Thoreau and I

By Wei An, June 3, 2017

The cover of Henry Thoreau's "Walden"

The cover of Henry Thoreau’s “Walden”

An essay from the late poet and environmentalist Wei An on a connection with the 19th Century writer spanning epochs and cultures. The essence of Thoreau is not in the initiation of a “return to nature,” but instead in his respect for “man’s perfection.”

Thoreau’s name is forever linked with his book Walden. The first time I heard about the book was in the winter of 1986, when the poet Hai Zi told me that it was the best book he had read that year. Before that, I knew nothing of the book nor of Thoreau. Hai Zi had borrowed the book from the library of the China University of Political Science and Law where he taught.

It was a 1982 edition put out by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, and translated by Mr Xu Chi. I borrowed it from Hai Zi and read it twice (I recorded reading it between December 25, 1986 and February 16, 1987). I took over a thousand words in notes, which shows just how much I liked it at the time.

From then on, I started searching for the book in bookstores, and at present I have five different Chinese editions, published by three different mainland publishing houses (in addition, I also have a 1962 English edition published by Macmillan, a gift from a friend).

I wrote in a letter to that friend, “Over the past two years, Thoreau seems to have undergone a revival. Walden has been republished again and again, and is a bestseller in scholarly bookstores across the country. Seldom does any nineteenth-century novelist or poet achieve this, and it demonstrates Thoreau’s timeless significance and the power of his writing.”

Walden is the only book I have collected in different versions, commemorating the priceless “foundation” this profound work has had on my own writing and life. My “literary career” began with poetry, but the appearance of Walden ended my seven or eight years of self-study during which my reading and interests revolved around poetry.

In my autobiography One Man’s Path, I wrote: “What finally turned me from poetry toward prose was Thoreau’s Walden. When I read this unparalleled book, I felt joyfully that my love for it surpassed that of any poetry.”

This critical juncture in my writing seems to have come about by chance, but reading this book was to some degree inevitable: I had a kind of natural resonance and closeness with Thoreau’s work. Put another way, in all of my previous reading I had never before discovered an author whose style (and of course, it was more than just style) could excite me and make me feel a profound identification, and now he had appeared. The comparison below may demonstrate the basis of this shift more clearly:

I often forget that the sunshine that shines down on our cultivated fields and on the plains and forests is the same, it is equally matched. They all reflect and absorb the rays, and the former is only part of the painting that the sun gazes on from afar. As far as I can tell, the earth has been cultivated to look like a garden. And so we accept its light and heat, and should also accept its trust and magnanimity

Autumn is a strong season

a guide for life

a harbor that accepts heavily burdened ships

In the north, birds gather

nature goes through its cycles

all the seed-bearing plants

droop their heavy heads to the earth

their expressions are solemn and serene

like people who have accomplished something

The sun is collecting its rays of light

like a traveler before a long journey

who is beginning to pack up his things

he carries the most precious cargo

which is three seasons of experience

The first section is from the chapter “The Bean Field” in Walden, and the second is a poem I wrote at the time called “Strength.” The poem displays a kind of “prose-like” flatness and broadness, while Thoreau’s writing has not lost the vaunted beauty of the “poetic.”

Still, I am even more captivated by Thoreau’s freedom and conviction, his style as pure and open as the land itself. In any case, my poetry was vanquished: Thoreau had converted me to prose. Afterward, I trusted all the more that in writing, the author does not choose a genre, a genre chooses the author.

The mode that an author chooses establishes his relationship with the world, and it has little to do with talent or desire, but more to do with a combination of factors such as lifeblood, temperament, faith, spirit, and so on.

In terms of the human species, one had already experienced the enormous transition from an organic natural world to an inorganic natural world. As the cycle of humans differentiating themselves from nature and not being able to reintegrate came about, people placed themselves in the inorganic world. I wrote about it in Earthly Things:

“One day, man will look back at the beginnings of his failed existence on earth, and will realise that it happened in 1712, when a precursor to Watt, an Englishman called Thomas Newcomen attempted to invent the first steam engine in the world.”

As though in response to this twist, in the mental realm, human language formulated and then expressed a transmutation from “organic” to “inorganic,” which increasingly tended toward an abstract, analytical, obscure, speculative course.

Just as Thoreau stated, “All the distinguished writers of that period possess a greater vigor and naturalness than the more modern, for it is allowed to slander our own time, and when we read a quotation from one of them in the midst of a modern author, we seem to have come suddenly upon a greener ground, a greater depth and strength of soil. It is as if a green bough were laid across the page, and we are refreshed as by the sight of fresh grass in midwinter or early spring.”

