In Memoriam: Donald Keene (June 18, 1922 – February 24, 2019)

Revered author and professor Donald Keene passed away on February 24 at the age of 96. The following post is written by Press Director Jennifer Crewe, who was Keene’s editor for many years.

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Donald Keene (June 18, 1922 – February 24, 2019)

I was Donald Keene’s editor at the Columbia University Press for over three decades. He wrote dozens of books on Japanese, literature, culture, and history during his more than seventy-year writing career; twenty-four of them were published by the Press. Some thirty of his works were published in Japanese, and his books leaped from form to form and subject to subject. Donald wrote biography, including Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World, 1852–1912 (2002) and The Winter Sun Shines In: A Life of Masaoka Shiki (2013), among others. He wrote literary histories, including the monumental multivolume work that includes Dawn to the West: A History of Japanese Literature and that took him twenty-five years to complete. His translations of poetry, plays, and fiction were also legion. In addition, he wrote a memoir, which was first serialized in a Japanese newspaper, and is the author of many fascinating autobiographical essays, collected in The Blue-Eyed Tarokaja. My favorite essay from that book was written in 1946 and is about his playing a recording of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony on a cheap phonograph in the shower room (for better acoustics) to Japanese prisoners of war on Oahu, many of whom were listening to it for the first time. “If on no other ground, we could meet on that of music. The symphony was as true for them as for me, in spite of our different backgrounds, in spite of the cement and concrete shower room.”

Donald was not only prolific but was also constantly thinking of new avenues by which to explore Japanese culture and literature.

The subjects of Donald’s books and translations range in time from the premodern—Essays in Idleness (1967) was written by the Japanese monk Kenkō in 1330—to the contemporary. He translated Makoto Oda’s beautiful 1998 novel of the Pacific War, The Breaking Jewel (2003), fairly late in life. He knew the author, and I had the impression that this work spoke to Donald’s own experiences during the war. Donald’s translation The Major Plays of Chikamatsu, by the great seventeenth-century master of the puppet theater, is first of his books on our list. It was published in 1961 and is listed first in our Translations from the Asian Classics series. Its shorter version, Four Major Plays of Chikamatsu, is still widely used in courses.

Donald was not only prolific but was also constantly thinking of new avenues by which to explore Japanese culture and literature. Each time I saw him he’d present me with two or three new ideas for books, and we would discuss which might be best. Or he would tell me that he was working on a new book and planned to send me the manuscript in a couple of months. He always dreaded the peer-review process, waiting anxiously for the reports just like a first-time author. Upon receiving the readers’ suggestions, he could be petulant at first, but in the end he usually came around and made revisions if I agreed that they were sound. He was eager that his books be judged essential contributions and anxious that they be received well by scholars, even though the general public was the audience he had in mind. It was difficult to find objective peer reviewers for his manuscripts because Keene was such a giant in the field. Most of the people I could think of to review his work had been his students and so were disqualified. Others were in awe of him and found it difficult to be asked to judge anything he wrote.

Though he essentially invented the field of Japanese literature in the United States, by the time I met him in 1987 Donald was somewhat out of step with academic trends. He preferred writing straightforward literary history as a way to educate readers about the wonders of Japanese writing. He also loved writing biographical works about literary or cultural figures, be they famous or neglected. The people he wrote about usually had something in common with Donald, it seemed to me. They had experienced unpleasant childhoods or were loners of one sort or another, often somewhat out of step with their time and place. His analysis was impressionistic, and he made liberal use of quotations from his subjects’ writing. Donald’s aim seemed to be to retreat into the background as he wrote to highlight the personality and style of his subject. Yet, at the same time, he had his own distinct style, defined by its wryness, understatement, and clarity. When you read Donald, you knew you were in the hands of the sensei (as all his students called him).

When you read Donald, you knew you were in the hands of the sensei (as all his students called him).

My favorite book by Donald is Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan. Yoshimasa was probably the worst shogun ever to rule Japan. He was a failure as a soldier and incompetent at dealing with state business, but his influence on Japanese culture was tremendous. He preferred paying attention to tea ceremonies, garden design, flower arrangement, painting, and literature to the Ōnin War (1467–1477) that raged around him. Donald demonstrates that Yoshimasa had a hand in cultivating and preserving anything and everything one can think of that is quintessential to Japanese culture. In short, though a shogun, Yoshimasa was a pacifist. In this he was like Donald, who developed his love of the Japanese people and their literature during the last world war. His task as a U.S. Navy translator was to read captured documents, including the diaries of Japanese soldiers and sailors. This sparked his lifelong interest in the diaries of ordinary Japanese people as well as those of famous writers; a wonderful late book of Donald’s is So Lovely a Country Will Never Perish: Wartime Diaries of Japanese Writers (2010). He befriended many writers who had lived through the war, including Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, Abe Kōbō, and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.

I saw Donald once or twice each spring when he spent part of the semester at Columbia. We would always meet for lunch. Donald liked to be taken out, and he had an appreciation for good food. I always tried to take him to a decent restaurant, such as the Terrace, which had a good chef and was situated at the top of Butler Hall at 119th St. and had grand views. But once I made a mistake. Eager to try a new fish place at 107th and Broadway I met him there, and it was, frankly, execrable—both the service and the food. (The restaurant closed after about a year.) This lunch occurred somewhat early on in our relationship, and though we joked about it, I was embarrassed. But the unpalatable experience stuck in both of our memories and we often recalled it with amusement when we were together.

I knew he was extremely famous in Japan and that he was the first foreigner to receive the “Order of Culture” from the Japanese government. But such reverence and celebrity for someone who championed literature was difficult for an American to grasp.

When we weren’t talking about his books Donald often used the occasion of our meals to tell me about his former students, many of whom were also Columbia authors, and the publishing industry in Japan, which always seemed to be hitting hard times (though a visitor to Tokyo would never suspect that, seeing the numerous bookstores filled with customers). On several occasions he complained to me that his fellow expatriate in Japan and master translator of both Chinese and Japanese literature, Burton Watson (also a prolific Press author), didn’t call or come to see him often enough. Burton, who also learned Japanese in the navy language school and also received his Ph.D. from Columbia, said the same thing to me about Donald. A third Columbian who learned Japanese in the navy, Wm. Theodore deBary, founder of the Asian humanities program at Columbia and another Press author and a great adviser to me, remained one of Donald’s closest friends to the end of his life. Together these three figures had a profound effect on the introduction of Asian humanities to the West, beginning immediately after the war. They also had a profound impact on the Press by starting our Asian humanities list, which is one of our largest and most prestigious publishing programs.

On several occasions I went to Tokyo and would meet Donald for a meal. The last time I was there, in 2012, he invited me to a French restaurant for dinner. (French food and wine were very much in vogue.)  It was delicious, with an astronomically expensive wine list. I noticed that the waiter and the proprietor seemed excessively attentive, even by Japanese standards, to our every need. When we got up to leave and Donald went to pay the bill, the proprietor blushed slightly, bowed, and turned slowly around to retrieve a magazine that had Donald’s picture emblazoned on the front. She held it out to him in two hands and bowed again. I knew he was extremely famous in Japan and that he was the first foreigner to receive the “Order of Culture” from the Japanese government. But such reverence and celebrity for someone who championed literature was difficult for an American to grasp. Donald smiled and chatted briefly with her—it was clear that he both enjoyed the attention and was exhausted by it—and then we walked out into the frigid January night.


2 Responses

  1. The end of an era! I designed and art directed many of Donald Keene’s titles when at CUP. I always loved working on them! The topics were always beautiful and interesting and treated respectfully. He was a real pro.

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