Marvin Marcus

Professor of Japanese Language and Literature and of Comparative Literature
PhD, University of Michigan
MA, University of Michigan
MLA, Johns Hopkins University
research interests:
  • Selfhood and interiority in modern Japanese literature
  • Meiji-Taisho literary journalism
  • Literary reminiscence and reflection
  • Japanese poetry and lyrical expression
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    • Washington University
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    Professor Marcus’s area of specialization is modern Japanese literature of the prewar (so-called kindai ) period, and his research has focused on personal narrative and ‘life writing’—memoir, reminiscence, essay, diary, and autobiography.​

    Marvin Marcus’ research interests have come to center on modern Japanese literature of the prewar (kindai) period— in particular, writers and literary coteries of the late Meiji and Taishô periods (1895-1925).  Broadly speaking, he has studied the manner in which notions of modern selfhood and psychological interiority were absorbed into a literary mainstream long dominated by traditional Confucian ethics and authoritarian rule. He has an abiding interest in personal narratives and ‘life writing’—memoir, reminiscence, essay, diary, and autobiography, and in authors whose work in this vein he has found both meaningful and moving.  These include Futabatei Shimei (1864-1909), Natsume Sôseki (1867-1916), Uchida Roan (1868-1929), and Shimazaki Tôson (1872-1943).   

    Among his publications, Paragons of the Ordinary (1993) concerns a major body of biographical writing by Mori Ôgai (1862-1922), which explores the fraught legacy of samurai rule and the so-called bushidô code from the perspective of modern Japan and its imperial state.  Reflections in a Glass Door (2009) studies the wide-ranging personal narratives of Natsume Sôseki and their collective reflection upon the modern age and the toll that egocentrism and anomie have taken on our closest relationships.  A recent book, Memoirs, Diaries and Personal Reflections from Meiji-Taishô Japan (2016), is a literary miscellany centering on marginal writings by major kindai authors, and the eccentricity that marks the writers themselves and those who figure in their respective reminiscences. He has also published a concise survey of the Japanese literary field, entitled Japanese Literature: From Murasaki to Murakami, in the Association for Asian Studies Key Issues in Asian Studies series (2015).

    He has a deep interest in Japanese poetry and its long and varied history.  My own poetic endeavors, which have given rise to a collection entitled Orientations: The Found Poetry of Scholarly Discourse on Asia (2004), have served as a welcome corrective—and complement— to his scholarly pursuits.

    Courses Taught

    • L05 226C Japanese Civilization
    • L03 294 Images of East Asia: Chronicling the Japan Experience
    • L05 324 A User's Guide to Japanese Poetry
    • L05 333C Modern Voice in Japanese Literature
    • L05 445 Japanese Fiction: Japanese Fiction in the Postwar Period
    • L05 4451 Topics in Modern Japanese Literature: Memories of Childhood and Youth in Japan
    • L05 448 Japanese Poetry
    • L05 464 Japanese Textual Analysis
    • L05 491 Topics in Japanese Literature & History: Japanese Literary Reminiscence
    • L05 491 Topics in Japanese Literature & History: Survey of Modern Literary Texts
    • L03 4911 The Nativist Dimension in Modern Japanese Culture
    • L05 561 Special Topics Seminar in the Literature of Japan: Historical Fiction & Question of Historical Narrative
    • L05 561 Seminar in the Literature of Japan: Survey of Meiji-Taisho Literary Texts
    Memoirs, Diaries, and Personal Reflections from Meiji-Taishô Japan

    Memoirs, Diaries, and Personal Reflections from Meiji-Taishô Japan

    Within Japan’s literary tradition, sketches on literary, psychological, and other miscellaneous topics enjoy considerable popularity. Western academia tends to dismiss such writings but they are crucial to understanding Japanese culture. This collection fills a critical lacuna in scholarship on Kindai literature.

    Japanese Literature: From Murasaki to Murakami

    Japanese Literature: From Murasaki to Murakami

    "Japanese Literature: From Murasaki to Murakami" provides a concise introduction to the literature of Japan that traces its origins in the seventh century and explores a literary legacy-and its cultural contexts-marked by the intersection of aristocratic elegance and warrior austerity. Coverage extends to the present day with a focus on the complex twists and turns that mark Japan's literature in the modern period. In under one-hundred pages of narrative, Marcus's account of Japanese literature ranges from the 712 CE publication of Japan's first literary work, the Kojiki, to internationally-famous 21st century authors.

    Reflections in a Glass Door: Memory and Melancholy in the Personal Writings of Natsume Soseki

    Reflections in a Glass Door: Memory and Melancholy in the Personal Writings of Natsume Soseki

    In Reflections in a Glass Door, Marvin Marcus introduces readers to a rich sampling of Soseki’s shohin. The writer revisits his Tokyo childhood, recalling family, friends, and colleagues and musing wistfully on the transformation of his city and its old neighborhoods. He painfully recounts his two years in London, where he immersed himself in literary research even as he struggled with severe depression. A chronic stomach ailment causes Soseki to reflect on his own mortality and what he saw as the spiritual afflictions of modern Japanese: rampant egocentrism and materialism. Throughout he adopts a number of narrative voices and poses: the peevish husband, the harried novelist, the convalescent, the seeker of wisdom.

    Marcus identifies memory and melancholy as key themes in Soseki’s personal writings and highlights their relevance in his fiction. He balances Soseki’s account of his Tokyo household with that of his wife, Natsume Kyoko, who left a straightforward record of life with her celebrated husband. Soseki crafted a moving and convincing voice in his shohin, which can now be pondered and enjoyed for their penetrating observation and honesty, as well as the fresh perspective they offer on one of Japan’s literary giants.

    Orientations: The Found Poetry Of Scholarly Discourse On Asia

    Orientations: The Found Poetry Of Scholarly Discourse On Asia

    A book of poetry by Marvin Marcus.

    Paragons of the Ordinary: The Biographical Literature of Mori Ogai

    Paragons of the Ordinary: The Biographical Literature of Mori Ogai

    Paragons of the Ordinary is about a quite extraordinary literary achievement: a series of biographies of obscure scholar-literati written by Mori Ogai, one of Japan's most prominent writers and intellectuals. Deeply concerned about the cultural toll taken by Japan's headlong modernization early in this century, Ogai employed the format of newspaper serialization in presenting meticulously researched accounts of individuals who had come to embody exemplary traits and traditional virtues. His unique project, undertaken over the period 1916-1921, resulted in nine interconnected works, the centerpiece of which is based on the life of Shibue Chusai, an all-but-unknown individual toward whom Ogai developed a deep bond of kinship and reverence, much like the sense of discipleship that Marvin Marcus holds toward Ogai.

    In exploring Ogai's biographical project, Marcus' aim is to convey a sense of its unique power and authority and to show how this power derives from Ogai's deft use of anecdotal episodes to highlight the exemplary character of his subject. Marcus places Ogai's work in the context of a long tradition of biographical narrative in Japan; at the same time he calls attention to the author's relationship to the contemporary literary scene and its journalistic orientation. Ogai's biographical works stand on their own as the unique artistic achievement of a giant of modern Japanese literature and culture. They also constitute a brilliant critique of a society that had lost touch with its traditional values. Marcus' reading of a literature often considered “inaccessible” or “elitist” will be relevant to the study of Japanese literature and history as well as to the craft of biographical research and of journalistic conventions that influence writers – in Japan as elsewhere.