In Response to: Princeton History [6]

In the New York Times obituary on Kenzaburo Oe [7], Nobel Laureate in Literature (1994), the author draws mainly on two interviews, with The New Yorker (1995) and The Paris Review (2007). Missing are thoughts from fellow writers of his caliber, originality, imagination, and clout.

Thanks to the kind support of the late Edwin Reischauer, ambassador to Japan (1961-66), Kenzaburo received an opportunity to come to Harvard in 1966 for a few weeks. During that time he came to Princeton to meet with Richard Falk, a lead spokesman against the Vietnam War. In Princeton, Oe gave a talk intriguingly titled, “Huck Finn, Moby Dick, and the Vietnam War.”

Regarding the United States’ escalating involvement in Vietnam, Oe suggested it was rooted in our culture. Huck Finn felt compelled “to light out for the territory.” Ahab’s obsession with the pursuit of the white whale, after that whale had taken one of his legs, was anchored in a way by the thought, “As for me, I am tormented by the everlasting itch for things remote.”

Oe came to our home that evening, and we spoke of our quest to understand the whale and reduce — if not stop altogether — the killing of whales. In those years it was an unchecked slaughter, and we hoped at least to reduce the catch to one that was sustainable. Year after year, as many whales were taken as possible, and they were simply counted up in what the International Whaling Commission called “blue whale units,” further clouding the exact tally. 

In August 1970, at the behest of the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society), my wife and I traveled to Japan to initiate a whale conservation effort, working with leading scientists as counseled by Reischauer. Among writers in Japan, Kenzaburo was the most outraged at the uncontrolled slaughter of whales, writing vigorously at length about the tragedy.