Author

April 7th, 2015

aboutRobert N. Lawson was born September 7, 1928  (the year of the dragon) in Woodstock, Illinois.  He lived for ten years in Northern Illinois (until his mother died), and the next ten years in Oregon, then Southern California, with his father.  He was married to Naomi Wade on October 6, 1950, in Eugene, Oregon. He then joined the Air Force and (much like the character ‘Yossarian’ in “Catch-22”) was required to fly 27 combat missions as a navigator on a B-29 crew during the Korean War (about a third as lead navigator). He then enrolled (on the GI Bill) at the University of Kansas where, over the years, he earned four degrees:

B.A. in Philosophy, 1956

M.A. in English, 1961 – Thesis: Hawthorne’s Use of the Supernatural in The Scarlet Letter

Ph.D. in English, 1966 – Dissertation: Compositor C of the Shakespeare First Folio

M.A. in Oriental Studies, 1985 – Thesis: Four Plays by Betsuyaku Minoru (translations with an introduction)

He is a retired Professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, where he taught for over thirty years, his specialties the Shakespeare course and courses in Japanese Literature (with a lot of Freshman Composition in between), and served as General Editor of The Woodley Press from 1980 to 2000.
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Note: Robert N. Lawson passed away at home May 8, 2013 at the age of 84. Click here to read his obituary…

 

ROBERT N. LAWSON, MISHIMA APOLOGIST  

by  Barbara Lerma

       No one has been a  greater advocate for writers in Topeka, Kansas, than Professor Robert N. Lawson, particularly as editor of The Woodley Press, and as an active member of the Kansas Authors Club, serving as president for the local district for several years and as state president in 1989, then as state treasurer for some years after that.   During his years as English professor, he sponsored Headwaters, an active and dynamic  Washburn Writing Group, which was disbanded after his retirement, and was the faculty advisor of Inscape, the Washburn Arts Review, from 1980 until his retirement.  And he has done more than anyone else to cultivate an appreciation of Japanese literature, through his own study, then teaching courses at Washburn, and translating a number of Japanese works into English.

In all of this Lawson exemplifies the ideal of lifelong learning. While working on his master’s degree in Japanese literature (after having earned a PhD in English), he studied in Japan during the summers of 1973, 1976, and 1979 on Sweet summer sabbaticals, and in the fall of 1982 on a regular Washburn sabbatical.  He made friends of many Japanese students of literature, with whom he then corresponded in Japanese as he was learning to write in the language. He received signed copies of two books by Dr. Takeo Doi, the leading psychoanalyst of Japan, for example, given to him when they had lunch together.  Dr. Doi then wrote the introduction to Topeka psychiatrist Dr. Tetsuro Takahashi’s book of short stories, Petals Falling in the Night, which Lawson had translated into English, working with the author–stories published in Japan while Takahashi (not yet Dr.) was still a student of Dr. Doi’s at Tokyo University.

Lawson was a founding member, with Eleanor Bell and the late Keith Denniston, of  The Bob Woodley Memorial Press, a small press affiliated with Washburn University. Their vision was to provide a source of publication for first-time Kansas authors.  He served as managing editor from 1980 to 2000.  During that 20 years some 40 volumes, most slender paperbacks of poems, plays, and stories (most were poems, and most that author’s first book).  A former Woodley Press board member, David Tangeman, describes his friend as someone who thrives on discourse, as well as on dispute. “In fact,” he says, “If there is a spark of discord, Bob will toss in kerosene to ignite the fire.”

His own work is diverse and creative.  Lawson wrote Dora, a play about a fictional ménage a trois involving Dora (a patient), Frau K. and Freud. The ribald tale of early psychoanalysis should find an audience in Topeka, the former home of the Menninger Clinic. In addition to fiction and drama, Lawson is also a poet; his collection of sonnets was published in 2004 by Woodley Press, to be a companion volume to his novel, The Bridge of Dreams.

And his interest in Japanese literature has remained strong.  He argues, “In my judgment, Mishima will stand taller than any twentieth-century American novelist 200 years from now.” There is some support for his prediction. The East magazine selected Yukio Mishima as the most important writer in Japanese literature in the twentieth century. Lawson does not subscribe to Mishima’s politics (Mishima was a nationalist who opposed Western influence in Japan); rather, he values his literary expertise.  Born in Tokyo in 1925, Mishima was chiefly raised by a controlling, paternal grandmother. He rejected military service during World War II, working instead in a factory, a decision he was later ashamed of. After studying law at the University of Tokyo, Mishima worked as a civil servant until publishing Confessions of a Mask, an autobiographical novel acknowledging his own homosexuality in a disapproving society. A number of Mishima’s novels are based upon actual events, such as The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (1956), about a Buddhist monk who sets fire to the historic temple in Kyoto to protest the American occupation of Japan.

