By Harriet P. Gross
The most popular Japanese poem in America is any “haiku,” a spare little construction featuring 17 syllables in three lines: five—seven—five.
The most popular American poem in Japan, more accurately a prose poem called “Youth,” is 242 words long!
Its author, Samuel Ullman, died in 1924 in Birmingham, Ala., where he remains the pride of the Jewish community for his many contributions to the city. But not so much for his poetry. It’s still largely unknown to the rest of the United States, while it has become a lasting influence in Japan.
Born in Germany in 1840, Ullman was 11 years old when his family moved to Mississippi, and 44 when he relocated to Alabama, after serving in the Confederate Army.
In Birmingham, he became a member of the city’s first board of education, somewhat surprisingly for his time advocating equal opportunities for black children. Simultaneously, he was president of Temple Emanu-El, still a leading Reform congregation today.
Ullman didn’t start writing until his 70s, when he retired from a distinguished business career, probably because of the onset of deafness. His 50 essays and poems were virtually unknown until one of the poems found its way to General Douglas MacArthur.
During World War II, MacArthur hung a framed copy of “Youth” over the desk in his Manila and Tokyo offices, between portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. And when it came to the attention of Panasonic’s founder many years later, the poem became a Japanese inspiration. There are now several versions, but this is considered Ullman’s original:
Youth is not a time of life—it is a state of mind, it is a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over love of ease.
Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old only by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, doubt, self-distrust, fear and despair—these are the long, long years that bow the head and turn the growing spirit back to dust.
Whether they are sixteen or seventy, there is in every being’s heart the love of wonder, the sweet amazement at the stars and starlike things and thoughts, the undaunted challenge of events, the unfailing childlike appetite for what is to come next, and the joy and the game of life.
You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt; as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear, as young as your hope, as old as your despair. When the wires are all down and all the innermost core of your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, then you are grown old indeed.
But so long as your heart receives messages of beauty, cheer, courage, grandeur and power from the earth, from man and from the Infinite, so long you are young.
“Samuel Ullman and ‘Youth’: The Life, The Legacy,” written by Margaret England Armbrester, was published in 1993. A year later, the Samuel Ullman Museum, in his former home, was jointly opened by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Japan-America Society of Alabama; it is now a place of pilgrimage for Japanese visitors to the United States, especially businessmen who proudly carry copies of “Youth” in their wallets. Somehow, this Jewish American’s words have become an inspiration to an entire nation.
Why? The University of Alabama Press, publisher of Armbrester’s book, opines that “The message of ‘Youth’—its optimism and its challenge—reflects the substance of Ullman’s life. Spanning the experience of Jewish immigrant, vanquished soldier, and progressive community activist…one man’s vision continues to affect people decades after his death.”
I imagine the “vanquished soldier” aspect may still resonate with the Japanese.…
Next week, I’ll tell you about the conference that took me to Birmingham to “meet” Samuel Ullman.