Click here to read Jamie Katz's brilliant feature on Donald Keene, the Western world's leading interpreter of Japanese literature, a Columbia professor for more than seventy years. On a visit to Japan in 1990, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Professor Keene, who, in addition to discussing everything from Basho and linked-verse to the merits of a traditional Japanese breakfast, taught me the two key rules of pronouncing Japanese and made my two-week stay go a lot more smoothly than would otherwise have been the case..With his books and anthologies, Keene taught an appreciation of Japanese culture to generations of students, not only at Columbia, his home base, but the world over, In April 2003 he was awarded a medal of honor from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I wrote the inscription, appropriating the tanka as an appropriate form:
To Donald Keene we
owe much of what we know of
Japan's verse and prose.
In shadow of rising sun
stood the lean tree unobserved.
Then Keene could be heard:
in accents lucid and keen
he rendered the scene.
And the bare branch of winter
burst into cherry blossom.
Here's an excerpt from Katz's feature in the current Columbia College Today. -- DL
Keene’s approach to teaching and writing bears the imprint of his freshman Humanities instructor, Mark Van Doren ’21 GSAS. “He was a scholar and poet and above all someone who understood literature and could make us understand it with him,” Keene writes in Chronicles of My Life: An American in the Heart of Japan. “Van Doren had little use for commentaries or specialized literary criticism. Rather, the essential thing, he taught us, was to read the texts, think about them, and discover for ourselves why they were ranked as classics.”
The experience of taking the College’s general education courses was “incredible,” Keene says, and he fondly remembers the great teachers he encountered as an undergraduate. Among them were the “learned and gentle” classicist, Moses Hadas ’30 GSAS; Lionel Trilling ’25, ’38 GSAS and Jacques Barzun ’27, ’32 GSAS, who led Keene’s Senior Colloquium; and Pierre Clamens, a French instructor “who was very stern, but gave everything to his students,” Keene says.
His chief mentor, however, was cultural historian Ryusaku Tsunoda, a pioneer of Japanese studies at Columbia whom Keene often refers to, simply, as Sensei. “He was a man I admired completely,” Keene says, “a man who had more influence on me than anyone else I can think of.”
As a senior, Keene enrolled in Tsunoda’s course in the history of Japanese thought. Fifty years later, in a CCT interview (Winter 1991) with David Lehman ’70, ’78 GSAS, Keene remembered: “The first class, it turned out I was the only student — in 1941 there was not much pro-Japanese feeling. I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a waste of your time to give a class for one student?’ He said, ‘One is enough.’