Lawson says he first was introduced to Mishima’s work when attending a lecture and watching a movie at KU, Rites of Love and Death, which Mishima directed, based on his short story “Patriotism,” acted the lead role in (and perhaps did the English subtitles).  The suicide scenes between two lovers foreshadow Mishima’s own ritual seppuku and suicide in November, 1970, after he failed to persuade a military garrison to return to the bushido (the way of the warrior) code of the samurai, and to resist Western influences.

Noting themes of existentialism in Mishima’s work, Lawson says he applies traditional Noh principles to interpretations of life’s choices, reality and expression through dramatic depictions of the characters. He states, “Readers attuned to Mishima’s philosophy are caught up in what he is doing, both technically and thematically. What he is doing is . . . synthesizing elements from both Western and Eastern literature, both classical and modern, in provocative ways.” Readers of Lawson’s 2009 novel, The Bridge of Dreams, cannot help but see this definition as applying to Lawson’s work as well. As an example of Western, existentialist influences, Mishima quotes a passage about “the heart of man” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamasov in the frontispiece of Confessions of a Mask.

Lawson’s play Mishima was performed during the Hutchinson Repertory Company’s First Festival of New Plays on June 28, 1981. John Hines portrayed Mishima; Robbie Caudillo’s role was of the student; Gary Witt played Saigo Takamori (the last Samurai of Japan); and Claudia Leonesio, Theresa Short and Mary Pyle comprised The Chorus. The play was directed by Repha Buckman, with a modern setting of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.  The play was taken to state competition by the Hutchinson Community Theatre, but, while John Hines won for best actor, and the production won other awards, the play itself didn’t win.  In The Bridge of Dreams (Bridge 22), Jack and Jordan do the play in New York while Betty and Christine are in France getting to know one another.

Further translations from Japanese to English include Lawson’s translation of Kamo no Chomei’s famous medieval essay Hojoki (My Ten-Foot Hut), Tsumura Setsuko’s prize-winning modern short story, “Gangu” (translated as “Playthings”) and, most importantly, four plays by Betsuyaku Minoru, the translations of which (with an extensive introduction) formed his second Master’s thesis.  One of these translations, of Betsuyaku‘s The Little Match Girl was anthologized in Robert T. Rolf and John K. Gillespie’s collection titled Alternative Japanese Drama, in 1992, published by the University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. A photograph of Betsuyaku by Lawson (of which he is particularly proud, a copy hanging on the wall of his study) also was published in the collection. Betsuyaku’s style is absurdist, with sparse and symbolic sets. His Little Match Girl is modeled on Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale, although the action of  Betsuyaku’s play depicts the poverty, hunger and humiliation of his own childhood during American occupation of Japan.  Lawson says that “since Ionesco died in 1994 I have considered Betsuyaku the most significant Absurdist dramatist in the world.  And Betsuyaku says that the most significant event in his development as a dramatrist was the publication in Japanese of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.”

Bob Lawson also wrote an article, “Japan’s Edgar Allan Poe,” which compares and contrasts Poe and Akutagawa Ryunosuke’s “bizarre and grotesque stories” as well as their similar life stories. He interprets Poe’s short stories “such as ‘Ligeia’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and Akutagawa’s  ‘In a Grove’ and ‘Rashomon’ as memorable as well as romantic.”  The essay was published in the Spring, 1999, issue of AIM magazine.

Lawson’s most recent publication is a novel, The Bridge of Dreams, published in 2009 by The Woodley Press in celebration of this its 30th anniversary. The novel can be read straight through, or for a more in-depth analysis, the reader may opt to follow the reading list of complementary literature in the assignments at the end of the book. Avid readers will enjoy the book for allusions, throughout the text, from the classics. This is a frame story, with chapter one set in June 1, 1975, and the final chapter, 24, returning to the June 1, 1975, denouement. The narrator, Jack, is a playwright who reflects upon events and persons in his life in 1955, with a chronological narration building up to 1975. There are several women (three with whom he has affairs), and several men who are friends and/or rivals. Each chapter title is of a classical work, which the reader is invited to read. The first half of the novel features the escapades and ill-advised decisions of a university drama cabal, most of whom meet in the course of producing stage plays. When a manipulative and ambitious student, Betty, finds she is pregnant, the long-suffering Jack does the right thing and marries her. She seems to have absolutely no maternal feelings, and abandons the baby and Jack with Laura, having manipulated a mutual friend “to take her to New York.” The first chapter opens with Jack, having traveled from his job in Japan, attending a funeral in Los Angeles, California–the funeral of Betty and Jordan, following their “apparent double suicide” at the cabin at Lake Arrowhead. The novel has a hand-drawn picture of the two bodies, lying in the same pose as shown in the “publicity shot from the film of Chikamatsu’s Shinju Ten no Amijima.” It had been published in the newspaper he saw in Japan, and the image haunts Jack, who is immersed in Japanese culture and literature.

