THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Novels helped inform popular knowledge of JA mass incarceration’s injustices

bioline_Greg RobinsonIn a recent column, I mentioned James Edmiston’s 1955 novel “Home Again,” which was a notable entry among the set of postwar works of fiction that referenced the mass confinement of Japanese Americans. These “internment novels,” produced by white authors and brought out by mainstream presses in the early postwar years, included such works as Florence Crannell Means’ “The Moved-Outers,” Karon Kehoe’s “City in the Sun” and Anne Emery’s “Tradition.” (Georgia Day Robertson wrote “The Harvest of Hate” around the same time but did not publish it until decades later.) Several of them had white protagonists, but they also offered sympathetic portraits of Japanese Americans, and dramatized the injustice of the concentration camps. Edmiston’s novel was the last of these works to appear, and the most widely reviewed. Its reception points out the positive contribution of the “internment novels” to popular knowledge of the wartime events.

“Home Again” is a sweeping, Micheneresque saga of a fictional Japanese American clan, the Mio family. The two Mio brothers come to America at the turn of the century, work on the railroads and eventually establish themselves as nurserymen in the Santa Clara area. The elder brother takes a picture bride wife, with whom he raises a large family of Nisei children, while the other remains a bachelor. Following Executive Order 9066, the entire family is taken from their land and confined at Santa Anita and later at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

In the aftermath of war, the Mio family returns to the San José area. There, a War Relocation Authority official, Sam Morgan, and FBI agent John Parks help them to resettle. As the book’s title suggests, the heart of the work is the section on resettlement. Edmiston powerfully depicts the returnees’ painful efforts to return to their homes and businesses and to reintegrate themselves in the face of violence by terrorists and hostility by prejudiced neighbors. His book ends on a positive note, with postwar Supreme Court decisions in favor of equal rights for Japanese Americans and the end of Japanese exclusion in 1952.

In a real sense, the book benefitted from a misapprehension. While the book’s copyright was in the name of “James Ewen Edmiston, Jr.” its cover and title page were credited to “James Edmiston.” Readers and critics thus naturally assumed that the book was written by the author’s father, James Edmiston, who had been a WRA supervisor in San Jose in 1945, and whose support for Japanese Americans led to death threats against him and bullets shot into his home. The junior Edmiston did nothing to address the confusion over authorship. Rather, he spoke vaguely in the book’s jacket copy of his “long association” with Americans of Japanese descent. While he surely had his father’s eyewitness testimony to draw on, it was still the author’s imagined personal experience of the end-of-war events that led extra weight and credibility to his account.

Considering how soon after the war “Home Again” was published, its reception by readers and critics in the mainstream press, including on the West Coast, was remarkably positive. As Joseph Henry Jackson, book critic for the Los Angeles Times, stated in his “Bookman’s Notebook” column: “Any Californian here at the time of Pearl Harbor remembers the sudden, unreasoning panic that led to the uprooting of Japanese and Japanese-Americans and their confinement in camps. A great many knew that it was a mistake at the time, but deeply rooted antagonism won out with the help of war-scare.” Jackson noted that the book showed that “the overwhelming majority of our citizens of Japanese ancestry proved…that they were first-class citizens.” (Tom Swint, writing in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, offered a facetious take on such sentiments: “This book has a message: Japs are people, too. But the story is so warm and convincing, you hardly notice it”). Frances Witherspoon, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, agreed that the book underlined the injustice of mass removal, but noted the author’s heroic portrait of the WRA agents and their allies who aided Japanese Americans after their return to the West Coast. “James Edmiston intends that we white Americans shall never forget the story of the trickery, the beatings by Nightriders, the burning of homes, the murders. Yet he wishes us also to learn of the courage of the determined few who finally won the battle and vindicated American democracy.” The New York Times was more skeptical. Although reviewer Gladwin Hill praised the richness of material, which could have made for a memorable novel, Hill stated with regret that the very wealth of material had defeated the author. “Overwhelmed by the task of selection and organization, he has resorted to chronological recitation; his narrative style fluctuates between government-report sterility and Rover-Boy floridness.”

