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A Review of East-West Literary Imagination: Cultural Exchanges from Yeats to Morrison

Hakutani, Yoshinobu (ed.). East-West Literary Imagination: Cultural Exchanges from Yeats to Morrison. (Columbia MO: University of Missouri Press, 2017. 336 pages. ISBN 9780826273949.

East-West Literary Imagination: Cultural Exchanges from Yeats to Morrison by Yoshinobu Hakutani offers a comprehensive exploration of the influences of the Eastern traditions of Buddhism, Zen practice, Confucianism, the haiku form, Chinese characters, noh play, and Japanese aesthetics on the Western literary tradition, starting from the American transcendentalists of the early nineteenth century and extending to the postmodern traditions of African American literature. Specifically groundbreaking is Hakutani’s historical and specific relationality of the East and West regarding the writers Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and Jack Kerouac, especially examining who influenced whom in comparing Western literature to Eastern religions, philosophical, and literary traditions. For example, he details Emersonian philosophy’s relationship to Buddhism, pointing out Emerson’s differing views about nirvana and Zen notion of mu (state of nothingness). Hakutani’s main argument consists of the point that instead of reading the West’s impact on East, one should consider more readily the Eastern traditions’ influence on major Western writers and Western literary traditions.
While Hakutani’s work divides its analysis between transcendentalists, modernists, and African American writers, the discussion of modernist and disseminator of Japanese art Yone Noguchi’s overall influence on Western writers provides the most noteworthy realm of analysis. At one point when discussing the haiku form’s influence on Pound’s conception of the concrete image, Hakutani quotes Noguchi: “‘Hokku means literally a single utterance or the utterance of a single verse; that utterance should be like a ‘moth light playing on reality’s dusk,’ or ‘an art hung, as a web, in the air of perfume,’ swinging soft in music of a moment’” (104). These morsels, describing the influence of haiku and inserting the lines of masters like Buson or Basho, presents the greatest insight within the text because of their specific exemplification of Eastern artistic distinction and impact. Hakutani further displays effective analysis during his rendering of the influence of Buddhism on Beat Generation poet Jack Kerouac’s novels On the Road and The Dharma Bums.
However, noteworthy is that the chapters concerning African American literature appear briefer and less detailed in their analysis in comparison to the discussion of the Eastern tradition in relation to the works of the transcendentalists and modernists. For example, regarding African American writers’ use of haiku, specifically Sonia Sanchez and James Emanuel, the link made to humanity and nature does not appear to be nuanced but perceived in general statements in terms of blues and jazz. While Hakutani does link the Eastern principle of yūgen to blues as an expression of “the mysterious and dark” (254), he then relates, “Unlike the blues, jazz is characterized by its flexibility and creativity”(261), missing the opportunity to provide a more gradated view of blues and jazz as it relates to Eastern artistic sensibility. Yet as Hakutani admits, his work acts as a “preliminary marker” for future analysis of, we hope, the cross-cultural engagement of the East and West, especially as it relates to African American literature.
Perhaps due to the study over time or work as inclusive of separate working chapters, the text does include some repetition of thoughts and arguments placed not far from one another, sometimes the same sentences and paragraphs appearing within a chapter and across chapters (especially in chapter 5). Finally, although the introduction offered: “American literature has become a hybridization of Eastern and Western literature as modern, postmodern, and postcolonial African American literature has demonstrated” as a result of cultural exchanges began in the early nineteenth century (3), no overall conclusion is given at the end of the work. At this point, the reader may ask why do we turn to and end with the discussion of African American writers other than to proffer another example of the cross-cultural theme rendered in the work?
Then again, this may be Hakutani’s main goal, to mark a cross-cultural engagement that weighs the East’s literary influence more heavily, to mark African American literature as part of the globalization of this engagement. East-West Literary Imagination: Cultural Exchanges from Yeats to Morrison signifies an overall engaging discussion of Eastern philosophy, religion, literature, and aesthetic on the Western literary tradition, providing an opportunity to counter-study the influences between the East and West, where one is often seen as dominant, and within that engagement, signaling the need for the important counter-study amidst the East and African American “West.”

— Tiffany Austin

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