Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Friday, October 17, 2008

We Are Gentlemen of Japan

Christine M.E. Guth. Longfellow’s Tattoos: Tourism, Collecting and Japan. Seattle, London: University of Washington Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-295-98401-5

Reviewed by Bernadette Callery, Assistant Professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Information Studies

Any archivist who has puzzled over the hidden relevance of an individual’s life chronicled in a scrapbook collection will relish the information that Christine Guth wrings from the four scrapbooks and “half a boatload” of Japanese souvenirs brought back from Japan by Charley Longfellow, the son of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Guth, an independent scholar who has written on the appropriation and reinterpretation of Japanese art and culture by the rest of the world, presents an extended reflection on how this particular “globe trotter” used the reality of foreign travel as a metaphor for self exploration. By 1871, when Longfellow made his first visit to Japan, travel in Japan was both convenient and relatively safe, as evidenced by the fact that the British travel agent Thomas Cook began offering group tours to Japan in 1872. The artistic impact of easy access to Japan, both through actual travel and the surrogates of photographs and curios, was substantial, both in America and Europe. Well-known examples of Japonisme include Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado, first produced at the Savoy in 1885, and the book illustrations of Walter Crane. Guth argues that much of the American fascination with the arts of Japan was due to the national need to redefine American culture, by seeking out cultures that were more artistic, and, by comparison with post-Civil War America, more innocent and uncorrupted by the modern world. The notion of world travel was also seen as an opportunity to explore exotic civilizations, and on reflection, more completely define one’s own identity and role when returning home. The acquisition of photographs and curios helped to record as well as authenticate the experience of travel and was an indication of a more sophisticated cultural taste.

Longfellow’s record of what became a two year residence in Japan in 1871-1873, which involved building and furnishing a house in Tokyo, includes photos as well as costumes, paintings, bronzes and lacquer work, much of which was displayed in his rooms in the family home at Cambridge. A vigorous young man at the time of his travels in Japan, Longfellow indulged himself by collecting both objects and photographs, including photos of himself dressed as a samurai and as a Kabuki actor. Guth is particularly interested in clothing as a form of communication and self-identification and discusses the conventions of these self-portraits among other foreign travelers. What justifies the book’s title is that the surprising fact that Longfellow had himself tattooed while in Japan, both on his initial visit and again in 1885. Elaborate designs covered much of his chest, back and arms, with the design on his back a giant carp ascending a waterfall. Guth sees tattoos as a form of clothing, recognizing that both are a form of expressing one’s identity and provides extensive background on the fashion for tattoos of artisans and manual laborers in nineteenth century Japan. Discussing the distinctive tattoos of carpenters and firemen, she notes that the tattoos “were like badges or uniforms that conferred status and membership [in the professions] while at the same time demonstrating individuality” and that “using the body to make a personal aesthetic statement reflected time-honored practice in Japan.” (p. 147). More than the acquisition of costumes, furnishings, and other decorative objects, Longfellow’s tattoos indicated an unusual desire to participate in exotic cultural experience of Japan.

Guth’s work reminds us of the impact private collections can make in contributing to the development of national taste. The presence of “Charley’s Japan Room” in the Longfellow House, a place of pilgrimage to the literary and artistic elite of New England, had more than local influence. The enthusiasm spread for all things Japanese spread, as Guth, because “Japan lent itself particularly well to American representational needs, since the wide array of goods it produced could be readily adapted to different environments and economic circumstances.” (p. 173) This rediscovery and close examination of Charles Longfellow’s photographs and scrapbooks establishes him as a pioneer collector of Japanese curios and brings to life and engaging and attentive traveler.

We look forward to the product of Guth’s latest research, begun while a 2006-2007 Stanford Humanities Center Fellow, a discussion of the “reception, appropriation and transformation,” of the Hokusai woodcut, “Under the Wave off Kanagawa” but popularly known as “The Great Wave,” and how it has become a global icon.