The story of the U. of Chicago graduate student who became Hayek’s English language re-write man:
While studying the works of people like Mill, de Tocqueville, and Joyce under Hayek and other leading thinkers and scholars of the era, [Edwin McClellan] realized it was time for him to choose a subject for his dissertation. After thinking about it for a while, he decided he wanted to tackle some of the problems of human existence through an analysis of the work of his favorite author, Soseki Natsume. The problem was that at the time Soseki was virtually unknown in the West. Not even his most famous works had appeared in respectable English translations. So McClellan decided to translate his favorite novel of all, Kokoro, himself. He was eager for his two mentors to read it; that, he thought, would be the easiest and fastest way to explain what sort of thinker he wanted to focus on for his dissertation.
McClellan completed the translation and submitted it to Hayek. When Hayek talked to him about it a week later, he was visibly excited, telling McClellan he had been “profoundly moved.” It was clear the story had left a deep impression.
Hayek urged McClellan to write his doctoral dissertation on Soseki. He was clearly fascinated by this unknown writer from an unknown society whose work had made such an impression on him …
Every Wednesday Hayek taught a seminar where McClellan and other students and researchers engaged in free, wide-ranging discussions covering not only philosophy, religion, and history but human knowledge in general. Hayek was joined by people like Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who had played a key role in the development of the hydrogen bomb through the Manhattan Project; sociologist David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd; and David Greene, the unique Irish-born scholar and translator of ancient Greek, who in addition to teaching also made a living as a farmer.
Tossed into this extraordinary intellectual crucible, McClellan’s translation of Kokoro managed to make a profound impression on the giant who stood at the very center of it all, Friedrich Hayek. What exactly was it that Hayek found so moving? McClellan, now past 80, says he no longer remembers their conversation in any detail. He only recalls thinking that Hayek was even more impressed by the story than he, who knew Japanese and had read Soseki from an early age.
It seems to me that Hayek’s reaction is easier to understand in the context of events that were transpiring in his personal life at the time.
Having immigrated to London in the 1930s, Hayek had been at the center of a great debate with Maynard Keynes at the University of London and had become completely acclimatized to life in England. His decision nevertheless to move to the United States was closely connected with his divorce from his wife Hella, whom he had married at a young age, and his subsequent remarriage to his cousin and first love, Helene.
Hayek and Helene had been childhood friends and then sweethearts for many years, but a miscommunication had led Helene to marry another. Hayek resigned himself to marrying Hella, who resembled Helene, and the two of them built a family. Hayek and Helene never forgot one another, however, and they maintained a secret correspondence. After Hayek immigrated to England, the two began to think seriously about divorcing their spouses and getting married, but with the outbreak of the war in 1939, they lost touch with one another. When Hayek returned to Vienna from London in 1946 to check on relatives who had remained there during World War II, the two were reunited and decided to put their plans into action. In 1949 Hayek forced Hella to accept a divorce and married Helene in Vienna.
Hayek’s friends and acquaintances in London—including his closest friend and University of London colleague, economist Lionel Robbins—were angered over the high-handed way Hayek had divorced and remarried, and sided with Hella. To secure the income he needed to start a new life with Helene even while providing Hella and their children with child support, Hayek had been making plans to take a position at the University of Chicago. After he pushed through the divorce, the indignation of his friends at the University of London was such that he felt obliged to flee to America like a refugee.
In Kokoro, the character known as Sensei feels condemned to live a life suffused by a “black light” after he steals and marries his best friend’s sweetheart Ojosan, precipitating the friend’s suicide. Reading Kokoro for the first time a few years after his own divorce and remarriage, might not Hayek have identified with Sensei in some way?
Yet it seems likely that Hayek perceived something in Soseki beyond the superficial similarity between his own experience and the protagonist’s. Although often viewed as the standard-bearer of free-market laissez-faire economics, Hayek himself, in pursuing freedom to its logical extreme, came face to face with the bankruptcy of modern rationalism. It seems plausible that Hayek’s own struggle with the modern predisposed him to respond to Soseki’s portrayal of Japan’s lonely urban intellectuals and their own struggles with the modern age.
From F. A. Hayek, “Acknowledgements and Notes” in The Constitution of Liberty, p. 416:
In the final states of the preparation of the book I have had the invaluable benefit of the assistance of Mr. Edwin McClellan. It is mainly due to his and (I understand) Mrs. McClellan’s sympathetic efforts to straighten out my involved sentences if the book is more readable than I could ever have made it.
Read McClellan’s forward to Koroko here.