Saturday, January 19, 2013

Yuki Brinton and the Autobiography of Howard Brinton

Today, as I do my final revision of my biography of Howard and Anna Brinton, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to Yuki Takahashi Brinton for transcribing Howard's autobiography during the final year of his life. Without her help, and cooperation, I would not have been able to write my biography of the Brintons, as I explain in this epilogue.

Origins of  the Autobiography of Howard Brinton

For over thirty years, the Autobiography of Howard Brinton, one of the foremost exponents of 20th century Quakerism, lay in a cardboard box, unread and virtually unknown. I learned of it when I gave a series of talks to promote a book I had written about Western unprogrammed Quakers. During my presentations I invariably discussed Howard and Anna Brinton because they startedFriends Bulletin (the Western Quaker magazine that I used to edit) and played an essential role in the founding of Pacific Yearly Meeting, whose history I chronicled in A Western Quaker Reader. I bemoaned the fact that little had been written about the Brintons, who were key figures in the development of American Quakerism both in the Eastern as well as in the Western USA. I concluded that someone should write a book-length study of these important figures, as was the case with other leading Quakers of this period, such as Henry Cadbury, Rufus Jones, Clarence Pickett, Thomas Kelly, and Douglas Steere.

After I gave this talk in Philadelphia, a lively, white-haired woman stepped forward and introduced herself as Catharine Cary, the daughter of Anna and Howard Brinton. She asked if I knew about an Autobiography that her father had dictated to Yuki Brinton just prior to his death. I confessed that I had not heard of it, but was very interested in seeing such a document. I also wondered if any historian was working on this project. I was surprised to discover that this unpublished memoir had been languishing in the Haverford College Quaker collection for 30 years and no one had written anything about it.

I was given a photocopy of this work, which turned out to be over 130 pages long and was full of personal information not found anywhere else. Unlike his teacher Rufus Jones, Howard was reticent about his personal life and revealed little about it in print. His one attempt at personal history, a talk for the Historical Society entitled“Friends for 75 Years,” provided more theological than autobiographical data.

One reason that this Autobiography may have been dormant for so many years is that it was the “offspring” of an unusual marriage, which I describe in my biography of the Brintons. In May 1972, three years after the death of his first wife Anna, with whom he had been married for over fifty years and produced four children, Howard married Yuki Takahashi, a Japanese teacher, translator, and student of Quakerism. Howard was 88 years old, nearly blind, and in failing health. Yuki was 60 years old, though she looked much younger. Howard decided to re-marry because he was in failing health and needed a caretaker, but his relationship with Yuki was much deeper than that and was based on a friendship going back two decades. The marriage lasted less than a year, but it produced a remarkable memoir that Howard dictated to Yuki during his final days. This collaborative effort, written under the shadow of mortality and lovingly if not always accurately transcribed, enhances our understanding not only of Howard’s life but also of 20th century Quakerism.

While it is uncertain whether Howard intended for his memoir to be published, he did devote his usual care to writing it and probably had some thought of its being published or at least read by future historians. After Howard’s death, Yuki sent Anna Brinton Wilson (“Cousin Nan”) a copy of the Autobiography. She sent back comments and wrote, “I shall want to buy a copy of the book as soon as it is out.”[1] It is clear that at least one member of the Brinton family felt that the manuscript was publishable. Most felt it needed editing and fact-checking, and did not want it to be published.

Because of her Japanese upbringing, Yuki was also reluctant to share this work, or any details about her life. It took considerable coaxing for me to find out as much as I did about her life and her relationship to Howard. In a letter date August 22, 2004, she wrote: “I enjoyed talking with you. I enjoyed because you listened! That’s why I talked too much. That is dangerous.”

Where Yuki saw danger, I saw opportunity. Besides, I very much enjoyed listening to this remarkable woman tell her story. She had a lot of wisdom to share, as well as great humility—qualities that are usually connected. Here are some facts I was able to glean about her remarkable life.

Born on Dec. 20, 1912, Yuki Takahashi was one of five children born in Dairen, Manchuria, to Motokichi Takahashi (1873-1920) and Naoko Takahashi (1881-1971). Yuki’s father was a high-ranking Japanese government official who had majored in political science at Princeton University. There he met Woodrow Wilson, whom he greatly admired, and became a Presbyterian. Yuki’s father was sent as a Japanese envoy to the United States after WWI, where he died of a heart attack in Seattle, Washington, at age 47.

Yuki’s family had moved from Manchuria to Tokyo, Japan, in 1914. There Yuki was educated at a private school run by Sophia Anabelle Irwin and Robert Irwin. She was trained as a kindergarten teacher. In the 1930s she worked as a kindergarten teacher in Dairen, Manchuria.

Yuki’s sister Taneko went to Pendle Hill in 1939 and stayed until war broke out between Japan and the United States in 1942. At that time, her sister returned to Japan. Hearing her sister’s glowing reports about Pendle Hill sparked Yuki’s interest in Quakerism. She eventually went to work at the Quaker Center in Tokyo around 1950.

