lowered into a watery cave of venomous centipedes to look at old pottery, and said, "there is nothing more glorious than the graceful abandoning of one's position if it be false."

Totally fascinating how connected everyone was. Like Todd/Dickinson/Lowell; everyone in Boston; all the expats in Japan.
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.
May 05, 2014 Carol rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 31, 2012 Crystal rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jan 11, 2010 Anne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 02, 2015 Salvatore rated it it was ok
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.
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.
Dec 18, 2016 Calvin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good mix of stories, but definitely a greater focus on the Americans and how they tried to find themselves in Japan's imagined past. Good as a study in cross cultural exchange and what it reveals about ourselves
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.
Mar 10, 2013 Softie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jan 16, 2015 Gaylon rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Wish I had read this book before I went to Japan! Fascinating!
Feb 22, 2016 Pat rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book a lot, could not put down. The well referenced interesting details, often of huge historical significance, really made a worthwhile read.
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