The end of this semester was different from all previous semesters because I was on the road during finals and commencement. I read and graded students’ writing portfolios mostly in hotels and coffeeshops. (The last three or four were graded back home.) I often compile some of the things that the students wrote in those portfolios: dedications and/or excerpts from their prefaces. For this semester, it is a compilation of their comments about the last book that we read in Great Books IV: Shantung Compound by Langdon Gilkey.
I first heard of Gilkey in college but I don’t remember reading anything by him. Maybe an article for a theology class? I did purchase a copy of his book Message and Existence. I had the habit of writing my name, the date of purchase, and the city of purchase on the first page. My copy shows that I bought it on May 3: probably while browsing my college’s bookstore near the end of that semester. It was one of those unread books bought on a whim. A few years after college, I was in Worcester and bought a copy of Shantung Compound at a used bookstore.
Published in the mid-1960s, the book is a memoir of Gilkey’s experience in an internment camp in northern China during World War II. This Japanese-run camp held about two thousand non-Chinese nationals, mostly white Europeans and North Americans. The experience was unusual for a number of things, including the relative freedom of self-government among the internees allowed by the Japanese authorities. I remember reading only some of the book but not all. I was impressed by several fascinating stories that he recollects in great details. (He kept a journal for the duration of the camp.) But it is a lot more than a memoir. It is partially sociology; the subtitle is The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure. It is partially theology: Gilkey was an academic theologian, and a student of Reinhold Niebuhr. And it is a lot of ethics, the primary theoretical concern. The camp experience occurred when Gilkey was in his early twenties, but the book wasn’t published until his forties. The time in between must have helped him sharpen the interpretative arch of the details he kept, and it is a compelling interpretation.
Fast forward to the ACTC conference in Atlanta two years ago, I was at a panel that included a presentation on the book by Richard Rawls, a historian at Georgia Gwinnett, a public liberal arts college not far from Atlanta. His presentation made me think about the inclusion of this book for the fourth and last required course of Great Books at Pepperdine. I read all of the book this time, plus some of the scholarship on it (which is, to my surprise, quite small.) But the book has never been out of print, and I bet that there are quite a few people teaching it in addition to Prof. Rawls. After reading it last year, I determined that it should make a fine choice to close out the Great Books sequence, at least for this spring.
Another time, I’d like to write more about the book’s stories and arguments. For now, it suffices to say that my intuition to teach this book was confirmed by the comments that students made in class and portfolios. During the last class, a student that took all four Great Books courses with me said that Shantung Compound makes a perfect ending to the Great Books program, especially after six weeks on The Brothers Karamazov. (We read The Souls of Black Folk in between.) The student’s comment would find echoes in the portfolios, and here are some of the things that he and his peers wrote in their prefaces. (All emphases in bold are mine.)
First of all, several students were struck by a new take on the old theme of community and individuals:
The biggest surprise of the semester was likely Shantung Compound. I did not think I would like this book at all, as it seemed at first glance like a history work that would be very dense and difficult to get through. However, I was immediately taken back by the humor Gilkey employs within the backdrop of an internment camp. For the first part of the novel he focuses on the establishment of a community where the playing field is leveled and everyone remains at an equal status. However, like any society, inequalities begin to come out, evident in the people’s selfish search for space and food. The entire work is extremely interesting, and Gilkey discusses some interesting philosophy, despite the work being primarily historical.
[Besides The Souls of Black Folk,] Shantung Compound was the other work that we read this semester that I enjoyed most… because it was interesting study on human behavior in a setting that I hope to never experience. My essay on Gilkey’s account of his time in the internment camp addressed the complexities of the individual vs. the community in such a setting, but also touched on how hard it must have been to hold onto the humane part of the human existence such as kindness, and the common sense part of humanity, rationality. Reading Shantung Compound was only second to the discussion that it brought. In class we explored the book so much further, and much like every great books class before it, my peers were able to shine a light on parts of the story that I was not focusing on, and as a group we were able to analyze the book to a degree which none of us could have achieved alone.
Shantung Compound was another overall Great Books favorite for me, also being a great combination of deep questions and themes coupled with unique and witty anecdotes that were easy and fun to read. In addition, Shantung Compound’s examination of morality in terms of the individual versus community was interesting to read and mentally compare to political ideologies like communism vs. capitalism as well as cultural ideals like individualistic vs. collectivist cultures. I never would have heard of Shantung Compound if I had not taken this course (and specifically taken it with Prof Hoang!) and I felt it was the perfect wrap-up to my Great Books career. Great Books IV illustrated how important the role of morality in society actually is and made me consider my own moral and ethical standards with a new educated perspective.
From a student that already fulfilled the essay requirement before we got to Gilkey:
Thematically speaking, the works selected in Great Books IV are very modern and philosophical about human nature when compared to the previous three semesters of Great Books. If I had to write another paper, I would choose Shantung Compound by Langdon Gilkey, who looked at the human condition with an internment camp by the Japanese. His insights and quotes regarding such aspects of life are one-of-a-kind, and I can see why it is regarded as an overlooked classic.
Some students found strong personal echoes while reading the book:
This semester was especially difficult for me. My health was poor and I felt that I was not in a great emotional shape either. I had a difficult time getting through many days and weeks. [Writing] these essays allowed me further explore some of my own personal issues by connecting them to texts and thinking about them through this lens. I enjoyed the course and it was actually a very important part of my ability think through some things. Especially notable was the discussion about the meaning of life when we were talking about Gilkey’s memoir. This caused me to take a look at my life and ask myself some serious questions about my purpose.
