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“A man from the provinces with a retrograde worldview, a tendency toward strange behavior, and a non-standard way of pronouncing Russian…”

June 11, 2020

1846 daguerreotype of Pisemskii (from Mogilianskii’s book)

I’m reading a 1991 book on Pisemskii by Aleksandr Mogilianskii (1909–2001), who was involved in publishing Pisemskii’s letters back in 1936. Even though the book came out in the last moments of the Soviet Union, it has a Soviet framing: Lenin is cited, and much attention is paid to the reasons why (Soviet favorite) Dobroliubov’s disapproval of Pisemskii was all a misunderstanding, and Pisemskii was actually a good progressive writer in many respects. Pisemskii’s reputation as a reactionary meant that he had to be justified or apologized for in Soviet literary criticism; this late perestroika book calls itself “the first Soviet monograph” about him (copyright page).

The disputes among the clique of St. Petersburg journal editors and contributors in the mid-19th century really did involve lots of personal conflict on top of philosophical differences. According to Mogilianskii, Pisemskii became a strong opponent of serfdom only around 1856, and even after that, unlike Dobroliubov, he didn’t think writers should idealize the peasantry. But the real problem was that he alienated people in the capital by coming across as a tactless provincial drunk who ignored the etiquette of proper polemics and went after the personal lives of his opponents or lambasted the recently dead (13 and passim).

Here’s a timeline of the events around Pisemskii’s falling out with the radical critics of The Contemporary and just about everyone else:

1840: Pisemskii begins writing at the age of nineteen (10).

1841: A manuscript called “The Iron Ring” (Чугунное кольцо) is approved for publication with the help of Iu. N. Bartenev, but is never published and is now lost (10).

1848: Pisemskii marries Ekaterina Svin’ina, the daughter of the founder of National Annals. He begins publishing fiction.

1850: With the help of Ostrovskii, Grigor’ev, and the other “young editors” of The Muscovite, Pisemskii becomes a successful and popular writer (13).

1853: During the summer, Pisemskii goes to St. Petersburg and meets Nekrasov and Panaev, co-editors of The Contemporary (13).

1854: Pisemskii moves to St. Petersburg. Here’s how his new literary acquaintances saw him:

Pisemskii made a strange impression on the St. Petersburg literary set. A man from the provinces with a retrograde worldview, a tendency toward strange behavior, and a non-standard way of pronouncing Russian, he also manifested a provoking licentiousness, especially when intoxicated. After seeing Pisemskii in such a condition one time—a rather unusual condition according to the customs of St. Petersburg—the young Dobroliubov, who had once been captivated by [Pisemskii’s] novel A Rich Fiancé [Богатый жених, 1851–52], came to practically hate him.

Писемский производил на петербургских литераторов странное впечатление. Провинциал с отсталым мировоззрением, с необычным поведением и нелитературным произношением, он к тому же проявлял какую-то вызывающую распущенность, особенно в состоянии опьянения. Увидев однажды Писемского в таком не совсем обычном для петербургских нравов виде, молодой Добролюбов, некогда покоренный романом “Богатый жених”, чуть ли не возненавидел его. (13)

1856: Government service takes Pisemskii to the Caspian Sea. He meets the exiled Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. He reads articles by Chernyshevskii and Gertsen. Around this time his worldview changes significantly, and he becomes a fervent opponent of serfdom (14).

1857: Pisemskii starts working closely with Druzhinin at Library for Reading, where he heads the literature section. Druzhinin remains in charge of the criticism section, but Pisemskii has some influence on it (14).

1859–60: Writing in The Contemporary, Dobroliubov criticizes Pisemskii’s A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) and A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859). Dobroliubov considers the peasant protagonist of Pisemskii’s A Bitter Fate a “slander against the Russian people [narod]” (16), but he later praises the main character of Marko Vovchok’s short story “Masha” (Маша, 1859), a peasant woman who refused to perform seigneurial labor (16).

late 1860: Pisemskii becomes the editor-in-chief of Library for Reading.

early 1861: Pisemskii writes a feuilleton where he makes fun of the ménage-à-trois of Nekrasov, Panaeva, and Panaev (cf. this Shcherbina epigram from a year later); they don’t respond, but he’s made some enemies at The Contemporary (15).

1861 (April): Pisemskii responds to Dobroliubov’s praise of Vovchok with an piece where he criticized the exact aspects of Vovchok’s peasant characters that Dobroliubov liked. Pisemskii focused on Vovchok’s story “A Dashing Man” (Лихой человек, 1861). Dostoevskii attacked Vovchok’s “Masha” and Dobroliubov’s article praising it at almost the same time and was harsher than Pisemskii, with Dostoevskii’s piece appearing after Pisemskii’s was written but before it was published (16).

1861 (October): Dobroliubov’s last published piece doesn’t respond to Pisemskii’s article from April, but gives an overall negative assessment of Pisemskii’s works and worldview (16).

