In the course of a literary career spanning about 35 years Fedor Dostoevskii produced over 50 separate essays in addition to a large number of unsigned editorial notes and longer essayistic works—particularly the travelogue Zimnie zametki o letnikh vpechatleniiakh (1863; Winter Notes on Summer Impressions) and the periodical miscellany Dnevnik Pisatelia (1873–81; A Writer’s Diary), which itself consists of over 200 essay entries. The genre of these essays has its roots in the newspaper feuilleton but builds in other directions to include review essays, editorial notes, testimony, travel account, diary, and aesthetic, social, and political polemic. Dostoevskii’s essays range over a large number of topics relating to public life: cultural events of current interest, contemporary social and political issues, current aesthetic debates in which the author himself participates, and questions of national identity, as well as questions of historical interest such as Dostoevskii’s participation in the “radical” Petrashevskii reading circle.
The topics and genres of Dostoevskii’s essay writing emerge from two different traditions. In spirit they are particularly Russian, belonging to and helping to shape the tone of Russian social polemics of the 1860s. In form they are strongly influenced by the French popular news feuilleton. The polyphonic quality of Dostoevskii’s journalism reveals it to be the direct heir to the polemics between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles of the generation of the 1840s concerning the fate and national character of Russia. The Westernizers believed that the secularization and modernization of Russia by Peter the Great had been for the best, bringing Russia from a condition of ahistorical stagnation into the family of nations, while the Slavophiles argued that Peter had badly fragmented Russian society and had buried age-old Russian social and cultural values.
Dostoevskii was strongly influenced by such leading Westernizing writers as the political thinker Aleksandr Herzen and the literary critic Vissarion Belinskii. Dostoevskii’s longer works, especially Winter Notes on Summer Impressions and A Writer’s Diary, respond to Herzen’s S togo berega (pub. in German, 1850, in Russian, 1855; From the Other Shore), a brilliant philosophical dialogue about the meaning of history and historical change. This influence is felt both in the author’s tendency to carry on an imagined argument with his readers and in his ongoing meditations about the possible paths of change in Russia and Europe. Belinskii’s presence is felt in Dostoevskii’s focus on arousing and shaping the social conscience of his readers. In the 1840s Dostoevskii was one of four or five promising young writers (among them, Ivan Goncharov, Nikolai Nekrasov, and Ivan Turgenev) who were practitioners of the new French fashion of the feuilleton. Assuming the point of view of the flâneur—or the dreamy young wanderer strolling through St. Petersburg’s streets—Dostoevskii in his earliest work, “Peterburgskaia letopis’” (1847; “A Petersburg Chronicle”), plays with the lighthearted reportage of current cultural events, typical of the feuilleton. He uses parody of this form as a way to introduce more serious ethical and aesthetic issues, at times dealing with questions about censorship or the suffering of the poor or, in other instances, arguing about the true social function of art.
After a hiatus of 13 years spent in prison, labor camp, and in exile in the army, all for his participation in the radical Petrashevskii reading group, Dostoevskii developed longer genres building partly from the feuilleton. More weighty essays of the early 1860s, for example, “G. -bov i vopros ob iskusstve” (1861; “Mr. -bov and the Question of Art”), form an important part of the debate between moderates and radical utilitarians (Nikolai Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Dobroliubov, Dmitrii Pisarev). Dostoevskii defends a middle ground between pure aestheticism and a social utilitarian aesthetic, arguing that great art must have liberty to develop its own forms, themes, and techniques, but that great art is always of contemporary interest and always addresses central social concerns.
Dostoevskii once characterized himself as a writer “possessed of a nostalgia for the current moment.” Indeed, his essay writing always focuses attention on two things: the voices of the writer and his interlocutors and the events of the present moment. Selfhood, which is the thematic core of Dostoevskii’s essays, takes shape through discussion and polemic, through forming a position, and through keeping one’s thinking oriented toward the ever-evolving present. Thus, his essay writing is essential to understanding the person and the writer. There is a creative symbiosis between his essays and the great novels written after his incarceration; the essays provide the polemical material for the fictional work. What Mikhail Bakhtin calls the “polyphonic” quality of Dostoevskii’s art, the counterpoint of a number of ideologically distinct voices within one work, is directly related to his experience as an essayist and polemicist. Thus, the travel notes Winter Notes on Summer Impressions have been shown to interact substantially with the later Zapiski iz podpol’ia (1864; Notes from the Underground). A Writer’s Diary was an important laboratory for the generic experiments and polemical complexities of Brat’ia Karamazovy (1880; The Brothers Karamazov).
Dostoevskii’s impact on later essay writing, both philosophical and literary-critical, is overwhelming. “Rech’ o Pushkine” (1880; Pushkin speech) announced a Russian national culture which had the power to redeem a moribund Western European spirit. The Russian symbolists, particularly Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, responded in force.
Dostoevskii’s writing inspired a generation of major religious thinkers, including Nikolai Berdiaev, Lev Shestov, and Semion Frank. Probably the clearest example of the influence of his essay writing can be seen in the writings of one of Russia’s most brilliant if problematic essayists, Vasilii Rozanov, whose greatest works emerge directly from A Writer’s Diary.
