American Modernist Writers and the Orient


A Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library Exhibition
Yale University

October 18 - December 20, 1996

Organized by Patricia C. Willis,
Curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature
Last Revised June 7, 2012

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Ezra Pound received Ernest Fenollosa's notes on Chinese poetry and Japanese drama in the autumn of 1913. Subsequently, he tried to master Chinese and reworked the Orientalist's translations of Li Po (Rihaku) into his own Cathay. Pound's readiness to look to the Far East for poetic inspiration crystallized a trend but did not begin it; American modernist writers grew up during the decades of their country's most fervid and romantic cultural engagement with China and Japan.

The opening of Japan by Commodore Perry in the 1850s and the access permitted Christian missionaries in China somewhat later galvanized American interest in those countries. Through travel, literature, philosophy, education, religion, and the fine and decorative arts, Americans involved themselves in the East. Bayard Taylor, the most widely-read journalist of his time, accompanied Perry and lectured about the trip in nearly 100 American cities and towns. When the first Japanese delegation came to New York in 1860, Walt Whitman described their parade in verse for the New York Times. In 1876, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia featured a Japanese Pavilion where Americans observed objects crafted with unseen beauty; the next year, President Grant met with the Prince Regent of China and the Emperor of Japan, a step hitherto unimaginable. Percival Lowell, John La Farge, and Henry Adams traveled to Japan to observe customs, nature, and art in the 1880s. Meanwhile, Chinese and Japanese themes inundated fiction and the theater, with The Mikado and Madama Butterfly rising to immense popularity. Influenced by Lowell's The Soul of Japan, Lafcadio Hearn moved to Japan and his books on local life became best-sellers in the States. Stirred by these events, Leo Stein, later a collector of Japanese art, and Hutchins Hapgood, a journalist who helped to found the Provincetown Players, were the first of the Modernist generation to visit Japan and bring their experiences home to Gertrude Stein and Eugene O'Neill.

The other American modernists, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Williams Carlos Williams, Amy Lowell, E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Thornton Wilder among them, made serious and largely unobserved use of Japanese and Chinese art and literature, both in response to Pound's influence and because of their own meetings with the Far East. Pound, in fact, offered his predilection for Oriental forms months before his acceptance of the Fenollosa notebooks when he published his famous haiku in Poetry in April, 1913:


The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.

The exhibition has two major thematic divisions: American Nineteenth-Century representations of China and Japan, and Twentieth-Century writers' interpretations of those influences.

Gratitude is extended to the research assistants who have worked on this exhibition: Ellen Curtis Boiselle, Sarah Christopher, Jennifer Greeson, Kathryn Oliver, and Suzanne Toczyski.

For ease of loading, this on-line version has been divided into a number of WWW pages to reduce the time required to load them:

The Nineteenth Century: Americans Look to the East:
The Opening of Japan to the West
American Interest in China
Percival Lowell and Lafcadio Hearn: Conduits of Japanese Culture
President Grant's Diplomatic Mission to Asia
The 1876 Centennial Exhibition
Whistler and Japanese Influence
Ernest Fenollosa: Scholar and Source

The Twentieth Century: American Modernists:
Oriental Aesthetics; Leo and Gertrude Stein
Harriet Monroe and the "Imagists"
Ezra Pound and Fenollosa
H.D., Amy Lowell and John Gould Fletcher
Katherine Anne Porter and Arthur Davison Ficke
Witter Bynner
Wallace Stevens
Eastern Themes and Modernist Theater; Eugene O'Neill
Thornton Wilder
William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore
E.E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein

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Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University
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