Another interesting aspect about the works is that in Shantung Compound, in many ways it reminded me about my study abroad experience. More specifically, the passages about how adaptable human beings are, “In general, however, the human ability to adjust is beyond belief. By the end of six months, nearly everyone in the camp had learned to live with almost anybody, and generally speaking existence in the dorms became in some way tolerable for all” (Gilkey, 19). The reason why this specific passage reminds me of the study abroad experience is because it is true how adaptable human beings are. While going abroad to Florence, Italy, I did not really experience homesickness that often; furthermore, I did not go through a full “culture shock” that was described to us during orientation. I agree with Gilkey that you can put human beings in any living condition and they will adjust. It is interesting to see that you can move from sharing a room and a dorm with a good amount of space, to living with 56 people in one house and constantly being together…
I am pretty scared by the prospect of having to graduate and find somewhere to fit into in the real world, what job and vocation will I have? I have been worrying about this for months now, but somehow Shantung Compound, a book which does not seem to relate to my situation at all at first glance has really impacted me in these thoughts. One passage in particular stood out, on p. 199. I probably read this passage about three or four times after it first caught my eye, and it really speaks to me in my time of determining what my life will be about, what my life will mean:
Having achieved the comfortable home in the suburbs, two cars, an air conditioner, and a drawer full of Hathaway shirts, these wealthy members of society then embark on an unending quest for something more which will give their lives interest, passion and exhilaration. Some may try to find this lost glow in the magic of the bottle; others in the excitement of the neighbor’s bed; others in an endless round of social affairs and a seasonal shuttling to and from fashionable resorts; still others in the more advanced competition for success and power. Indeed, the really talented and well-to-do man or woman can combine all of these diversions in one life. These efforts reveal one common factor: the frantic attempt to escape from a pointless boredom when what one does has no important or significant meaning, when one’s life is caught up in no great passion or concern.
A few students mention Dostoevsky and Gilkey in the same breath, plus the suitability of Shantung Compound for rounding up the course:
I have specifically found The Brothers Karamazov and Shantung Compound to be two of the most relevant and enlightening books I may have ever read. Their themes directly explore what is to be done today as well as tomorrow, despite both taking place in time periods that seems as distant to me as the moon. Dostoevsky’s discussion of active love and Gilkey’s experiences in the compound that brought him to his revelations about purpose were the stories a nervous college students needs to constantly heed… Shantung provided me with a similar encouragement. College can feel as a means unto itself: you go to college, you get your degree, and the rest of your life falls into place. Knowing that this is not the reality leads one to question why exactly they have decided to go to college in the first place, and what comes next, beyond the diploma. I am finishing my sophomore year of college, and I am now halfway done with my undergraduate program. “Why?” is always on my mind. Gilkey’s experience in the compound that brought him to his conclusions about service as the ultimate purpose prompted me to examine my choice to pursue higher education. Am I striving for success? Am I just wanting to get paid? A lot of the characters in Shantung faced the same worries of success and salary, too, which made the novel’s relevance to my life all the more vivid.
It was also fulfilling to come back to the work after having taken two months of Russian, having started an entirely new language in the hopes of someday reading The Brothers Karamazov. I think I got the barest glimpse of what lies behind the translation this time, but it will be many years before that veil is truly drawn back. So again, looking to memories of a first read, experiences of a second, and expectations of more, everything about my experience with Great Books IV mingled the familiar past and the uncertain, uncharted present and future. Which is why I think it so fitting that we ended with Shantung Compound. I knew nothing about the work going in, and frankly, I think it was one of the best books I’ve read in this four-semester cycle. It was completely, utterly new to me, and so entirely poignant and entirely beautiful in many of the same moments that it felt, as the best books do, like a window to another time and another soul. And despite never having heard the stories of Gilkey, his words somehow still felt familiar, as if only a thin sheet of paper separated human nature then, in all its glory and failure, from human nature now. I’m sure I’ll return to this book someday, because it felt like beginning at new chapter at the end of an old one––like creating an initial experience that will soon become a memory of a first read, informing and inspiring others.
Two texts which stood out to me in particular this final semester of Great Books were Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov and Gilkey’s memoir Shantung Compound. Each book offers in depth portrayals of human motivations and personalities of imperfect which are still pertinent today… It is important to note that though Gilkey’s cast characters are all flesh and blood people, it did not always make their behavior any easier to believe. Records of real people have the potential to contain just as much drama and perplexity as tales of fiction. Gilkey himself seemed surprised by the spectrum of humanity he encountered, noting on one occasion, “I never quite believed that Dostoevski’s characters were real until I met their counterparts in camp” (165)… Furthermore, a function of the Great Books program I admire is the effort it puts into exposing students to an ambitious variety of texts, many of which they have not likely engaged with in the past. I have loved to read since I was in elementary school, but these classes have required me delve into texts I would not have necessarily picked up on my own. From this perspective I was especially pleased with the last text of my Great Books career. Not only had I never read the Shantung Compound, I had never heard of either the book or its author. However, I was treated to a one last captivating exploration of human nature which invited me consider the ideas and standards I took for granted in my own world.