Born 30 October 1821 in Moscow. Studied at schools in Moscow; Army Chief Engineering Academy, St. Petersburg, 1838–43, then brief military service, until 1844.
Translated Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, 1844; began writing fiction. Joined the Petrashevskii circle, 1847–49: group arrested in 1849 for reading a banned letter by Vissarion Belinskii; mock execution arranged by Tsar Nicholas I: after reprieve, sentenced to four years’ hard labor, 1850–54, then exiled as a soldier, 1854–59; suffered worsening epilepsy while in prison and in exile. Married Maria Dmitrievna Isaeva, 1857 (died, 1864): one stepson. Cofounder, with his brother, Vremia (Time), 1861–63, and Epokha (Epoch), 1864–65; took on the debts of his brother’s and wife’s families when they died, 1864. Had a difficult affair with Apollinaria Suslova, and began gambling, 1865–66. Married Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, 1867: two daughters (one died) and two sons (one died). Lived in Western Europe, partly to escape debts, 1867–71. Editor, Grazhdanin (The citizen), 1873–78, and Dnevnik Pisatelia, 1876–77 (also major contributor, 1873–81). Visited Germany, usually Ems, for treatment of emphysema. Died (of emphysema) in St. Petersburg, 28 January 1881.
Essays and Related Prose
Zimnie zametki o letnikh vpechatleniiakh, 1863; as Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, translated by R.Renfield, 1954, Kyril FitzLyon, 1954, and D.Patterson, 1988 Dnevnik Pisatelia, 1873–81; as The Diary of a Writer and as A Writer’s Diary 1873– 1876, translated by Boris Leo Brasol, 2 vols., 1949, and by Kenneth Lantz, 2 vols., 1993–94
Fel’etony sorokovykh godov: Zhurnal’naia i gazetnaia proza I.A. Goncharova, F.M.Dostoevskogo, i drugikh (Feuilletons of the 1840s: the journal and newspaper prose of I.A. Goncharov, F. M.Dostoevskii, and others), edited by Iu. G.Oksman, 1930
Occasional Writings, edited and translated by David Magarshack, 1963
Ob iskusstve (Of art), 1973
Iskaniia i razmyshleniia (Quests and thoughts), 1983
O russkoi literature (On Russian literature), 1987
Other writings: four novels (Prestuplenie i nakazanie [Crime and Punishment], 1867;
Idiot [The Idiot], 1869; Besy [The Possessed], 1872; Brat’ia Karamazovy [The Brothers Karamazov], 1880), four novellas, short stories, the prose work Zapiski iz podpol’ia (1864; Notes from the Underground), and memoirs.
Collected works editions: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, edited by G. M.Fridlender and others, 30 vols., 1972–90; Sobranie sochinenii, 15 vols., 1988.
Belkin, A.A., A.S.Dolinin, and V.V.Kozhinov, editors, Dostoevskii: Bibliografiia proizvedenii Dostoevskogo i literatury o nem 1917–65, Moscow: Kniga, 1968
Dostoevskii: Materialy i issledovaniia, Leningrad: Nauka, 1974–(in progress)
Grossman, Leonid Petrovich, Seminarii po Dostoevskomu: Materialy, bibliografiia I kommentarii, Moscow: Gosizdat, 1922.
Leatherbarrow, W.J., Fedor Dostoevsky: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1990
Chances, Ellen, The Ideology of Pochvennichestvo in Dostoevsky’s Thick Journals “Vremja” and “Epoxa” (dissertation), Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University, 1972
Jackson, Robert Louis, Dostoevsky’s Quest for Form, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1966
Kelly, Aileen, “Irony and Utopia in Herzen and Dostoevsky: From the Other Shore and Diary of a Writer,” Russian Review 50, no. 4 (October 1991):397–416
Kjetsaa, Geir, “Written by Dostoevsky?” Scando-Slavica 26 (1980): 19–31
Lvovski, Zinovy, “Dostoievsky feuilletoniste,” Revue Politique et Littéraire 69, no. 4 (1931):527–31
Morson, Gary Saul, The Boundaries of Genre: Dostoevsky’s “Diary of a Writer” and the Traditions of Literary Utopia, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981
Morson, Gary Saul, “Introductory Study: Dostoevsky’s Great Experiment,” in A Writer’s Diary by Dostoevskii, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1993:1–117
Moser, Charles A. “Dostoevsky and the Aesthetics of Journalism,” Dostoevsky Studies 3 (1982):27–41
Nechaeva, V.S., Zhurnal M.M. i F.M.Dostoevskikh “Vremia”, 1861–1863, Moscow, 1972
Perlina, Nina, “Vozdeistvie gertsenovskogo zhurnalizma na arkhitektoniku i polifonicheskoe stroenie ‘Dnevnika pisatelia’ Dostoevskogo,” Dostoevsky Studies 5 (1984):141–55
Zakharov, V.N., Sistema zhanrov Dostoevskogo: Tipologiia i poetika, Leningrad: Izdatel’stvo Leningradskogo Universiteta, 1985
Zhurbina, Evgeniya Isaakovna, Teoriia i praktika khudozbestvennopublitsisticheskikh zhanrov: Ocherk, fel’eton, Moscow: Mysl’, 1969
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