The book won some impressive tributes. Chicago Tribune critic Alfred C. Ames, started his review (entitled “If you forgot—or didn’t know”) with the searing line, “‘Home Again’ is an angry, proud, confident book blazing an unforgettable lesson in civics worth the time and attention of any American citizen.” Ames not only lauded the book in his review, but placed it on his top 10 book list for 1955. Meanwhile, Rep. William A. Dawson (a Utah Republican) praised “Home Again” on the floor of the House of Representatives, according to the Washington Japanese American Citizens League office, as one of the “clearest testimonials to democracy and our way of life that I have ever read.”

The JACL heavily promoted the book. Mike Masaoka, JACL representative in Washington, proclaimed, “This is a wonderful documentary in a readable and entertaining style, a book that should be in the personal library of every Japanese American.” Elsewhere Masaoka stated, “This is the only book written about us that has guts.” Columnist Bill Hosokawa recorded in the JACL organ Pacific Citizen, “Edmiston tells a gripping story that long has needed telling. Many Nisei have tried to write the same story, but all of them found they were too close to the events to write it well. And now, one of their friends has written the story for them.” The Pacific Citizen ran advertisements for the volume and offered copies by mail to its readers at a discount. PC columnist Larry Tajiri and others eagerly reported on Edmiston’s various attempts to transform his novel into a film. (The Northwest Times reported on Edmiston’s speech at a JACL event in the spring of 1955, in which the author announced that famed actor Humphrey Bogart was interested in playing the lead part of the WRA agent Sam Morgan).

The JACL’s stalwart support for Edmiston’s book seems rather surprising in retrospect, given the longstanding enmity shown by the JACL to the Nisei draft resister movement. Edmiston’s novel portrays with sympathy a fictionalized version of the Heart Mountain draft resister movement. To be sure, the man in charge of the movement (based on dissident leader Kiyoshi Okamoto) is demonized as a secretly pro-Tokyo zealot who hypocritically refers to his constitutional rights as an American, but one of the Mio sons, who takes up a position as a draft resistance leader, is depicted as a sincere patriot, however misguided.

Other Japanese American critics expressed gratification at the book’s antiracist message. “Arlene,” writing in the Northwest Times, stated, “It is a story so absorb[ing] that I wanted to read it from cover to cover before I laid it down. To those who suffered similar experiences, the book will undoubtedly recall painful memories. To the American people, and particularly to the people of California, it should burn into their souls the monstrosity of their persecution, and should help to give them a deeper perception of our Japanese American citizens.” Susumu Nakamura, writing in the San Francisco Examiner, extolled the portrait of “the undercurrent of suspicion, hatred, and greed of the American public.” Curiously, Nakamaura added that West Coast Japanese communities had been “knowingly offered to the sacrificial altar by the militarists of Japan.”

Some of the most striking reactions to the book came from African American media. An unnamed columnist in the Atlanta World recommended the book to Black readers as a reminder of the plight of other disadvantaged racial and religious minorities. The review went on, however, to focus on the help and support shown by African Americans for their ethnic Japanese friends. After mentioning the wartime transformation of Los Angeles’ “Little Tokyo” into the Black enclave of “Bronzeville,” the author added piquantly, “When the Japanese returned, however, the Negroes themselves were evacuated and there are some people who have wondered whether the acts of friendship were truly appreciated or reciprocated.” Gertrude Martin, writing in the Chicago Defender, was one of the few critics to address the Draft resister subplot: “Finally, of course, [Nisei] were allowed to enlist and were subject to the draft. The author shows the division among the Japanese-Americans themselves faced with this confusion.”

In the end, Edmiston’s book was not sold to a studio for film treatment and soon faded from view. Its depictions of wartime confinement, and the admiring reviews that its dramatization of prejudice received from Japanese Americans at the time, suggest strongly that “Home Again,” like the other “internment novels,” is past due for a new look.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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