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“Is it to be wondered that, after this nation had borne the yoke for centuries… its gentle character should have sunk into the artful, cruel indolence of the slave?”

April 22, 2015

I just started Dale Peterson’s Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul. Its premise is that the Europeans of the Enlightenment created a supposedly scientific classification that excluded black people and Slavs from the civilized races, and in response to this exclusion Russians and African Americans each made “the counterclaim of an ethnic essence” (4-6). Their group was not inferior, primitive, unworthy of attention. Instead it had some special quality that no one else had. This special quality, this “ethnic essence,” is the “soul” of the title.

Coming to the book I had assumed the parallel was built on the pre-1860s experience of slavery common to African Americans and Russian peasants and thought Peterson would look at pairs of authors similarly situated on the master-slave scale. Anti-slavery Russian noblemen (like Turgenev) might resemble white abolitionists (like Stowe). Ex-slaves and the descendants of slaves, like Chekhov and Chesnutt, might interpret their present through similar ideas about the pre-emancipation past. Some, like Chernyshevskii, wouldn’t be easy to categorize.

But that isn’t what Peterson does in his juxtapositions. In each case he takes an African American author and a Russian author who is as often as not from a landowning, slaveholding family. Petr Chaadaev and Alexander Crummell represent “Eurocentric and ‘civilizationist’” movements (7). Ivan Kireevskii and W. E. B. Du Bois show “the beginnings of what may truly be described as cultural nationalism” (7-8). By “reproduc[ing] the semantic gaps and contested meanings present in numerous dramatized exchanges between a literate master and an illiterate peasantry,” Turgenev and Chesnutt cleverly depict “the deliberate evasiveness of an oral peasant culture confronting the blindness and insights of Western literacy,” as does, in a different way, Zora Neale Hurston (8). Dostoevskii and James Weldon Johnson show us “self-divided bicultural characters who represent the paradoxical mentality of Westernized Russians and hyphenated African-Americans” (8-9). Maksim Gor’kii and Richard Wright “rejected populism and nationalism and sought instead to attach their people to a new secular universalism” (10). The Eurasianist movement and the “New Negro” movement marked a turn toward cosmopolitanism or multiculturalism, but with a “residual ethnocentrism — namely, the idea that Russians or African Americans were inherently more synthetic or more comprehensively multicultural than other modern nationalities” (10-11). In the late twentieth century, Valentin Rasputin and Gloria Naylor “construct an island refuge of ethnic ‘soul’ and relate its dramatic encounter with a ‘mainstream’ culture that threatens to inundate it” (11-12).

At first I wondered if the inclusion of Russian slaveholders was pragmatic, a decision made so Lomonosov and Chekhov wouldn’t have to stand for pre–twentieth century Russian culture. But Peterson has different divisions in mind. He’s thinking about which groups were left out in various European discourses about whose culture counts, and within those groups he contrasts the elite to a larger mass the elite feels bound to speak for (or at least about):

It matters that the cultural construction of Russian and black “soul” has not been an enterprise of the folk masses but of a self-consciously literate class obligated by racial ties to identify with a vast population of illiterate and enslaved bondsmen. The literature actually written by the small number of educated black slaves and Russian serfs (who were even fewer in a peasant culture whose religion was rooted in Orthodox liturgy rather than scriptural warrant) was devoted to the abolition of cultural inequality and not to the preservation of cultural difference. It has been, for understandable reasons, the deracinated or socially advantaged brothers and sisters of the folk who have most felt the imperative to define the irreducible particularity of a nationality that had been denied any historic significance of its own. (9-10)

In this sense Turgenev and Chesnutt are not looking at “the people” from opposite sides of the divide, but each as an elite, literate member of a marginalized nationality.

I’m looking forward to reading the next eight chapters, plus an epilogue on the interest scholars like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Houston Baker Jr. have had in Bakhtin (3, 186-200). The full citation for the book is Dale E. Peterson, Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). The title of the post is from a quotation by Peterson of something Johann Gottfried von Herder wrote about Russians in 1791. I’m coming to Peterson’s book via Julie de Sherbinin and John MacKay.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2015 8:47 am

    Huh. Interesting stuff, and I’ll be looking forward to your further reports on the book (since I’m pretty sure I won’t get around to reading it myself). Offhand, I would have said that it would have made a better subject for an article than a book, but I guess Peterson has dug up a lot more material than I would have expected.

    • April 23, 2015 9:40 am

      Yeah, if being excluded from European “civilization” led to the response of asserting an ethnic essence in both cultures, and that was all, that would be a point worth making but maybe not a whole book. But I think Peterson is saying that, after this first response, there were a bunch of similar specific rhetorical moves and reactions and counterreactions in more or less the same order over several generations. I’m also curious to see how the details of the argument play out.

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