Certainly, in the work of (basically) contemporary authors, we can find statements like: “The city had lost its youth, like a year without spring,” or, “Virtue passed on like the rivers, but moral people do not change.” Are these expressions richly lifelike, like words written in the growth of plants and the rush of rivers?

In a time when modern writings are so obvious as to be superficial and so plain as to be idiotic, when literary works no longer “yield of their sense in due proportion to the hasty and the deliberate reader. To the practical they will be common sense, and to the wise wisdom; as either the traveller may wet his lips, or an army may fill its water casks at a full stream” (from Thoreau), these characteristically great works have disappeared, and literature and academia have become abstruse and sealed-off.

Thoreau’s language is “organic,” which is one of the reasons I love it. What I mean by “organic” is that in these writings, the language itself is alive; it is fully textured and warm-blooded, and the meaning is not stated outright, but is expressed in terms of the natural world (so that more people will understand and accept it), embodying the original internal harmonious unity of people and the universe. This is the immortal characteristic of classical works (whether literary or philosophical), and Thoreau continues in the well-established vein of this great tradition:

“The abrupt epochs and chasms are smoothed down in history as the inequalities of the plain are concealed by distance;” “The moon no longer reflects the day, but rises to her absolute rule, and the husbandman and hunter acknowledge her for their mistress;” “Homeliness is almost as great a merit in a book as in a house, if the reader would abide there.” In countless phrases such as these, Thoreau shows his style’s freshness, liveliness, beauty, and intelligence, and his work is full of irrepressible charm.

My poetry was vanquished: Thoreau had converted me to prose

I call Thoreau a composite author: a non-conceptual, non-systemized thinker (he saw himself as a philosopher); a graceful and keenly intelligent essayist; a sympathetic and learned naturalist (his knowledge of living things, especially of plants, is astonishing, and he collected many hundreds of botanical specimens); an optimistic and skillful traveller; and a self-professed “mediocre poet.”

Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817 in a town called Concord, Massachusetts. Concord’s fame came primarily from it being, along with its close neighbor Lexington, the inaugural ground for the American War of Independence. Thoreau was quite proud to be born in “one of the places in the world most worthy of respect.” Among the Transcendentalists who settled in Concord over the following years, Thoreau was the only one born there.

Hawthorne once described Thoreau as “a young man with much of wild original nature still remaining in him… with uncouth and rustic, though courteous manners…” In fact, Thoreau had received a formal education, going from the public school in Concord to the Concord Academy and straight on to Harvard University.

In 1847, a thirty-year-old Thoreau wrote on a Harvard survey on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his graduation: “I am a Schoolmaster, a private Tutor, a Surveyor, a Gardener, a Farmer, a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glasspaper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.”

This largely summarises what would be his life’s work. Thoreau’s combination of knowledge and physicality once again confirms what the ancient Greek Thales expressed to the world: “It is easy for philosophers to become rich if they wish, but their ambition lies elsewhere.”

In discussing Thoreau, it is impossible not to mention a man who was a tremendous help to and influence on him, namely Emerson, honoured as the “Spirit of Concord” who “brought us universal accord” (since Emerson once wrote a hymn for the town). In 1835, at the age of thirty-two, Emerson bought a house in Concord for thirty-three hundred dollars, and officially moved from Boston to the small town.

Thoreau was a junior at Harvard at the time. In 1837, Thoreau, who had already quit his job teaching in the Concord public school in defiance of an order to administer corporal punishment to six students, joined Emerson’s New England “Transcendental Club” and their great friendship commenced.

In 1841, Thoreau ended his two-year management of the Concord Academy and, then unemployed, accepted Emerson’s invitation to move into his house and work as a gardener there. Two years of close contact with Emerson and his large collection of books helped Thoreau establish the foundations of his own basic ideology and convictions. (The unique connection between Thoreau and Emerson led one critic, who was adept at finding any unkind angle, to mock Thoreau as “the mere shadow of Emerson.” But Thoreau was still Thoreau. One of the reasons that the men later drifted apart was that Thoreau had misgivings about the effect his growing fame and popularity might have on Emerson.)

As for the connection between Thoreau and Emerson, I would rather believe that in their hearts and minds there was a kind of natural agreement and fellowship. In his speech, “The American Scholar,” Emerson expounds this basic ideology, that “the state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, —a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things. The planter, who is Man sent out into the field to gather food, is seldom cheered by any idea of the true dignity of his ministry.

He sees his bushel and his cart, and nothing beyond, and sinks into the farmer, instead of Man on the farm. The tradesman scarcely ever gives an ideal worth to his work, but is ridden by the routine of his craft, and the soul is subject to dollars.

The priest becomes a form; the attorney, a statute-book; the mechanic, a machine; the sailor, a rope of a ship.” Emerson’s idea about “Man” was that for one to completely master oneself, one must consistently leave one’s “station” and embrace absolutely everything.

