A Personal Recollection of Oliver Statler
by James R. Brandon
I cannot remember the exact date that I first met Oliver. Perhaps it was as early as 1961. I do recall with great clearness the occasion. I was living in Tokyo working on Kabuki translations and heard that the author of Japanese Inn would be speaking at a luncheon of the College Womenfs Association of Japan (an organization whose members adored Oliver). I had read Japanese Inn with much delight and wanted to tell him this and inquire about the source of some of the incidents he had written about. After many of his female fans had obtained his autograph we chatted amiably for a few minutes (to my delight he said that some of his stories came from Kabuki plays). At that time I was just another face in a crowd of admirers and he had no reason to remember this meeting (and indeed he did not). I enjoyed his witty talk and later, after our paths crossed more substantially in Honolulu from 1977 on, I came to realize that the quizzical, slightly acerbic, yet generous, wit that I had heard in Tokyo was vintage Oliver that would reappear at every meeting thereafter.
I cherish more than I can express, the scores of times he and I shared gwriting talkh over lunch with white wine (or in later years a spritzer), at one or another of his favorite eating spots in Honolulu . He loved the 1950s feel of the old Spindrifter in Kahala before it was torn down. We met monthly for fifteen or twenty years, I think. Wherever we ate, i t was always the two of us, never a third or fourth person. He thought going dutch was crass; he treated me or I treated him. He is the only person with whom I have ever felt wholly free to discuss my current writing. I listened carefully to his current writing projects (and peeves and loves) as I never did with anyone else. Why? I was in awe of Oliverfs writing skill. I simply loved his writing style, at once complex and elegantly simple. He constantly surprised with the off-kilter phrase. He had no fear of the well-jointed sentence ambling over four or five lines of type. Often followed by the short and snappy assertive sentence. I felt he was a brilliant wordsmith. And I thought what good luck for me that he decided to live in Hawaii. Selfishly I wanted to understand how he wrote as he did so I could learn from him. I soon discovered Oliver was too modest to ever talk about or gexplainh his style, so whatever I may have learned came by way of osmosis.
Oliver was good company. He was interested in so many things Japanese and he enjoyed talking about them in detail. His work, based so much in Japanese history, came up at lunch regularly. He was always engrossed in one project, and then the next. I admired his diligence and iron will in carrying out each project at hand. He was a wonderful role model of the writer in all stages of work: conceptualizing, carrying out research, and then sticking your bottom on a chair until the writing was done. Until the last year or so of Oliverfs life our main topics of conversation at lunch were our mutual writing projects. gSo how is the Dazaifu book coming?h I would ask and he would describe a recent journey to Kyushu for further information. In Oliverfs last year or so, when macular degeneration made it almost impossible for him to read, with considerable vexation he would report that he hadnft been able to do any writing in the previous weeks. It annoyed him no end that he couldnft quite finish the Dazaifu manuscript. He was having trouble with the last chapter (which chapter that was he didnft say). It was hurtful to see that despite Oliverfs amazing work ethic (learned from his boyhood in small town Huntley, Illinois?) he could not overcome the physical failure of his eyes.
Outside our lunches, we didnft see each other that often except by coincidence at a Japan Studies lecture or an art opening. Coincidence brought us together during the summer of 1979 when we both happened to be in Bali at the same time. It was Oliverfs first time and I suppose my seventh or eighth trip, so it was agreed that he would rent a car and I would drive us around the island for two or three days. He was a delightful traveling companion, endlessly curious about everything he saw and heard. The simple beauty of sweeping green rice fields nestled in a steep river valley delighted him as much as the unexpected images of beer-drinking Dutchmen carved in stone temple reliefs. At UH, he enthusiastically plunged into Kabuki acting lessons that the great Sakata Tojuro (then Nakamura Ganjiro III) taught in the summer of 1988. And when the Bunraku troupe held a four-week residency at UH in 1992, Oliver, then well into his 70s, gamely worked backstage and endured puppetry movement and singing instruction alongside agile 20-year-old students.
What should we say about Oliver? That he had thousands, yes thousands, of friends. For twenty years he was an avid swimmer, up before dawn for a daily 2 mile swim off Ala Moana beach park. He had swimming buddies who knew him as a good friend, not a writer, and who helped him in many ways through the last years of his life. He earned devoted friendships among the pilgrims he led on the strenuous rounds of Buddhist temples in Shikoku in the 1980s. And his books, Black Ship Scroll, Shimoda Story, Japanese Pilgrimage, and especially Japanese Inn, touched the hearts of readers in a special way. In a cubbyhole in one of his desks, he had kept a stack of letters and cards going back thirty years from complete strangers, all wanting Oliver to know that, gI just read your book and my life is changed.h His sympathetic treatment of gunknown Japanh had made the strange familiar and moving in a way that others of us who write about Japan can only aspire to. Discovering these testaments to Oliverfs humanity sent chills down my spine. As we know, Oliver never learned to read Japanese (he tried, but gIfm too old to remember kanji,h he once told me). In his own wonderful way he made something good out of what might have been a handicap. Some of his dearest and most supportive friends were the Japanese research assistants and translators that he worked with for many years in Kyushu, Shikoku, Shimoda, and Okitsu as well as Japanese scholars and monks that he met in the course of his research in Japan.
