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Mogilianskii on Men of the Forties

July 1, 2020

Men of the Forties definitely seemed uneven when I read it (the ending is ideologically problematic for a Soviet critic trying to reclaim Pisemskii, but aesthetically unfortunate for any reader), but it was one of the things I’ve enjoyed reading the most, and I posted about it many times here. Here is a summary of Mogilianskii’s half-chapter on it, with links to some of my old posts.


Pisemskii’s last four long novels are linked to his first two and to each other

Pisemskii’s last four novels don’t show any of the signs of hasty execution that can be found in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) (122). All four are connected to each other, and at the same time they all point back to A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) and Troubled Seas (122). The late 1860s were Pisemskii’s first chance to plan out a whole series of long novels, which explains the ties among his last four; one thing that links them is their historicism, including the presence of named historical figures as important characters of each (122).

There is a clear link between the main characters of Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) and A Thousand Souls on obvious autobiographical ground (122). Much is said about A Thousand Souls in Men of the Forties, including the formula “one cannot serve honestly in Russia!” (в России нельзя честно служить!), which the censor wouldn’t let Pisemskii make so explicit in A Thousand Souls, and which is important for The Masons (Масоны, 1880) and other works as well (122). Men of the Forties presents government service as the only path available in Russia, which makes its vicious cycle impossible to avoid (122–23). In another part of Men of the Forties it becomes clear that there is a way out: one must cast off that which oppresses (123). Thus Kalinovich’s formula—which Goncharov, acting as censor, removed from A Thousand Souls—found its way into Men of the Forties, albeit in weakened form (123). Men of the Forties has several other lines about how oppressive the Russian government is and how Russian civil servants turn the people (narod) against them through their actions (123).

Pavel Vikhrov as both autobiographical and based on Saltykov-Shchedrin

Men of the Forties, like A Thousand Souls, positively portrayed socialist ideas (123). The main character, Pavel Vikhrov, was partially based on Saltykov-Shchedrin and partially on Pisemskii himself; note the focus on Vikhrov, a writer, being exiled, just as Saltykov-Shchedrin was exiled to Viatka in 1848 (123).

Men of the Forties is the most expansive of Pisemskii’s works, drawing on three decades of material and combining socio-historical, sociological, philosophical, and political-journalistic approaches (123). For all that the reader remains interested in the development of the main character Vikhrov and his philosophy of life; the novel is similar to Tolstoi’s unfinished tetralogy, Boborykin’s On the Road! (В путь-дорогу!, 1862), and similar works all the way to Gor’kii’s The Life of Klim Samgin (Жизнь Клима Самгина, 1927) (123).

Pisemskii’s choice of journal

While working on Men of the Forties, the only journal Pisemskii was connected to was Dr. M. Khan’s World Labor (Всемирный труд), and moreover he couldn’t imagine a journal that would be suitable for his new novel (123–24). The journal Dawn (Заря) of the young historian V. V. Kashpirev seemed relatively tolerable, though he would become disillusioned with it later (124). He did agree to take into account the desires of its editorial staff in 1868 (124). Pisemskii’s discussions and correspondence with N. N. Strakhov (formerly associated with the Dostoevskii brothers’ Time and Epoch), with Kashpirev, and with others associated with Dawn make analyzing the connection between the ideological content of the novel and the limitations imposed on Pisemskii by the circumstances of its publication a difficult task (123–24).

Vikhrov’s father and Pisemskii’s critique of serfdom

We can’t give Men of the Forties the space it deserves, but let’s still try to show its place in the history of the novel and its most distinctive qualities (124).

If we compare Pisemskii’s father as shown in the story “The Father” (Батька, 1862) to the father of Pavel Vikhrov in Men of the Forties, we find that Pisemskii has continued down the road of being merciless in his writing both to himself and to those closest to him (124). The abuses of serfdom are shown largely through Mikhail Polievktovich Vikhrov, who doesn’t give his house or field slaves enough to eat (124). [In my memory of the novel, contra Mogilianskii, the father is presented as kind but misguided, and the serfs themselves seem confused by the son’s efforts to get them more and better food to eat; serfdom is unquestionably treated as awful, but individual slaveholders vary, and Mikhail Vikhrov is at the less objectionable paternalistic end—EM.] Mikhail Vikhrov defends his practices by saying that other landowners treat their serfs worse, but he is accused of other crimes too (124). The treatment of Mikhail Vikhrov is typical of the tone of the novel as a whole, which is free of idealization, quite naturalistic, and in many ways even darker than Troubled Seas (124).

George Sand and free love

Vikhrov’s ideas about free love in a George Sand vein are shown through his relationship with Kleopatra Fateeva, a young married woman [see these 2013 posts: on Vikhrov and Sand and on characters named Cleopatra] (124–25). The ups and downs of their relationship take up the first half of the novel and were clearly a big part of the author’s plan; Fateeva’s shallowness and lack of education are contrasted to her friend Marie, who is even more important (125). Marie is perfect but unattainable, drawing Vikhrov onward like a mirage; Fateeva is so attainable that Vikhrov becomes sated and even disgusted with her (125).

Gertsen once said “negatively and positively, a woman’s entire education (воспитание) remains her sexual education (воспитание половых отношений); all the rest of her life revolves around that” [the immediate context seems to be a critique of the “Christian teaching” where sex is supposed to be an unthinkable sin for a teenage girl that pivots to be the single purpose of her life as soon as she is on the marriage market]; Skabichevskii reports that Pisemskii liked to apply this idea to people in general, not just women, and frequently quoted it (125).