A prominent Quaker named Passmore Elkinton introduced Howard to Yuki, who became his interpreter and assistant. Impressed by her passion for Quakerism, he encouraged Yuki to come to Pendle Hill, even though she felt her English was not good enough.

There she translated Friends for Three Hundred Years into Japanese, a daunting task she was able to accomplish with the help of Howard and Elizabeth Vining.
In transcribing Howard's autobiography, Yuki was painfully conscious that she lacked the editorial skill that Anna possessed, but did her best. Howard also did his best to recall what happened in his life, but with his failing health and eyesight, he had to rely on his memory and could not verify dates and other details. How much of what Yuki wrote were Howard’s exact words, and how accurate some of Howard’s memories were, we will never know for certain. I have done my best to verify names and dates, and was surprised to find that most of the names and dates that Howard remembered could be verified. I became convinced that, despites its many deficiencies, Howard’s Autobiography is an invaluable resource and an excellent starting point for a biographer.

Many of the errors are trivial. Because of her difficulties in pronouncing English, Yuki sometimes mixed up“L’s” and “R’s” (as in the sentence, “we attended a concert in London where the English loyalty showed up”). Some of the errors involved recalling events out of order, like recounting his trip to Scotland after his first trip to Britain Yearly Meeting rather than after his second.

Howard was also unable to polish the style and to make his narrative flow as he would if he had been able to read and edit what he had written. According to Yuki, Howard’s daughter Lydia helped in editing the Autobiography and it would not have been readable without her assistance.

“I am undertaking this with much hesitation and some embarrassment,” Howard wrote. “My principal handicap is that I cannot read or write (because of my poor eye sight) so I am dictating these memoirs to my secretary and general helper Yuki Takahashi….In dictating this I cannot go back and make revisions. I must always go forward recklessly, not always knowing just where sentences or paragraphs may end.”

Because Howard had a disciplined mind, he was able to write coherently in spite of these handicaps. His lifelong exposure to Quaker autobiography and journals no doubt helped prepare him for this work. He liked to reminisce about his past and had also been thinking of writing a memoir since he was in his forties.[2]

Although the memoirs contain inaccuracies, as one would expect from such a “raw” work, they also have the freshness of a tape-recorded oral history. In some cases, Howard reveals feelings and opinions that he would have expressed guardedly or not at all in a work less “reckless.” For instance, when he describes going to Friends World Committee Conference in Oxford in 1952, soon after the publication of Friends for 300 Years, Howard says, “I sent a copy… to every American delegate. Many of the American delegates were from Pastoral meetings. I wanted to be sure that they knew what real Quakerism was.”[3]This unusually frank comment reveals quite clearly that Friends for 300 Years was not written as objective history, but to promote an unprogrammed Friends’ perspective of Quakerism. He also talks about mystical experiences that he had at Glastonbury and frankly discloses his personal feelings while working on numerous Quaker projects.

The memoir that Howard and Yuki had worked on for a year extended as far as Howard’s trip to Japan in 1952. This being time when he and Yuki met, it is a fitting conclusion to their collaborative effort. As Howard tells us as well as his grateful amanuensis and spouse, “the most important event [that happened to me] in Tokyo was to secure Yuki Takahashi as my secretary and guide and interpreter.”

After Howard’s death, Henry Cadbury asked Yuki if she’d like to stay on at Pendle Hill to assist in the library. She accepted the offer and stayed until 1993 when she moved, somewhat reluctantly, to Kendal, a Quaker retirement center near Pendle Hill. There she died on July 3, 2006, after a brief illness. Her memorial minutes noted :

At Pendle Hill she helped and befriended many foreign students and was a gracious presence representing Japanese culture. She also served faithfully for many years on the Pendle Hill publications committee.

Yuki had a keen eye for small things: for English expressions like “Thank you very much” and all cats for they spoke Japanese, and modest gifts like oranges or cookies, or an introduction to her friend who might become your friend, too. Sometimes the gift was a sharp question but often an invitation to tea or Scrabble. With children she became a child, and with adults a keen watcher as her hearing grew less serviceable.

One of her gifts was her devotion to Howard Brinton. Had it not been for Yuki, we would have no way of knowing the personal side of Howard’s life. For this reason, I feel a profound debt to Yuki for encouraging Howard to persevere with his memoirs. Without her labor of love, I probably would not have undertaken this biography, my own labor of love.

[1] See “from Anna Brinton Wilson’s letter 1973 or ’74,” Box 1189.
[2] See letter to Mary James, Mills College, June 18th 1930. “As I sit here looking out my study window on San Francisco Bay I am attempting to conjure up on the dim background of the hills beyond it the faint images of the time when I first set my feet on the long road to learning. They came with great difficulty at first and then faster and fast like ghosts pouring out of a deserted building…” He wrote about the importance of West Chester Friends School and the “Boys Sporting League” and other childhood memories, including poems that later appear in his Autobiography.
[3] Autobiography, p. 96.

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