Thoreau said, “Men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper… The best works of art are the expression of man’s struggle to free himself from this condition…” We can see from Thoreau’s response to the Harvard survey that it was exactly this idea of “Man” that he set out to experience, a lifelong process of “freeing himself.”

(In his journal, Emerson wrote humorously of Thoreau: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition… instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.” This lack of competitiveness in Thoreau would seem to run counter to the modern society at the time, whose mechanisms and essential qualities were already driven by competition, but I am convinced that these mechanisms and qualities were one of the fundamental reasons for “man’s failed existence on earth.”)

In Walden, Thoreau explains himself thus: “I found in myself, and still find, an instinct toward a higher, or, as it is named, spiritual life, as do most men, and another toward a primitive rank and savage one.” Thoreau’s anti-pragmatist or anti-materialist tendencies, his aesthetic appreciation of the world, and his poetic way of life had already been revealed in his Harvard senior thesis:

“This curious world we inhabit is more wonderful than convenient; more beautiful than it is useful; it is more to be admired and enjoyed than used.” The self-revealing phrases that Thoreau uses in the above passage can help us understand how in the course of his unusual life he “repudiated all regular modes of getting a living, and seems inclined to lead a sort of Indian life among civilised men” (Hawthorne). (What made it possible for Thoreau to have this kind of life was his declaration, “my greatest skill is to want but little.”

I think that if Thoreau is connected to contemporary environmental protection, it is mainly in his attitude of conscious anti-consumerism.

In 1839, twenty-two-year-old Thoreau and his brother John Jr built a boat called the “Musketaquid”, and sailed it for a week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, a journey that practically became his life’s central event. Walden Pond, the place where Thoreau lived and which gave him his immortal work, has become a symbol for Thoreau himself. On May 6, 1862, Thoreau passed away from pulmonary tuberculosis at the age of forty-five. At his funeral, Emerson painfully delivered a eulogy, saying with great emotion: “The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost.”

One could speak of Thoreau endlessly. In 1873, Thoreau’s friend Ellery Channing took the lead in writing about Thoreau, and since then innumerable books have been written about his life and works. Over the past two years, much has been published about Walden here in China, and articles about Thoreau (both praising and criticising him) also frequently appear. The letter I mentioned earlier expresses the following thought about this:

“When people discuss Thoreau, most of them simply regard him as an author who proposed a return to nature (which he himself tried for two years, and was ridiculed for not doing it thoroughly enough), but this does not accurately or comprehensively capture Thoreau. The essence of Thoreau is not in the initiation of a “return to nature,” but instead in his respect for “man’s perfection.”

If Thoreau is connected to contemporary environmental protection, it is in his attitude of conscious anti-consumerism

When Thoreau went to Walden Pond, it was not with the intention of becoming an eternal hermit who had “returned to nature”; rather, it was an expression of his respect for “man’s perfection.” This respect was anti-mechanistic and not limited to a station or a profession, and its essence lay in a person’s attitude toward the world: whether or not everything was directed toward a “purpose” or a “goal,” while ignoring or sacrificing all else. (This is the greatest reason I like Thoreau, rather than the ancient scholar Tao Yuanming).

While we understand Thoreau in terms of his “travelling and writing” life, he did not ignore the system of slavery in America at the time, and he never ceased fighting it (he wrote many articles about it; he refused to pay taxes because of it and was subsequently thrown in jail; he hid escaping slaves in his home and helped them flee on to Canada; he organised the rescue of the arrested abolitionist leader John Brown; and he sympathised with and aided the Native Americans). Given all this, we will agree with the evaluation given to Thoreau by his students at the Concord Academy: he was “a deeply compassionate man.”


Editor’s note: Born in the outskirts of Beijing in 1960, Ma Jianguo took the pen name “Wei An” from a poem written by Bei Dao, one of China’s foremost “free verse” poets. Influenced by writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Walt Whitman, as well as American essayist, poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Wei An was a committed environmentalist and vegetarian. Excerpts from his collection of meditations Life on Earth were translated into English by Thomas Moran in the 2012 Mãnoa compilation Sky Lanterns. Wei An died of liver cancer in 1999.

chinadialogue has secured authorisation from Wei An’s family members to republish his essay Thoreau and I. The English translation is from Paper Republic.

Translator: Eleanor Goodman

Eleanor Goodman is a research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. A poet in her own right, she has translated the work of important Chinese contemporary poets such as Wang Xiaoni and Zang Di, as well as the poetry of China’s migrant workers.

See the original version of this translated essay on Paper Republic and in Pathlight magazine’s Nature Issue (2015).

Article courtesy of China Dialogue

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