What should we say about Oliver? That he was modest to a fault. That he didnft dwell on past accomplishments. He didnft drop names, either?with one exception. He often talked about his cherished friendship with gJimh Michener. I think he was extremely proud that they remained close friends throughout their lives. When Michener became seriously ill in the 1990s, Oliver out of friendship made a trip to see him in Texas. He was deeply saddened when gJimh died. Several times, he told me that Michenerfs encouragement was a key to Oliverfs initial success as a writer. And it may have been Oliver who told me about Michenerfs incredible act of perseverance when Michenerfs PanAm flight ditched half way to Tokyo carrying the manuscript of one of his books to the bottom of the Pacific: Michener was rescued, he found a typewriter, and he sat down and rewrote the manuscript. Oliver admired Michenerfs professionalism. That was the way Oliver thought about his own writing.
What should we say about Oliver? That he was nobodyfs fool. Behind a genuinely meek and gentle demeanor, Oliver judged a lot of what passed by in the world as tawdry or unworthy. He had a deliciously sharp tongue for the larger foibles in life. And on the rare occasion he could become really angry. This, however, would soon pass and his usual cherubic smile would return. I donft recall him talking politics much, except in a dismissive aside: we had more important things to do with our lives. Like writing well. Enjoying a good meal. Drinking good wine. Having an interesting conversation. He loved true conversation, listening as much as talking (Oliver had no use for the self-absorbed monologist).
What should we say about Oliver? That he was generous to the nth degree. Through to the last months of his life, he regularly wrote out checks for every cause that came to his attention. A dozen checks every month. And he lived rather frugally otherwise. When Oliver sold his thousand-print modern Ukiyo-e collection he became a wealthy man?for about sixty seconds, because he had disposed of his treasured art works in order to gift the proceeds to his beloved alma mater, the University of Chicago. He used none of the money for himself.
What should we say about Oliver? He was a great lover and supporter of the arts, especially the performing arts. In the 1940s and 1950s, when opera and symphony concerts were rare in Japan he sought them out, meticulously retaining the programs of more than a score of Occupation-era music, dance, and theater events he attended. He was fascinated by Grand Kabuki. When he lived in Japan he attended every Kabuki-za program for a dozen years. In Honolulu, he enjoyed opera and theater events in town. He already was in a wheelchair in spring 2000 when came to see Summer Festival: Mirror of Osaka at Kennedy Theater. Although Oliver was obviously tired his face was beaming with pleasure and excitement for he was a great fan of our Kabuki productions in English at UH. More than anything else, I think, he adored going to the movies. And in Oliverfs outings in Honolulu almost without fail you would see on his arm an attractive and considerably younger female companion.
Sometime in 1998 or 1999, Oliver was driving me back to campus in his big car after one of our lunches (in those days I sometimes jogged from campus to the restaurant and then rode back with Oliver in his car). A grouchy expression settled over his face and he grumbled, gJim, will you be a trustee of my estate?h The request came out of the blue; we had never discussed our possible deaths. And he had never talked about his finances or his intentions regarding a will. Stunned by his request, I found it impossible to say no. I said I would and that was the end that. He didnft bring the subject up again and I promptly forgot my promise.
Oliver became increasingly incapacitated during the last year of his life. We met less often. He had difficulty walking and eating. And then he was confined to a wheelchair. Oliverfs inability to work caused him great frustration for he lived for his writing and now he was denied that. I regret I did not see Oliver in the months just before his death.
Oliverfs will instructed his trustees to convey to the University of Hawaiei all of his papers and books. It was exceptionally generous (and typical) of Oliver to pass these materials on to the university for future generations. A group of us from UH went over to survey the extent of his generosity (see Michael Cooperfs gPersonal Tributeh). Oliverfs three-room apartment was completely filled, except for narrow aisles, with file cabinets, book shelves, and box upon box of papers and publications and photographs stacked floor-to-ceiling. It turned out that Oliver never threw anything away. Here was an incredible treasure trove of research materials relating to his published works and a goldmine of personal data. In delight and dismay (at the coming task), we all retired to Oliverfs current favorite restaurant for lunch and many glasses of wine.
Now I learned what my duty was as trustee. For the next five weeks, every day and all day, I sorted through everything in Oliverfs apartment, while the brilliantly organized Bronwen Solyom, University of Hawaii Hamilton Library, packed the sorted materials into boxes, that in the end numbered 151 in all. These boxes constitute the gsecond installmenth of Oliverfs gift to the library, added to 20 boxes of manuscripts and books that he had donated before his death (see Oliver Statler Collection Home Page). Oliver had maintained close relations with his several cousins over the years; a number of family photographs and the family bible were passed on to these surviving relatives.
How could all of these documents be made available to interested researchers? With the assistance of Rhoda Hackler and many other friends of Oliver, we established an Oliver Statler Archive Fund within the UH Foundation. Within a year, many of Oliverfs friends in the United States, colleagues in Japan, and the Freeman Foundation generously contributed some $35,000, sufficient to carry out an initial archival sorting and storage of the Oliver Statler Collection in Hamilton Library.
There were times when Oliver bristled with impatience at the worldfs failings. But he also believed in the Buddhist admonition to accept life as it comes. Just get on with it. Here are Oliverfs words, quoted at his Memorial Celebration Service at the Koboji Shingon Mission, Honolulu, March 17, 2002:
A henro (pilgrim) carries the baggage of his life
and the pilgrimage gives him time to sort out some of it.
(Japanese Pilgrimage, 327)
We salute you, Oliver. Your life inspires each of us gto sort out some of ith while we still can.
Honolulu , Hawaii
December 26, 2006
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