Ernest Fenollosa Essay - Critical Essays

Fenollosa, Ernest


Fenollosa, Ernest 1853-1908

(Full name Ernest Francisco Fenollosa) American translator, art historian, educator, poet, and philosopher.

Fenollosa is considered to be one of the first Western experts in East Asian art and literature, and he is given much credit for providing the impetus for Imagist poetry through his extensive research and cataloging of Japanese and Chinese painting and ideograms. After his death in 1908, Fenollosa's widow, the novelist Mary Fenollosa, completed his two-volume manuscript Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: An Outline History of East Asiatic Design. Mary Fenollosa named American poet and critic Ezra Pound her husband's literary executor, and Pound's subsequent poetry collection of Japanese translations, Cathay, gives credit to Fenollosa. Pound also completed Fenollosa's Certain Noble Plays of Japan, Noh, or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan, and The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry from Fenollosa's notes and unpublished writings. From his work with Fenollosa's notes and research materials, Pound learned concepts about Chinese and Japanese writing that he would use to formulate the tenets of Imagism and Vorticism. Pound also borrowed many of Fenollosa's ideas concerning Buddhism, to which Fenollosa had converted, and Confucianism for many of his Cantos. Fenollosa also was the subject of Van Wyck Brooks's 1962 Fenollosa and His Circle.

Biographical Information

Fenollosa was born in Salem, Massachusetts, to an immigrant Spanish musician and the daughter of an East Indian ship owner. He attended Harvard University, graduating in 1874, and spent the next four years continuing his studies at Harvard and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He accepted a position as a professor of political economy and philosophy at the Imperial University in Tokyo in 1878, where he taught until 1888. From 1889 to 1890 Fenollosa was the concurrent manager of the Academy of Fine Arts in Tokyo and the Imperial Museum. During his stay in Tokyo, Fenollosa increased his knowledge of Japanese culture and art and converted to Buddhism. The escalating Westernization of Japan in the latter nineteenth century threatened to destroy much of traditional Japanese culture and art, and Fenollosa fought this trend by convincing the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to preserve much Japanese art that might have been destroyed otherwise. During this period he also helped to found the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music and traveled as a emissary of the Japanese Ministry of Education and the imperial household to study American and European methods of museum curatorship. He was accompanied to the United States by his former student, Okakura Kakuzo, who was also instrumental in introducing East Asian art to the West. Fenollosa returned to the United States in 1890, and became Curator of Oriental Art at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. In 1897, he returned to Japan to teach English at the Imperial Normal School. Fenollosa accepted a teaching post in 1890 at Columbia University, and spent his remaining years teaching and lecturing on Oriental art, philosophy, and literature. He died in London in 1908.

Major Works

Fenollosa published only two major works in his life-time: East and West, a collection of poetry, and The Masters of Ukioye, a study on Japanese painting and catalog for a New York exhibition. Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, edited and rewritten by Ezra Pound, has evoked both critical praise and dispute. While such critics as Christine Brooke-Rose are intrigued by Fenollosa's understanding of Chinese characters as a basis for a poetic aesthetic, other critics believe his theories are based upon false etymological assumptions. Fenollosa wrote that Chinese characters present a clear mental picture rather than simply a phonetic symbol for the objects they signify. He argued that creating such a mental image is the true function of poetry and the origin of all written language. Fenollosa described metaphor as "the use of material images to suggest immaterial relations," and suggested that that mental process was the basis for all understanding of the written word. Once the symbols became immediately recognizable, their original symbolic function became forgotten. Fenollosa's best-known writings are his literal translations of Chinese and Japanese poems, which Pound used as the basis for the translations appearing in his Cathay. Among the poems Pound revised from Fenollosa's notes are "The River-Merchant's Wife: A Letter" and "The River Song," both poems originally written by the poet Rihaku.

Principal Works

East and West: The Discovery of America, and Other Poems (poetry) 1893

Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: An Outline History of East Asiatic Design (criticism) 1911

Cathay (translations) 1915

"Noh, " or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan (criticism) 1916

Certain Noble Plays of Japan (criticism) 1916

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (criticism) 1919


William Morton Payne (essay date 1894)

SOURCE: A review of "East and West: The Discovery of America and Other Poems", by Ernest Fenollosa, in The Dial, Vol. XVI, No. 189, May 1, 1894, pp. 272-75.

[In the following essay, Payne determines that the poet characterizes the West as masculine and the East as feminine.]

