Donald Keene's Japan (Pt. 28): Returning to life in New York after peculiar India tour
TOKYO -- In May 1955, Donald Keene left Japan after nearly two years of studying at Kyoto University. By way of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Bangkok, he headed to India. In Japan, Keene built social connections including not only Japanese people, but also Americans. During his second time in India, following his first trip in 1953 en route to Japan, his journey became all the more memorable thanks to an American he became acquainted with in Tokyo. Let's take a look at his autobiography.
From Bangkok I flew to Madras, and from there took the train to Madurai at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula, where I met Faubion Bowers and his wife Santha Rama Rau. I had met them the previous year in Tokyo, where Bowers had been gathering material for a book on Asian drama. He had served with the Occupation army as General MacArthur's interpreter and later had been placed in charge of Kabuki. The Kabuki actors, with whom he had maintained close relations, thought of him as a great benefactor, not only because he had saved Kabuki during the critical period of the postwar years, when it was in danger of becoming denatured or even being abandoned, but because he personally had provided the actors with needed medicines and other scarce items. Through Bowers I had met Koshiro, Utaemon, Baiko and other leading actors. His wife, a distinguished writer, was Indian, but absolutely international in her outlook and her wit. Bowers had suggested that the three of us drive all the way up the east coast of India from Madurai to Konarak.
The journey was exhausting because of the extreme heat. At one miserable town where we had to spend the night waiting for the early morning ferry, the temperature was close to 45 degrees. But we enjoyed each other's company so much that the heat only made us laugh hysterically and provoke us into flights of fantasy.
[Meeting With Japan]
India's hot summer, with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees Celsius, must have been a tough ordeal. What's more, the trip was apparently quite a peculiar one. Keene recounts an unexpected happening in another autobiography, as seen below.
The low point of the journey occurred at a place called Guntur. We arrived too late for the last ferry over the river and had to spend the night at a guesthouse whose facilities were primitive. There was no restaurant, but a man offered to buy some food for us. He came back with a can of meat, a can of cream, and a can of milk. Somehow, instead of annoying us, everything contributed to our gaiety. We composed the libretto of a Wagnerian opera about Guntur. We laughed as though we were quite drunk, though we hadn't touched a drop.
[On Familiar Terms]
Keene's positivity and cheerfulness in any situation was completely in character. He turned the extraordinary events in India into a playful joke in the form of an opera. While the piece has unfortunately not been passed down, Keene's interest in the great civilization continued through his final years.
From India, Keene headed to London, and completed his remaining duties at the University of Cambridge. Then, he went back to New York and became an assistant professor at Columbia University. It was the fall of 1955. He returned to his life as a scholar teaching Japanese literature. In New York, he often met with the Bowers, who had arrived there before him, and encountered an even wider variety of people through their friends. For over half a century, Keene spent his days with his home base in New York. He seems to have enjoyed life at the global hub that gathered cultures from all around the world.
After I returned to New York in September I saw them almost every day. If they were invited to a party they invariably asked permission to bring me along, and they never bought theatre tickets without buying one for me too. They seemed an ideal couple. He was full of enthusiasm, passionately devoted to his friends, and moved always by generous impulses. Santha was beautiful, marvelously intelligent, and full of a sense of fun. Even though we met almost every day there were always so many things to talk about that it was hard to say goodbye.
Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Bowers my first two years of teaching at Columbia were happy, and New York, though I had dreaded returning, seemed the most exciting place in the world. I had by no means forgotten Kyoto, but just as my life in Japan had opened up elements within myself I had not suspected, my life in New York gave me confidence in my ability to mix on equal terms with celebrated people.
In Japan I had sometimes wondered if the readiness with which famous authors consented to meeting me had not been occasioned in part by curiosity about any foreigner -- not necessarily myself -- who spoke Japanese, and this uncertainty had made it difficult to decide if in fact I was interesting as a social acquaintance. But now I had ample opportunity to test myself with celebrities not predisposed in my favor.
Through Bowers and his close friend John Gunther I met an extraordinary variety of people -- writers, musicians, ballet dancers, actors, political experts, members of European royalty. With a few exceptions these acquaintances did not develop into friends, but this did not matter. I had not only engaged in conversation with Greta Garbo, my idol from childhood, but had even taken her to the theatre. I had discussed music with Leopold Stokowski, poetry with W.H. Auden, and Sanskrit literature with the great physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. I discovered that I could amuse even sophisticated people, and I was delighted to be the only professor ever invited to these gatherings. I now have absolutely no desire to return to that social world again, but I am grateful for those two years. They softened the pain of leaving Japan.
[Meeting With Japan]
In another autobiography, Keene wrote the following.
The daily routine of my university teaching was of course less exciting than the nightlife, but it gave me pleasure to think how little my students could have suspected that the professor with whom they laboriously read Japanese texts on Tuesdays and Thursdays had conversed the previous evening with Garbo.
[On Familiar Terms]
Keene must have been very proud and delighted about his social circles in New York. Greta Garbo, who was born in 1905 in Sweden, was a famous actress during the prime of silent films. She retired at age 35, and lived in New York after obtaining U.S. citizenship. At age 50, she was still very beautiful when the two met. Keene's experience of watching a play with Garbo, his childhood idol, must have been one of the most unforgettable moments of his life.
In New York too, Keene's connections flourished richly.
* * *
This series navigates the past century by following the life of the late scholar Donald Keene, who contributed to the elevation of Japanese culture and literature in the world. News from The Mainichi that made headlines in Keene's time is introduced alongside Keene's personal history. The series began in 2022, the 100th anniversary of Keene's birth -- also the centennial of The Mainichi.
(This is Part 28 of a series. The next "Donald Keene's Japan" story will be published on April 11.)
(Japanese original by Tadahiko Mori, The Mainichi Staff Writer and Donald Keene Memorial Foundation director)
The original text of Donald Keene's autobiographies is used with permission from the Donald Keene Memorial Foundation. The foundation's website can be reached at: https://www.donaldkeene.org/
* * *
Donald Keene was born on June 18, 1922, in Brooklyn, New York. He was a Japanese literature scholar and professor emeritus at Columbia University. After earning postgraduate degrees at Columbia University and Cambridge University, he received a fellowship to study at Kyoto University in 1953. Keene developed friendships with prominent Japanese authors, including Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima. Over the course of half a century, Keene traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, and continued to study Japanese literature and culture, while conveying their charms to the world in English. His main works include a multivolume history of Japanese literature, "Travelers of a Hundred Ages," and "Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852-1912." In 2008, Keene received the Order of Culture from the Japanese government. The scholar obtained Japanese citizenship in the year following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami. He died on Feb. 24, 2019, at age 96.