1861 (November): Dobroliubov dies.

1861 (December): Chernyshevskii publishes an obituary of Dobroliubov in The Contemporary where he says Dobroliubov was at the head of Russian literature for the previous four years (16).

1862 (January): Pisemskii writes a feuilleton under the pseudonym “Nikita Bezrylov” in Library for Reading, where he again mocks Panaev, Panaeva, and Nekrasov and alludes to the Ogarev affair, a scandal in which Panaeva was accused of taking money that belonged by rights to Gertsen’s friend Ogarev’s wife (17). The feuilleton becomes infamous, and Pisemskii’s enemies will refer to him as Nikita Bezrylov for years.

1862 (January/February): Pisemskii (with Zarin, now the editor of the criticism section) publishes an article in Library for Reading polemicizing with Chernyshevskii’s obituary of Dobroliubov, saying the late Dobroliubov wasn’t even in Russian literature’s top three, much less at its head, and never said anything original, though in the same article Pisemskii claimed he was sympathetic to the political line of The Contemporary (17).

1862 (February 2): Nekrasov and Panaev use their contacts at The Spark to have an piece published attacking Pisemskii and revealing him as the real person behind “Nikita Bezrylov” (17–18).

1862 (March): Chernyshevskii writes an article in The Contemporary responding to Pisemskii’s response to Chernyshevskii’s obituary of Dobroliubov (17). In Library for Reading Zarin ferociously attacks Chernyshevskii’s article, going so far as to mock Chernyshevskii’s public reminiscences of his dead friend and colleague (18).

Around this time Pisemskii in Library for Reading says The Spark has a “sleazy nature” (подлая натуришка). Kurochkin and Stepanov, editors of The Spark, demand that Pisemskii either retract this or fight a duel. He refuses both options publicly (18).

1862 (April): Pisemskii leaves Russia, intending to go to London and seek the sympathy of Gertsen and Ogarev. They, however, are unfavorably disposed toward him, thinking he supported serfdom (they blamed him for views expressed by his former co-editor Druzhinin, though from correspondence between Pisemskii and Turgenev, it is now clear that Pisemskii disagreed with Druzhinin behind the scenes, 18).

1862 (July): Pisarev of The Russian Word and Chernyshevskii of The Contemporary are arrested (18). Pisemskii works with D. F. Shcheglov on an article that would defend Chernyshevskii and Gertsen and attack Katkov (who had been attacking Chernyshevskii and Gertsen); at this same time he is starting to write Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863).

Pisemskii wanted Troubled Seas to clear things up between him and the radical critics, but it did the opposite. Varfolomei Zaitsev of The Russian Word would write an article on Pisemskii with the title “Troubled Novelist” (Взбаламученный романист, 1863). For some reason Pisemskii published part of the serialized novel using the pseudonym Iona the Cynic, who was also a negative character in the novel. From this time on, Pisemskii’s enemies call him Iona the Cynic as well as Nikita Bezrylov (19, 19n8).

1863: Gertsen calls Pisemskii a “shady dealer” (аферист) in print; Pisemskii nonetheless continues to have an entirely favorable view of Gertsen (18).

1863–summer 1864: No longer welcome to publish in the moderate and radical St. Petersburg journals, Pisemskii joins the editorial board of Katkov’s Russian Herald (20).

1864: A falling out with Katkov means Pisemskii can no longer publish at the conservative Russian Herald either, where Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Turgenev, and Leskov all continue placing their fiction (20).

Several years ago I was thinking about this with a lot less detail. It’s interesting to read about Dobroliubov’s disgust at Pisemskii’s drunkenness, which reminds me of Tolstoi not being able to stand the sound of Chernyshevskii’s voice.

See chapter 1, “Жизнь и личность писателя [The Writer’s Life and Personality],” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 9–23.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 11, 2020 8:15 am

    I continue to deprecate the influence of critics like Chernyshevskii and Dobroliubov and wish they’d gone into another line of work.

    • June 11, 2020 11:12 am

      I’d be interested in seeing the counterfactual where fate let them stay on the scene long enough that they weren’t the angry young generation anymore.

  2. June 11, 2020 6:35 pm

    Dobrolyubov’s “a slander against the Russian people” reminds me of a silly response to Playboy of the Western World, that it slandered Irish womanhood. Nevertheless, wow, Pisemsky went out of his way to alienate people, what with attacking obituaries and publicizing people’s personal lives. Some writers should stick to fiction.

    • June 11, 2020 9:03 pm

      That’s an interesting comparison! I wonder when exactly people respond to a negative fictional character who belongs to a certain social group as (offensively) representative of that whole group. I imagine a lot of us are prone to that kind of thinking when a writer we don’t like gives an unflattering portrayal of someone from a group we belong to or are sympathetic to (or feel protective of?), but there’s presumably more to it than that.

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