He was nearly the first to read Dostoevsky’s maiden… – Сustom Literature essay


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The 1840s - that "marvellous decade," in Paul Annenkov's phrase - occupy a special place in the historical memory of the Russian intelligentsia. For most of its length the decade was a time of great philosophical, cultural, and literary beginnings, which then came to an abrupt ending in the so-called "epoch of censorship terror" commencing with the European revolutions of 1848 and continuing through Russia's losing involvement in the Crimean war of 1853-6. The second portion of the years from 1840 to 1855 transformed the entire period from a beginning to something more like a transition, from the great years of romanticism to the time of the Russian realists who would win for Russian literature a worldwide reputation. It was also a period of continuing transition from an age of poetry to an epoch when prose writing dominated the literary arena.

Philosophically, the early 1840s were a time when young Russians eagerly followed and endlessly discussed all the latest theories, emanating especially from Germany. Young people formally enrolled in universities found it much more interesting to spend their hours participating in small "circles" and all-night debates about the good, the true and the beautiful, than attending classes. That frame of mind is epitomized in Turgenev's vignette of an instance when he and Belinsky were summoned to dinner by-Belinsky's wife and the critic objected to being interrupted for a meal when the two of them had not yet settled the question of God's existence.

Belinsky was at the philosophical and literary center of the 1840s. At its inception he was a well-established literary critic whose personal charisma and literary acumen endowed him with an authority unparalleled in his generation, and indeed in the entire century. Belinsky decided how literary works were to be viewed: it was he in particular who decreed that the multi-faceted Gogol should be interpreted as a writer whose works were models of social commitment, and that "The Overcoat" of 1842 - the most important literary work of the period - should be regarded as an apotheosis of the "little man."


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008


That interpretation of this story played a major role in the development of the "natural school," a literary tendency which might be termed "prerealism," as a parallel to the "preromanticism" of some three decades earlier. The adepts of the natural school displayed a keen interest in literary sociology, examining the hitherto neglected "little men" of urban society such as clerks and janitors; before long they launched literary investigations of the peasantry as well. If during the romantic period the emphasis was on the genuinely or supposedly extraordinary individual, during the 1840s the focus shifted to the ordinary individual, or even the person who was rather less than ordinarily capable, like Gogol's Akaky Akakievich from "The Overcoat."

Belinsky also provided personal guidance to that superb group of prose writers who first came on the scene between 1840 and 1848. He was nearly the first to read Dostoevsky's maiden work, and sought to direct his early development thereafter, he was a close friend and literary adviser to Turgenev, and he welcomed Goncharov's first important work. He attacked Gogol sharply when the latter's Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends made his political views clear, and he found them unacceptable. Belinsky turned out to be very much at the right spot. He exercised his influence not only directly, as a pre-publication critic, but also through his extensive reviews of published works in the "thick journals" with which he was associated, and which were assuming an ever greater importance at this stage.

Belinsky's response to Gogol's Selected Passages in his famous "Letter" points up another aspect of the literary atmosphere of that time: the conviction that the genuine writer must almost invariably reject official government viewpoints. Writers were gradually gaining more and more of their livelihood from writing, and fewer of them from the government (if they were so employed, they tended to subsist at relatively low levels, and bore little policy-making responsibility). The man of letters must necessarily be a critic of his society from the left, Belinsky held in the 1840s, and if he were not in fact, then his work must be interpreted so as to make him so.

At the time of Belinsky's death in 1848, when he was just short of 37, the cultural atmosphere was changing drastically. Herzen had emigrated, Dostoevsky was soon to go into Siberian exile on political grounds, Gogol died in 1852 and Turgenev was punished for publishing an obituary article on him. Many writers experienced severe difficulties with the censorship over those years. But even this could not last forever, and with the death of Nicholas I in 1855 the repressed forces of Russian literature burst forth to create what is no doubt the finest quarter-century of achievement that any modern literature has ever witnessed.

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