Fateeva is Pisemskii’s only character of this type and is given a detailed, well-founded portrayal (125). Fateeva makes things worse in the novel; Vikhrov’s affair with his maid Grusha “leaves a more optimistic and morally purifying impression in this respect” (125). His affair with Grusha doesn’t stop Vikhrov from considering marrying Iuliia Zakharevskaia, though in the end she is the only female character he has a affair with where they don’t actually have sex (125). The circle of the main character’s erotic meanderings is closed in a brothel (125). [I’m positive Vikhrov gets together with Marie at the end, and she stops having sex with her husband out of loyalty to Vikhrov, though?—EM.]

Old Believers and other peasants

In his travels Vikhrov meets a wide variety of people, including Old Believers (125). Gertsen praised the Old Believers for their unyielding opposition to the regime, and Pisemskii’s novel puts Gertsen’s ideas into artistic form (125). A key scene takes up two chapters in part 4: Vikhrov, as part of his government service, supervises the dismantling of an Old Believer church, an incident that N. N. Vinogradov proved was autobiographical (125–26). Vikhrov dismantles the church, and the narrator remarks on his similarity to his father, but he also writes about it to Marie, saying that he finds the Old Belief “something very much of the people” (126). Pisemskii’s views on Old Believers are closest to Gertsen’s in the part of Men of the Forties where the Schism is viewed as a form of social and anti-government protest [note the conversation between Vikhrov and his Ukrainian math teacherEM], including armed resistance by Old Believers against military units sent to crush them (126). N. N. Skatov found evidence in a Kostroma archive of a real such uprising in 1830 [the year Pisemskii turned 9—EM] and asserted that Pisemskii’s story corresponded to historical fact (126).

The people (narod) are shown in the novel not just through the Old Believers, but also through the story of a peasant woman who, in order to escape from a forced marriage, tries to get exiled to Siberia with a band of male robbers for a crime she didn’t commit (126). This peasant woman makes a better impression on the reader than Kleopatra Fateeva does (126). [See this 2013 post on the peasant woman, Fateeva, and the critic Mariia Tsebrikova’s interpretation of both in 1870.]

A reactionary ending can’t obscure the rest of the novel

For reasons including censorship and an effort to please Kashpirev, Strakhov, Danilevskii, and the other members of the editorial board of Dawn, Pisesmkii gave Men of the Forties an artificial ending and made the whole novel seem superficially well-behaved in a political sense (127). But as shown above, the actual content of the novel is not nearly so well-behaved, and the ending can’t hide the novel’s enormous sociohistorical importance (127). [See this 2013 post on the ending of the novel, which also draws on Mogilianskii.]

Contemporary critical reaction (Shelgunov, Tsebrikova)

Democratic critics were comparatively favorably disposed to Men of the Forties, but the hangover from the Nikita Bezrylov affair kept them from understanding it correctly (127).

N. V. Shelgunov tried hard to take a historical approach and give the novel its due in his very long article “Men of the Forties and the Sixties,” and he managed to say much that was correct and important for understanding Pisemskii, but on the whole the article was uncommonly contradictory and inconsistent (127). Shelgunov’s remarks on Pisemskii’s brand of realism and its connection to Gogol are interesting: he says Pisemskii “seems to want to kill every humane feeling in the reader and to say ‘is it worth considering these beasts as human and loving them?’” and Pisemskii’s realism is “a kind of heartless, merciless, inquisitionist force that repels the reader so much that the reader feels a complete absence of any social or personal connection to the author from the first lines of any of his works”; previous critics had incorrectly said Pisemskii and Gogol belonged to the same school, but Gogol’s humor is, in Shelgunov’s opinion, much more humane (127). Mogilianskii says that Shelgunov’s description is harsh but hard to argue with and agrees there is no connection between Gogol’s humor and Pisemskii, though he warns that Gogol should not be reduced to mere humor, and characters like Gogol’s Pliushkin are drawn with a bit of an inquisitionist approach too (127). Shelgunov approves of Pisemskii’s depictions of peasants and doesn’t feel that Pisemskii slandered the young generation in Troubled Seas, but Shelgunov nevertheless lumps Pisemskii in with Turgenev and Goncharov as “the deceased,” a phenomenon whose time has passed (127).

Tsebrikova’s article “A Humanitarian Champion of Women’s Rights (On Mr. Pisemskii’s Novel Men of the Forties)” (1870) is, like Shelgunov’s, contradictory and unclear (128). She takes as her point of departure the idea that an author is responsible “for every word and action of a character of his,” and so Pisemskii is already to blame for the fact that Fateeva is a “tramp” (гулящая бабенка) (128). Given that Tsebrikova considers Dostoevskii’s The Idiot “a delirious novel” and calls Boborykin a Russian Ponson du Terrail, her opinion of Pisemskii is relatively positive (128). [Here, again, is that 2013 post on Tsebrikova’s article.]

Representative of right-wing thought is Orest Miller, who was close to the Slavophiles, and he is considerably more hostile to Pisemskii (128). In his lectures that were given in 1872 and published in 1874, he calls Men of the Forties Pisemskii’s weakest novel (128). This is similar to the hostility that even the mention of Pisemskii’s name brought out in Strakhov after Pisemskii published Men of the Forties in Dawn (128).

See chapter 9, “Романы конца 60-х и начала 70-х годов [The Novels of the Late 1860s and Early 1870s]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 122–135.

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