Mr. Fenollosa's [East and West: The Discovery of America, and Other Poems.] consists of two long and very ambitious poems, and a number of minor pieces. The titular poem is a sort of versified Culturgeschiehte, philosophical and mystical, in spirit not unlike Mr. Block's "El Nuevo Mundo," which we reviewed a year or so ago. In this poem, says the author, "I have endeavored to condense my experiences of two hemispheres, and my study of their history." The poem is in five parts. The first considers the early meeting of East and West, brought about by the conquests of Alexander. Then follow "The Separated East" and "The Separated West," themes of which the author has conceived in the following terms: "Eastern culture, slowly elaborated, has held to ideals whose refinement seems markedly feminine. For it social institutions are the positive harmonies of a life of brotherhood. Western culture, on the contrary, has held to ideals whose strength seems markedly masculine. For it law is the compromise of Liberty with her own excesses, while conquest, science, and industry are but parallel channels for the overflow of hungry personality. But this one-sidedness has been partly compensated by the religious life of each. The violence of the West has been softened by the feminine faith of love, renunciation, obedience, salvation from without. It is the very impersonality of her great ecclesiastical institute which offers to man a refuge from self. On the other hand, the peaceful impotence of the East has been spurred by her martial faith of spiritual knighthood, self-reliance, salvation from within. The intense individuality of her esoteric discipline upholds the fertile tranquillity of her surface. This stupendous double antithesis seems to me the most significant fact in all history. The future union of the types may thus be symbolized as a twofold marriage." In "The Present Meeting of East and West," the author deals with "the first attempts to assimilate alien ideals," which "have led to the irony of a quadruple confusion, analogous to the disruption of Alexander's conquest." But there is to be another and more intimate union, brought about in some mysterious way by the art of music, and in a manner foreshadowed in some sort by the compositions of Herr Brahms. Here, we must confess, we are unable to follow the argument. And the poem ends with a...

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F. W. Williams (essay date 1913)

SOURCE: A review of "Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: An Outline History of East Asiatic Designs", by Ernest Fenollosa, in Yale Review, Vol. III, No. 1, October, 1913, pp. 197-201.

[In the following essay, Williams praises the author's scholarship, and agrees with his hypothesis that all art derived from two principle locations in the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific]

Twenty years ago the author of these sumptuous volumes, [Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art: An Outline History of East Asiatic Design.], in a lecture before the Yale Art School, threw upon the screen a photograph of Kano Utanosuke's "Eagle on a Pine Branch." "There," he declared, "is one...

(The entire section is 2030 words.)

Henry B. Fuller (essay date 1917)

SOURCE: A review of "'Noh,' or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan", by Ernest Fenollosa, in The Dial Vol. 63, September 13, 1917, pp. 209-10.

[In the following essay, Fuller gives a brief overview of the origins, intentions, and structure of Noh drama]

To-day's reciprocal obligations in regard to culture continue to multiply. This is one of the pleasure-pains of cosmopolitanism. Mr. Fenollosa's records of his conversations with the reviver of the classical drama of Japan ["Noh." or Accomplishment: A Study of the Classical Stage of Japan.] tell how he gave the ancient man a brief account of the classic drama of Greece: "he already knew," adds...

(The entire section is 1058 words.)

Hwa Yol Jung (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Misreading the Ideogram: From Fenollosa to Derrida and McLuhan," in Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1984, pp. 211-27.

[In the following essay, Jung examines the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Fenollosa's aesthetics, and how Jacques Derrida and Marshall McLuhan arrived at the same conclusions as Fenollosa and Ezra Pound.]

The main title of this article was originally "Inventing Grammatology." Mr. Burton Hatlen, however, suggested another title: "Misreading the Ideogram." I decided to accept his suggestion partly because I remember the title of Harold Bloom's book A Map of Misreading...

(The entire section is 8082 words.)

Cordell D. K. Yee (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Discourse on Ideogrammic Method: Epistemology and Pound's 'Poetics'," in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 2, May, 1987, pp. 242-56.

[In the following essay,. Yee explores the differences between Fenollosa's and Pound's approach to the Chinese ideogrammic method of poetics.]

Why is it that none of you study the Odes? For the Odes will help you to incite people's emotions, to observe their feelings, to keep company, to express your grievances. . . . Moreover, they will widen your acquaintance with the names of birds, beasts, plants and trees.—Confucius

For help in understanding Ezra Pound's...

(The entire section is 5690 words.)

Anne S. Chappie (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Ezra Pound's 'Cathay': Compilation from the Fenollosa Notebooks," in Paideuma: A Journal Devoted to Ezra Pound Scholarship, Vol. 17, Nos. 2 & 3, Fall & Winter, 1988, pp. 9-46.

[In the following essay, Chappie relies on one of Ezra Pound's lesser-known essays on Chinese poetics to illuminate Pound's reliance on Fenollosa's notes to produce the poems published in Cathay.]

In 1918, three years after Cathay appeared, Pound published a little known, two-part essay on Chinese poetry, in which he observed:

In China a "compiler" is a very different person from a commentator. A compiler does not merely gather...

(The entire section is 13949 words.)

Further Reading


Brooks, Van Wyck. Fenollosa and His Circle, with Other Essays in Biography. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962, 321 p.

Details Fenollosa's life and passion for Oriental art and literature, and presents essays on Fenollosa's contemporaries Fanny Wright, John Lloyd Stephens, George Catlin, Charles Wilkes, Charles Godfrey Leland, Maurice Prendergast, and Randolph Bourne.


Brooker, Peter. "The Lesson of Ezra Pound: An Essay in Poetry, Literary Ideology and Politics." In Ezra Pound: Tactics for Reading, edited by Ian F. A. Bell, pp. 221-44. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1982.


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