- The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature
The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature, a collection of essays and interviews edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff, explores the impact of Buddhist ideas on the works and lives of a range of twentieth century American writers. About half of the contributions focus on figures — Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen — identified with the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance. The rest focus on writers from what might be called the second generation of Buddhist American writers: Lan Cao, John Giorno, Charles Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Anne Waldman. (One misses, among this second cluster of essays and interviews, consideration of Peter Matthiessen and Thomas Pynchon, whose reputations are large and whose work is often suffused with Buddhist language and themes.)
The most salient goal of the collection is announced in its title: to show that in the middle of the twentieth century Buddhist ideas came to shape important works of American literature in decisive ways. But the collection does other work as well. It deepens our understanding of the play of Buddhist ideas in specific texts, shows how American Buddhist writers were inspired by specific Buddhist traditions and teachers, and helps us understand how they transformed the Buddhist ideas they received. In focusing on this transformation of Buddhist ideas in the contemporary context, it also helps us place the writers it studies within a larger tradition of innovation sometimes called postsecularism. Thus the study will be of real interest to several audiences: students of the history of Buddhism’s migration to America; of what might best be called, following David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, modernist (and postmodernist) movements in Buddhism; of postsecular literature more generally, and finally, of course, of the authors under discussion. Those of us who are trying to understand the role played by Buddhism in the work of the Beats will be especially grateful for the articles on that subject. The essays collected here will be required reading for anyone interested in Kerouac’s, Ginsberg’s, and Snyder’s engagement with Buddhism.
One further comment is in order, perhaps, regarding the subject of the collection. The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature is not a study of the earliest registrations of Buddhist thought in American literature. Americans began to take notice of Buddhism, as Maxine Hong Kingston notes in the foreword, in the mid-nineteenth century. It was then that Emerson and Thoreau, inspired by the European movement that Raymond Schwab called the Oriental Renaissance, [End Page 203] printed fragments of the Lotus Sutra in the Dial and awakened the imagination of writers such as Whitman and Melville to Buddhist ideas. The literary citation and exploration of Buddhist ideas continued in the early twentieth century with the work of modernist luminaries such as William James, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. These were crucial moments in the emergence of Buddhism in American literature. But what is at issue for Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff is something more: the emergence of a Buddhist American literature, a literature as clearly and deeply indebted to Buddhism as the works of Flannery O’Connor are to Christianity and those of Isaac Bashevis Singer to Judaism.
The close textual studies and biographical accounts the editors have collected go a long way toward justifying their argument for the existence of a Buddhist American literature. Yet it is a central irony of the collection that the claim clearly troubles the very writers invited to identify themselves as Buddhist. “I’m not a Buddhist poet. I’m not a non-Buddhist poet. I’m just a poet,” declares John Giorno in an interview with Marcus Boon for Boon’s essay in the collection (63). And three of the literary figures who contribute to the volume — Maxine Hong Kingston, Charles Johnson, and Michael Heller — resist, in different ways, the classification of their work as “Buddhist American Literature.” Their resistance stems in part from an understanding of the artist’s work as radically dialogic or synthetic: an unsystematic putting...