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The tyranny of the radical critics, part 1

October 30, 2013

Regular readers know that I’ve been reading mostly things by or about Leskov and Pisemskii lately, which means I keep hearing each of them had trouble publishing because they fell out with the radical critics in the 1860s. It’s true that Belinskii in the 1840s, Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov in the 1850s, Pisarev and Chernyshevskii in the 1860s, and Mikhailovskii for the rest of the nineteenth century were widely read and had influence. But could they banish authors, and entire ways of writing, from Russian letters? I find that idea less and less persuasive, not least because Leskov and Pisemskii kept finding places to publish, albeit sometimes in an obscure outlet like A. Gattsuk’s Gazette.

In the comments to the last post Languagehat forcefully takes the side of the argument I’ve been wanting to push back on.  LH concedes the radical critics weren’t forcing “social-realist” fiction on the Russian audience the way Stalin would later impose socialist realism, but says such fiction was “if not imposed, certainly heavily promoted and to the extent possible (critical reviews, choice of who to publish, etc.) enforced by Belinsky et al. There was no organized body of opinion promoting any other kind of literature, there were only a few lonely and largely disregarded voices like Apollon Grigoriev on the other side.”

This begs the question why there wasn’t an organized body of opinion promoting any other kind of literature. It’s not as if Apollon Grigor’ev was a hermit or in Siberia. He was pretty central to journals like The Muscovite and the Dostoevskii brothers’ Time and The Epoch, not only writing for them but trying to revive The Muscovite after it failed, attract other contributors, and promote his favorite writers like Ostrovskii. Other prominent people, like Druzhinin, tried to push literature onto more “aesthetic” and less “social” lines. The government was hardly using its powers to make sure Chernyshevskii or Pisarev dominated public life.

Sometimes the failure of the journals Grigor’ev was involved with, as well as the late 1850s/early 1860s incarnation of Library for Reading, is explained in terms of personalities. This editor was bad at business, that one drank too much. Meanwhile the radicals had Nekrasov — poet, brilliant editor, and ruthless businessman — guiding The Contemporary and later National Annals to dominance. But Pisarev’s group did pretty well with Blagosvetlov as editor. Belinskii was terrible at business and died at 36. Pisarev died at 27 and Dobroliubov at 25. It’s not as if one side was uniquely unlucky in the circumstances of key figures.

The “aesthetic” journals’ real problem was that literate Russians who could afford to subscribe wanted to read the radicals. This desire was not imprinted on them by the radical critics; instead the radical critics got their large readership because of an already existing hunger for what they had to offer. To paraphrase Alexander Dolinin (who LH also cites), what made Nekrasov a brilliant editor was that he could feel which way the wind was blowing before anyone else, and that’s why he sided with Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov when those seminarians came into conflict with Turgenev, Druzhinin, the young Lev Tolstoi, and other noble contributors to his journal, even though he was personally and socially closer to Turgenev et al.

A point in favor of readers’ demand, rather than critics’ manipulation of writers’ reputations, being the primary factor here is that after Nekrasov’s The Contemporary was closed down by the government in 1866, he was able to acquire another journal. The editor of National Annals could have kept running it with less competition, but both he and Nekrasov were sure it would be more profitable to let Nekrasov (with a figurehead official editor to placate the government) turn it into an outlet for remaining radicals (and, by then, populists) like Mikhailovskii, Eliseev, and Saltykov-Shchedrin. (Chernyshevskii was doing forced labor in a silver mine in Siberia.)

Moreover, there were successful, organized anti-radical bodies of opinion, like Katkov’s journal Russian Herald. It’s just that they weren’t pushing for apolitical art, but realist prose on social themes with different politics. This also found readers in Russia, as did translations of Western European authors who wrote realist prose on social themes, like Dickens, Sand, Balzac, or Gaskell.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2013 5:17 pm

    You make a compelling case. I guess I am reluctant to believe the reading public went so totally over to the social-realist side in the 1840s (after having gobbled up so many Sterne imitators, Scott imitators, and Hoffmann imitators for decades!) that they simply weren’t interested in alternatives for over a century, but the world for some reason refuses to arrange itself according to my preferences, and it may well be the case. I will keep this discussion in mind as I make my way through the century, and I thank you for making such an interesting and well-reasoned argument!

    • October 31, 2013 12:43 am

      I don’t know about “over a century” – to me it seems like readers wanted social-realist prose increasingly in the 1830s and 1840s; this taste dominated from the 1850s to the 1880s; but by the 1890s it was wearing out its welcome, and new kinds of fiction (and poetry) were becoming prominent in the 1910s and 1920s, when suddenly censorship got much worse and a particular kind of writing really was imposed from above in the 1930s.

      Reading your blog and writing this one has really made me aware of how different prose was early in the century and how poorly I know it, compared to the 1840s-1870s. I can’t wait to start reading some of your beloved Sterne and Hoffman imitators!

  2. between4walls permalink
    October 30, 2013 6:53 pm

    “Moreover, there were successful, organized anti-radical bodies of opinion, like Katkov’s journal Russian Herald. It’s just that they weren’t pushing for apolitical art, but realist prose on social themes with different politics.”

    Good point.

    I very much agree with your argument, though to reverse LH’s earlier point, that may be because I don’t really get the appeal or resent the decline of Sterne imitators and Hoffman imitators.

    Looking forward to Part 2 of this!

    • October 31, 2013 12:54 am

      I’m also someone who doesn’t resent the rise of the social novel, and that may bias my view of things. By the way, thanks for your earlier comments about the Nabokov/Chernyshevskii episode!

  3. October 31, 2013 1:05 pm

    Yes, I think it’s easy for fans of the Classic Russian Novel (TM) to take for granted the social-realist tradition and think it natural for it to dominate. It’s only when you start asking “Why was there no Russian Flaubert or Lewis Carroll?” or become a fan of earlier Russian writers from very different traditions that you start wondering.

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