In 1415, the English forces under Henry V inflicted a terrible defeat on the French army. After the battle, under a heap of dead soldiers, they found and captured a young man who turned out to be Charles, duc d’Orléans (1394-1465). He was taken to England and placed in honorable captivity, but Henry V ordered that he not be ransomed, so he remained in England until his release in 1440. During his 25 years in England, he learned English and wrote a great deal of well-regarded poetry in that language, and when he finally returned home it was remarked that his English was better than his French. His poems now regularly appear in anthologies of medieval English and French verse, and thus he could be said to be the earliest of a line of “trans-cultural” literary figures, in whose ranks, to name two of the best-known, we may also place Samuel Becket, an Irishman resident in France who wrote significant works in both French and English, and Josef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad, whose third (fourth, if you count his native Polish) language was English and who became, after settling in England, one of England’s greatest novelists. TS Eliot, born in St. Louis and educated at Harvard, is claimed by both British (he became a citizen and was awarded an OBE) and Americans as one of theirs, and Malcolm Lowry is often thought of as a Canadian novelist, although he spent only eight years in Canada (at Dollarton in British Columbia), and the cultural divides were, of course, not so great.
Yonejiro (Yone) Noguchi (1875-1947), the subject of this biography by Edward Marx, author of a biography of Noguchi’s American wife Léonie Gilmour, was of course Japanese, but, like Charles d’Orléans in England, spent an extended period in the United States and, when it was useful, even described himself as an American writer. I might also mention a more recent Japanese poet who has written a considerable body of work in English (including some good imitations of Chaucerian English), Naoshi Koriyama (born 1926); he was educated in the United States, lived in New Mexico but returned to Japan in 1957. And of course, moving from west to east we have Lafcadio Hearn, who married a Japanese, became a Japanese citizen and called himself Yakumo Koizumi, taking his wife’s surname.
Like Charles d’Orléans and Koriyama, Noguchi continued all his life to write poems in both his languages, cultivating and developing a reputation in both the West and Japan, writing wryly of himself (in Japanese) in 1921:
When Japanese read my Japanese poems they say:
“The Japanese poems are awful, but no doubt the English poems are quite good.”
When Westerners read my English poems they say:
“Reading the English poems is unbearable, but no doubt the Japanese poems are superb.”
To tell the truth,
I have no confidence in either language.
However, as Marx notes, his self-confessed lack of confidence didn’t stop him publishing ten volumes of poetry in Japanese as well as a large number of essays!
Noguchi knew how to play the role of “exotic Oriental” from the minute he set foot in the United States.
Trans-cultural or cross-cultural writing is a fascinating study, raising questions of identity and liminality which are sometimes very complex and difficult to deal with, both for the writers themselves and those who write about them. Joseph Conrad found himself denounced as a literary “traitor” when he made a return visit to Poland towards the end of his life, and, more positively, an American listening to TS Eliot reading may be forgiven for thinking that the poet had just got off the boat from Oxford.
But Noguchi, it turns out, had another dimension that Eliot and Conrad didn’t share: Marx calls him a “trickster,” and this is one of the characteristics that makes Noguchi so fascinating. Marx notes cross-cultural writers “regularly face marginalization and exclusion”, and therefore sometimes resort to what he terms “trickster strategies” in order to survive. Noguchi knew how to play the role of “exotic Oriental” from the minute he set foot in the United States, and being a very good-looking young man into the bargain, he found he could get away with just about anything, especially when it came to women, who were charmed by his boyish innocence and enthusiasm.
