In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the form of the anthologies I study (literary individual author anthologies in Japan at the turn of the 20th century) impacts possibilities of reading and interpretation. I’ve also commented at a couple of conferences that the narratives of who these authors “belong” to have been shaped and guided in these anthologies, and have written that taking works out of their original contexts fundamentally erases a part of their meaning (in terms of the ways readers encounter them) and simultaneously alters the work in terms of its received meaning.
After doing some reading this morning, I realized that one thing links these various threads in anthologies, and it’s a word I wasn’t using: politics.
I want to talk specifically about the example of Higuchi Ichiyō. For much of her career, she wrote for the magazine Bungakukai (among others) which was a driver of the first Romantic movement in Japan. In her anthologies, of course her serial works from that magazine are included as whole pieces, as though they were wholes from the outset, which has its own implications for reading. But the other piece of this is that just as the editors were writing the Bungakukai coterie social and ideological connections out of her career in their prefaces, they simultaneously erased this connection – this fundamental supplier of meaning – from her works by taking them out of their original Romantic context.
The first readers of Ichiyō’s works would have seen them embedded in theory and poetry heavily influenced by western Romanticism, including translations of English works and illustrations of faded ruins and statuary. The readers of her individual anthology, as well as reprints in wider circulation magazines such as Bungei kurabu before her death, would have encountered a very different context: in the magazines, other “modern” mainstream Japanese literature (presented as unaffiliated with any coterie or group other than the influential publishers of the magazines), and in the anthology, Ichiyō’s own works as a cohesive and self-contained whole. No longer would her work be infused, by virtue of proximity, with the politics of literature at the time she wrote in the early-to-mid 1890s. She becomes depoliticized, ironically despite the heavily social and what I would call political themes of her work: that is, the plight of the lower class and the inequity of Japanese society at the turn of the 20th century.
Especially in her second anthology, published in 1912, Ichiyō becomes a timeless woman writer, an elegant author of prose and poetry whose works are infused with tragedy – just as her poverty-stricken life was, to paraphrase the editors of the two volumes. Yet it is not a structural tragedy that pervades society, as it is in her work, but a personal, elegant, and heart-wrenching individual tragedy, one that makes her work even more poignant without necessarily having political implications. I can’t speak to the Romantic movement’s attitude toward this kind of theme found in Bungakukai, not being as familiar with its politics as I should be, but I can say that Kitamura Tōkoku – the founder of Bungakukai – basically started his career with the publication of Soshū no shi, a piece of “new-form” poetry about a prisoner, written at the height of his political involvement in the late 1880s.
So there is an association, simply by virtue of publishing in the same venues, between Ichiyō’s politics and those of Tōkoku, and the literary politics of the Romantic movement vis-à-vis the multitude of other ideologies of writing that existed at the time. Yet in her anthologies, this politics disappears and her context is lost entirely, in favor of a new context of Ichiyō alone, her works as something that stand alone without interference from the outside world. It is a profound depoliticization and something to think about in considering other anthologies as well, both early ones in Japan, current ones, and those found elsewhere in the world.