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Men or People of the Forties?

July 3, 2013

The end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) has a letter where George, after escaping to Canada and spending four years at a French university, lays out his dreams: “the desire and yearning of my soul is for an African nationality,” which he can find not in Haiti but in the Republic of Liberia, where “our nation shall roll the tide of civilization and Christianity along [Africa’s] shores, and plant there mighty republics, that, growing with the rapidity of tropical vegetation, shall be for all coming ages.” The previous 450 pages were not without didactic statements of the author’s Christian abolitionist program, but this letter feels tacked on and aesthetically irksome in a way most of the novel doesn’t.

The second-to-last chapter (5.17) of Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) felt like this. Vikhrov goes on and on about what makes the Russian people great (common sense, rationality, the ability to sing together like a choir without soloists), with Mari chiming in, “I think it’s like that for all young nations.” A. P. Mogilianskii says this was Pisemskii trying to please the neo-Slavophile editor of Dawn (Заря), and even produces a letter from the author to Strakhov asking what ideological points he should work in to fit the journal’s line.

I was afraid the ending would ruin the novel for me, but the over-the-top last chapter was better than the one before it. Vikhrov invites his friends and acquaintances to a feast where his speech and their toasts celebrate the men of the forties. Alexander II is praised for being a man of the forties in his way. Vikhrov singles out all the guests for their contributions to progress: one is a senior bureaucrat who worked on emancipation policy, another a lawyer who helped with judicial reforms, his brother an engineer building railroads, Vikhrov himself an anti-slavery writer, and so on. They all have flaws (ambition, superficiality of thought, profiteering) except a certain Mar’enovskii, one of Vikhrov’s friends from Moscow University in the 1840s who emerges as a positive character for the 1860s, a capable, intelligent, modest bureaucrat who brings Moscow goodness to the insincere politicians of St. Petersburg, though they and the climate ruin his health. The Crimean War hero character refused to come since he doesn’t much like the reforms, but he and his fellow heroes are toasted in absentia.

This last scene made me feel better about translating the title as Men of the Forties, following Charles A. Moser (who uses Men of the 1840’s) but not R. E. Steussy (People of the Forties). The word человек ‘person’ (plural люди) is a problem, since it’s used where nineteenth-century Anglophones used ‘person,’ ‘man,’ and ‘Man,’ while мужчина ‘man’ is rarer than English ‘man.’ If you say People of the Forties it includes Mari Eismond, Kleopatra Fateeva, and Anna Ivanovna (though Iuliia Zakharevskaia/Zhivina and Grusha might be people of the sixties). Men of the Forties leaves them out. A final chapter with toasts to люди сороковых годов enumerating present and absent men for doing public-sphere male things is about as good a reason to use Men instead of People as I’m likely to find.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 3, 2013 9:13 am

    Yes, the use of человек/люди implying the male gender in Russian takes getting used to for anglophones who have developed automatic responses to the comparable-but-different use of man/men in English. I agree that in this case Men of the Forties is the best translation.

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