But the heart of the novel begins in the second half, with Bridge 13, “Sailing to Byzantium.” Yeats’s own interest in Japanese literature ties in neatly with Jack’s interests. A Russian countess prevails upon her young protégées, Jack, and then Betty, to study Japanese literature, after recounting her so-called affair with Admiral Yamamoto before World War II (in 1923, at the time of the Japanese earthquake); Jack never knows which of her stories are true, but nevertheless, he is undertaking the writing of her life story.

Toward the end of the book, weeks after Betty (her mother) and Jordan’s funeral, Jack’s daughter Christine reveals that she is just as ambitious as her mother was. She wants Jack to help her do a film version of the Romeo and Juliet she has starred in (with her mother) in New York, then perhaps something in French in Paris (as her mother had done); however, he tells her that “Tokyo’s an even greater theatre city than Paris, or London, or New York.”  He is working on a translation (The Little Match Girl) of Betsuyaku Minoru’s Machi-uri-no Sho-jo, which won the Kishida Kunio award, Japan’s equivalent to the Tony, nearly ten years earlier. He explains Betsuyaku’s drama to Christine: “Betsuyaku uses the whole story, in voiceover–as if being told to you by someone in the next seat–to counterpoint what’s happening on stage, the story of a young girl abused by her parents during the worst days of the American occupation–perhaps as an allegorical criticism of the Imperial system. “It’s an interesting play, and since most Americans know the Hans Christian Anderson story, it’d be a good play to use to introduce Betsuyaku to New York. But think of doing it in Japanese, maybe here in Los Angeles. . . .!” In a striking parallel, Jack’s translation is the same as the novelist‘s, as are many of the experiences recounted in the novel, and other things he is credited with writing, like blank verse versions of The Scarlet Letter, the Dido episode from Virgil’s Aeneid, and Plato’s Symposium.

Two web sites are available online for further information about the novel or about the author: www.thebridgeofdreams.com  and www.washburn.edu/reference/bridge24.  The title is taken from the final chapter (or, in Arthur Waley’s translation the last sixth) of The Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, and upon Tanizaki’s short story, The Bridge of Dreams. All 24 chapters open with a sonnet that sets the theme. Lawson’s literary influences are apparent throughout the novel–including Shakespeare, Milton, Hawthorne, Tanizaki and Mishima. And now, to quote Poe’s “Ligeia,” (Bridge 12 in The Bridge of Dreams): “Let me hurry to a conclusion.”

In terms of his longer education Lawson does see ancient Greek culture as the foundation of Western philosophy and literature. But, coming back to Mishima, he says, “I meet Mishima on the Acropolis.  Each of us stood once on that hill in Athens (about the same distance from both Tokyo and Topeka–on the same latitude) and considered how the influence of Ancient Greece had  joined the East and West philosophically and geographically.  But I saw Socrates walking barefoot, and Mishima saw the statue of Apollo as a beautiful young man. ”  The existentialism of Mishima’s works parallels the existentialism in Lawson’s The Bridge of Dreams. Considering Mishima’s diverse body of works (plays, short stories and novels), who knows? Lawson might be right–Mishima just might come to be seen as standing the tallest in twentieth century literature 200 years from now.

 

Barbara Lerma’s essay has been updated from a published essay of the same title in Our Way With Words, a Centennial Celebration Edition of The Kansas Authors Club, 1904-2004.

 

  1. June 19th, 2010 at 16:05 | #1

    Bob, Your new web site looks terrific! I looked through the entire site and will share the news that it’s here with my friends. Thanks for talking with us at Kansas Authors Club this afternoon.

  2. arnel
    June 27th, 2010 at 10:29 | #2

    Barbara,

    I think I made all the changes that you indicated, and a few minor changes of my own just to make it easier for my reading. If you find anything else that needs to be changed, it is easy to do, so let me know.

    Bob

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