Portraits: Marston Anderson (essay)

Marston Anderson

When I returned from my year in Taiwan, there was a new professor of Chinese literature at Yale whom I had never met. He was a tall man with very short blond hair and a shy personality. The new professor did not talk much unless you engaged in a subject, but then he spoke with an enthusiasm and alertness that was inspiring. His name was Marston Anderson and he had just received a Ph.D. from Berkeley in Chinese literature. I heard later that he had been considered one of the most promising young scholars of Chinese studies. Professor Anderson had recently published a book about the novels of Lu Xun 鲁迅entitled The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period which I still have on my bookshelf today and I have referred to it in my research frequently. 

I had just returned from Taiwan to Yale in September of 1986. Professor Chang recommended I should go and meet Professor Anderson as soon as possible. Professor Anderson was reading a copy of Rulinwaishi (儒林外史) when I entered his office. I think that along with Hongloumeng, it was his favorite premodern work. His office was in a corner of the gothic Hall of Graduate Studies at Yale, surrounded by ivy on the outside and with beautiful wooden paneling on the inside. His walls were covered with a combination of both Chinese literary works in the original and works of Western literary criticism. At the time, Yale was the center for literary criticism in the United States, and the world. The essential question at Yale was not only whether you could read Chinese, but also could you interpret it in a manner that shed light on social, political, philosophical and economic issues.

Professor Anderson addressed me in a very warm manner. And yet I also felt a certain level of expectation as well, his expectations that I would perform at a high level.  

“Welcome back to Yale. I trust your stay in Taiwan was enjoyable. Sorry we did not have a chance to talk before now.”

“I tried to spend as much time in Taiwan learning Chinese language as possible,” I explained. “It is somewhat a shock to go back to writing actual essays in English.”

“That makes sense,” he replied, “but it is critical to realize that you are not a Chinese reader and you do not want to be a Chinese reader. You can make the biggest difference if you bring the full range of literary tools to your analysis of Chinese literature. There are hundreds of Chinese scholars who write books on Chinese literature, but only you can bring a new perspective.”

“I guess I had lost track of that aspect,” I said, “for me the whole issue was how good my Chinese could be. Interpretation was not really the question.”

“Now you are back in the United States,” he declared, “it is time to see China from a more detached and more thoughtful perspective. There is much in the critical tradition that can help you to gain profound insights. Looking things up in the dictionary is only part of the process of interpretation.”

I remember most vividly the seminar on Chinese narrative that I took with Professor Anderson in the fall of 1986. We read a selection of passages from Records of the Historian (Shiji史记), assorted stories of the strange (Zhiguai志怪), Chuanqi (传奇) novels, New Account of Tales of the World (世说新语) and many Ming and Qing novels.

That course gave me a very solid survey of the full potential of Chinese narrative. Several of those stories and the interpretations we shared, remain with me today. Many of those tales I would love to read again if I have a chance.

Moreover, Professor Anderson’s seminar has remained with me as an ideal for how to teach, if the circumstances permit it. There were only five students in the class with me when we met each Tuesday afternoon at 4 PM. In fact there were only four students in my class (1987) in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale. Whereas the major of East Asian Studies, which does not require much training in Chinese language, attracted a broad range of students at Yale, East Asian Languages and Literatures requires a careful study of classical Chinese or classical Japanese and far more intense training in language. It was not that popular among students wishing to be bankers or lawyers. We were a very small group indeed.

We would each present our interpretation of the reading assignment each week, often in response to an assignment by Professor Anderson, and then engage in a complex discussion of the content of the texts and their larger implications. Professor Anderson would lead the discussion, but he demanded that we make an active contribution to the discussion. We learned from the text, from Professor Anderson, and from each other in the course of the discussion. I have tried to teach in the same manner in Korea, but have found that many students in Asia are not quite ready for such an approach.

In the spring of 1987 I started work on my graduation thesis. Yale requires of undergraduates, in many cases, a semester-long project that demands intensive reading and interpretation of texts, and a careful write up as an academic paper. I selected the 19th century autobiographical novel Six Records of a Floating Life  (Fushengliuji浮生六记) by Shen Fu(沈复) for my thesis. I was attracted to Six Records of a Floating Life because it explores the strategies employed by an intellectual to create his own internal world in an age of increasing inflexibility and limited opportunities. One can see in the novel how literary expression and interpretation can create a new space for the individual even in the most restrictive environment. Professor Anderson guided me through the reading and the writing of the graduation thesis, always stressing the need to make use of Western literary criticism—not because it was the only way to read, but because it could be my unique contribution.

Professor Anderson gave me quite a bit of very helpful advice as I set off for Japan after graduating from Yale. He felt strongly that I should have a chance to study abroad, but he also felt that we should remain as American intellectuals, even when living abroad. He suggested to me that I should stay in Japan for one year, but come back to the United States soon after and establish myself in the field here. I ended up spending almost six years in Japan, perhaps going a bit against his advice. But I did understand the need to come back and eventually I did.

I wrote to Professor Anderson during my time in Japan frequently and asked his advice concerning my further graduate studies in the United States. I still have the thoughtful, hand-written replies that he sent me then.

I arrived back in the United States in the summer of 1992 and was anxious to see Professor Anderson. I wrote him a letter and then called him on his home phone once I arrived in New York City. I kept calling him on his home phone for days and days and received just a recorded message. It was immensely frustrating indeed.

At last I called up professor Chang and she told me that Professor Anderson had died just a few days ago. All those times that I had heard his recorded voice on the phone he had been in the hospital dying. That moment made a deep impression on me and from that time forward I thought much about just how precious our time on earth is. I also became aware of how much Professor Anderson had expected of me. I came to Yale soon after his death and met with Professor Chang and Vivien Lu. I was back in the United States in the context of a terrible loss.

Later on, I came down for a memorial service in honor of Professor Anderson at Yale. I had a chance to meet his family and to learn a bit about him as a man—something that I had not known much about before. He was a very gentle man, a victim of the tremendous plague of AIDS at that time in the United States. At the time of that memorial service, we sat out in the courtyard at the Hall of Graduate Studies and heard speeches by individuals who had known Professor Anderson. They spoke of a man with a deep passion for learning, something I had not fully grasped as an undergraduate.

Professor Chang gave me several books from Professor Anderson’s library, and also proceeded to mail me two boxes of his books on Chinese studies, many of which are still with me now. Oddly, after that time, I felt as if Professor Anderson was there with me, looking over my shoulder, as I continued my studies. I hope I have not disappointed him. 

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