He met many literary figures in the United States, both fairly well-known ones like the poets Edwin Markham and Joaquin Miller, another “trickster” who liked to pass himself off as a “backwoods bard”, as well as a horde of secondary figures which included editors, publishers and prominent members of the immigrant Japanese communities in San Francisco and other places in California. When Noguchi was in England, he was befriended by WB Yeats and William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina. His former mentor in Japan, Shiga Shigetaka, had Noguchi’s number. He told him “you particularly catch the eyes and ears of Westerners because you’re a Japanese composing in English … Your English poems seem novel to Westerners because of their novelty of race and the sentiments expressed.” But, as Marx warns readers, Noguchi was “a classic example of a literary trickster: a writer whose work is very often not what it seems,” and at the same time tricksterism itself is a “thorny” concept.
Noguchi read widely in English and always found people to correct his language (not too much, because he wanted it to sound “foreign”), which led him to meet his American wife Léonie Gilmour, whom he married while simultaneously having a love-affair with Ethel Armes, a reporter, and engaging in a homosexual relationship with the much older writer Charles Warren Stoddard who was also a friend of Ethel’s. He was lucky, too, that Japan had only fairly recently been “opened up”, so that there was a great deal of interest on the part of Americans and other westerners in getting to know more about the country and its ‘exotic” people. Yeats, in a letter to Noguchi (1921) cited by Marx, asked him to “tell us all about the lives—their talk, their religion, their friends…”
With apologies to Kipling, east was indeed meeting west: Noguchi’s success in the American and British literary cultures as a Japanese was matched by the popularity of Indian spiritual teachers such as Jiddu Krishnamurti, who arrived in England (1911) a few years after Noguchi, whose visit had been in 1903 and who was lionised by some of the same people, as well as Swami Vivekananda, who was in Chicago (1893), the same year that Noguchi came to San Francisco.
Edward Marx’s research is exemplary: it’s amazing the details he uncovers about not just the doings of Yone Noguchi himself, but of the whole spectrum of the Japanese immigrant experience in the United States, of which Noguchi was a part and which played a major role in his development, although as a literary man rather than an entrepreneur or worker he was a little different from the mass of his compatriots.
Marx provides details of every one of Noguchi’s relationships with a large number of American writers, journalists and publishers, opening up a completely unfamiliar world to readers like this reviewer; who knew that there were so many Japanese newspapers and journals publishing in English as well as Japanese at the turn of the century in cities like San Francisco and Oakland? Marx also quotes extensively from Noguchi’s writings in English as well as from his essays and autobiographical writings; sometimes one wonders why so many people took his poetry seriously when one reads lines like this, the first English translation Noguchi made from haiku by Bashō:
Take away the time
And lie down on the backward
At changing of cloth.
Oh, weariness, where my soul sobs in ecstasy! The grey-robed fogs
stray as fairies from a forgotten grave.
Ah, my heart throbs on in fantastic dream as when my love’s shadow
Some critics accused him of plagiarism, when phrases from Poe and Milton appeared unaltered in his poetry, but Noguchi soldiered manfully on, and actually published many of his poems and two novels, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl, which is still in print, and The American Diary of a Japanese Parlour-Maid, both of which, like his poetry, somehow won a great deal of critical acclaim. At the end of this first volume, Marx leaves Noguchi just after he leaves New York for Yokohama in 1904, and we look forward to the second volume to find out what happens next.
Noguchi has not yet had a complete biography in English, although there is a well-regarded study of his sexuality by Amy Sueyoshi, Queer Compulsions: Race, Nations and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi (University of Hawaii Press, 2012). Noguchi is lucky that Edward Marx has come along to fill the gaps and give us a fascinating and full picture not just of an intriguing man, but of a whole unfamiliar culture of expatriate Japanese in the United States, their lives, their talk, their religion, their friends, just as Yeats wanted to know. It’s a lengthy, detailed book, but difficult to put down; illustrations in the text show us persons and places as they occur, which adds to its appeal, and the writing is always clear, incisive and thoroughly engaging—we look forward with great interest to reading the next volume.
As Noguchi put it, “I hate and loathe to be ruled by fact, for, like a chained dog, my soul works unconsciously to find relief, although she is uncertain about her real nature.” With such a subject, we need a biographer like Edward Marx.