Chronicles of My Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Donald Keene’s autobiography, which contains some material already covered in his earlier memoir, On Familiar Terms (1994), is essentially the story of how a young American boy became infatuated with the Orient and eventually became a noted scholar who wrote books, translated the work of outstanding Japanese writers, and anthologized the major works of Japanese literature. This is not a coming-of-age story in the usual sense; it is about the making of a scholar. Keene reveals little about his childhood, which he sees as unremarkable. The family had financial problems; his parents quarreled much of the time (they were divorced when Keene was fifteen); and he was an “outsider,” an unathletic, unpopular boy whose hobby was collecting stamps and whose only friends were other stamp-collecting “nerds.” The highlight of his youth was a trip he took when he was nine to Europe with his father. In Paris he attended an international exhibition, where he visited the Indo-Chinese pavilion and had his first experience with foreign food: being served a fish with its head still attached. He also fell in love with the French language and eventually became fluent in it.

Throughout his public school education, he was the best student in his class and skipped two grades without difficulty. Being smaller and younger than his classmates, he compensated for his lack of athletic ability by excelling in literary studies: He edited the high school magazine, for which he wrote several stories, and he wrote the school plays. Thanks to the assistance of Miss Tannenbaum, his English teacher, he won a Pulitzer Scholarship to Columbia University, which he entered when he was just sixteen, two years younger than his classmates. His Columbia experience shaped the rest of his life. Acting on Miss Tannenbaum’s advice, he studied Greek and Latin and took a course in the humanities. His teacher was Mark Van Doren, whose teaching strategy he eventually adopted as a model. Fortuitously, in Van Doren’s class, he was seated alphabetically next to a Chinese American named Lee, who whetted his interest in Oriental languages by teaching him Chinese characters. He and Lee ate lunch together every day, and Keene also took a lesson once a week with him. By this time, World War II had begun, and Keene, a pacifist, describes himself as torn between his hatred of war and of the Nazis. At a bookstore, he saw Arthur Waley’s translation of the Japanese work The Tale of Genji, which he purchased for forty-nine cents. He said of the book that it became “a refuge from all I hated in the world around me.” Despite his dislike of the militaristic Japanese, he responded favorably to an invitation from Jack Kerr, and he, Kerr, and Paul Baum spent a summer studying Japanese with Inomata Tadashi. Keene’s knowledge of Chinese characters helped him learn Japanese. On Kerr’s recommendation, he took a class in Japanese thought from Tsunoda Rysaka, who later helped him with his graduate degrees. He was at first the only one in the class, but two other students, one of whom was Baum, enrolled later.

Keene’s studies at Columbia were interrupted by the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Rysaka was briefly interned as a suspected spy, but he was soon released. Lee went into hiding for a while because he feared violent retaliation because of his ancestry. Keene applied and was accepted to the Navy Japanese Language School at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied for eleven months before graduating (as valedictorian) and beginning his duties in the Pacific, first at Pearl Harbor, where he translated captured Japanese documents, and then in the Aleutian Islands, where the Americans were retaking islands...

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Chronicles of My Life Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 3 (February 1, 2008): 133.

The Times Literary Supplement, May 9, 2008, p. 26.