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Letter-Man

May 15, 2012

Monument to the letter ё in Ulyankovsk (by Oblam, CC license)

The reign of Peter I: the emperor creates a city on a swamp out of nothing, organizes his servitors into a Table of Ranks, and carries out the last major orthographic reform before 1917.

1842: Gogol publishes “The Overcoat,” where Akakii Akakievich lives in that city, St. Petersburg; occupies an unimportant position in the Table of Ranks; and in fact is none other than a letter of the alphabet, specifically K or kako (188-89).

So argues Kathleen Scollins in a recent article. The narrator of “The Overcoat” calls attention to both the letter K and the word kak (which resembles the official name of the symbol К, kako) while talking about how Akakii Bashmachkin was named (188-89), and A.B.’s initials are not only the beginning of the alphabet, but could be read, again using letters’ names, as az — buki, or “I am the letters” (194). Akakii Akakievich has an “intimate, almost flirtatious relationship” with the letters of the alphabet that he copies in his job as a clerk, which makes the letters seem like people and him seem more like a letter (195). A draft of the story mentions several letters explicitly by their old names (Ж, М, С, Т), and another part of the story that does survive in the canonical text is filled with words that are grammatically related to the names of Ж, Т, and C (200-01).

The story appeared a few years after a flurry of articles polemicizing about an expected but never realized orthographic reform (189-94; here KS follows M. P. Alekseev and Mikhail Vaiskopf). From 1828 to 1832 several journals published appeals from superfluous letters petitioning for mercy and other such whimsy. A piece by Nadezhdin in 1836 even uses a metaphor, suggestive for “The Overcoat,” in which letters:language::clothing:people (201-02). The timing of Gogol’s story – published in 1842 but probably written earlier – seems to explain both the presence of the alphabet theme in the drafts and its partial removal in the final text. By 1842 the alphabet polemics were probably in that dead zone when they no longer seemed topical but did not yet seem an unknown piece of the past that it’s pleasant to unearth.

Akakii the letter kako is, in KS’s reading, not capable of meaning anything by himself, like the letter or preposition к as opposed to a word or prepositional phrase (201). After he loses the overcoat he challenges his superiors in the table of ranks and in the alphabet simulaneously: he progresses through the letter Ж (zhivete, “live”) through М (myslete, “think”) and on to T (tverdo, “firm”) and ultimately С (slovo, “word”), where he achieves the power to mean something, to be part of a word instead of just a letter, to be a verbal author instead of authored by everyone else in the story (203-04, 208).

See Kathleen Scollins, “Како сделан Акакий: Letter as Hero in ‘The Overcoat,’” The Russian Review 71 (2012): 187-208. Disclaimer: I’m a friend of the author’s.

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