While for many writers the essay was a sideline interest, for Mikhail Gershenzon it was his first, enduring, and primary love. Although he wrote over ten books and hundreds of articles, reviews, and essays in his 30-year career as a Russian historian, critic, and philosopher, the essay served as the fundamental form from which all his work germinated. His most important contributions to Russian literature are in themselves exemplary treatments of the essay genre. For example, in the domain of political thought, Gershenzon contributed a key essay to Vekhi (1909; Landmarks), that “scandalous,” antirevolutionary volume which transformed the Russian political landscape. As a literary scholar, he wrote the famous essay, “Mudrost’ Pushkina” (1917; Pushkin’s wisdom), which clearly stated the Modernist attitudes toward Russia’s greatest poet. As a philosopher, Gershenzon published a group of philosophical essays in the 1920s in which he described his vision of a “natural” life that should replace the hateful, unfree “world of culture.”
Gershenzon’s most innovative use of the essay, however, belongs to his work as an historian. His major historical books and biographies—Istoriia molodoi Rossii (1908; The history of young Russia), Istoricbeskie zapiski (1910; Historical sketches), and Obrazy prosh logo (1912; Images of the past)—re actually simply collections of essays which were first published in journals. With the essay form, he portrayed the Russian thinkers of the 19th century, whom he depicted as seekers of a better world. To make his inimitable portraits, he needed to develop an original view of history. Criticizing historians who saw the past as a debate over ideas, systems, and ideologies, Gershenzon held that living individuals are the subject of history. The task of historical investigation, therefore, must be to understand people. Since the human psyche is composed of far more than ideas, he claimed, the historian must be concerned with the unconscious aspects of the individual: feeling, instinct, and the drive for spiritual perfection. Among all three, Gershenzon believed the last—the religious need of the individual for unity with all other things—was the most important. This view helped him conceive of an original model for the depiction of the individual in culture. Instead of lauding the external accomplishments of individuals, Gershenzon trumpeted “internal,” spiritual achievements. By internal achievement, he meant the capacity of some individuals for joining personal will to the spiritual, “divine will” of the cosmos.
Concretely, Gershenzon transformed into heroes those individuals who lived life organically, without reflection. He selected those Russian thinkers who, he felt, embodied the desire to escape logical reason and wished to embrace a religious world view. In his biographical essay on the philosopher Petr Chaadaev, he shows the thinker eagerly imbibing the ecumenical ideal of Catholicism as an alternative to the sectarian division of the Christian churches. In his essays on the Stankevich Circle, Russian intellectuals of the 1830s, he concentrates on their expressed desire for spiritual unity through revealing the hidden beauty in the world of ideas. Similarly, he admires Russia’s first revolutionaries, the Decembrists, since they lived an “organic” life based on European ideas of service, pride, friendship, and loyalty.
Gershenzon’s use of the essay form came from his education as a student in the Department of History and Philology at Moscow University. Loaded down with classes covering enormous bodies of knowledge, the students were periodically required to produce essay-length papers on specialized themes. From these habitual assignments, the students developed an ability succinctly to organize, analyze, and relate voluminous amounts of material. Gershenzon’s earliest published works in the 1890s, on ancient Greek history, were in fact term papers. His first articles on Russian literature and history closely resemble those university projects in form and style, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the essay form he mastered at university was the same one he employed throughout his life.
He chose to continue using the essay form for several reasons. As a Jew, he was unable to get an academic appointment in tsarist Russia, and earned his livelihood from publications in the monthly “thick” journals, which contained several sections, including one for literary studies. The essay’s size was perfect for such a venue. Additionally, the essay form was elastic, permitting him to employ a lively, conversational prose style with which he could portray heroes’ psychological and emotional dimensions. He also included “novelistic” techniques, such as the drawing out of the plot to create suspense, transmission of fictionalized conversations, and the insertion of epilogues.
There were other reasons for his choice of genre as well. Gershenzon used the essay form because it offered narrative possibilities lacking in academic prose and objective biography. He exploited the essay’s potential as a source for moral exhortation.
Gershenzon often aimed to educate or edify the reader with a direct address. In Istoriia molodoi Rossii, for example, he writes, “And why are the advanced individuals of our time doomed to spiritual solitude and each one, while involved in the same activity, nevertheless stands alone?” The point of these asides, quite unusual in conventional historical writing, is to force readers to evaluate their own lives in comparison with the supposedly morally superior and heroic lives of the intellectuals of an earlier time.
Gershenzon’s historical essays enjoyed great popularity in the first two decades of the 20th century. In recognition of his refined style he was lauded as a master of the historical portrait. For his approach to biography he was called the “Russian Carlyle.” His books won him national awards and were bestsellers, appearing in second and even third editions. These portraits of national heroes depicted by an engaged and sympathetic author found favor among a readership which was gradually becoming more and more interested in the religious achievements of the Russian national tradition.
In his other activities as a literary scholar, journalist, and philosopher, Gershenzon also used the essay effectively. As the author of over a hundred book reviews, he played an important role in chronicling Russian literary life between 1900 and 1920. In his journalistic writing between 1910 and 1916, he employed a critical narrative in which he judged the cumulative effect on society of phenomena as diverse in content as literature, poetry, religious life, law, military affairs, foreign policy, and anti-Semitism. As a philosopher, Gershenzon especially employed the essay, since he was not interested in a systematic, logical analysis of his ideas, preferring instead to describe his idyllic vision of a future world in unconventional ways, through allegory, epigrams, and dialogue.
Gershenzon was not, however, an innovator in these genres. He merely applied the narrative devices and ideological perspectives worked out in his far more original historical writings.
Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon. Born 13 July 1869 in Kishinev. Studied in Germany for two years; studied history, philosophy, and political science at Moscow University, 1889–94, graduated 1894. Scholar, author, and lecturer, Moscow, 1894–1925: unable to obtain an official academic position because he was Jewish. Literary reviewer, Nauchnoe Slovoe (Scientific word), 1903–05, and Vestnik Evropy (Herald of Europe), 1907–08; literary editor, Kriticheskoe Obozrenie (Critical review), 1907–09. Common-law relationship with Mariia Gol’denveizer, from 1904 (Jews and Orthodox Christians were unable to marry legally): one daughter and one son. During the Civil War worked in various sections of the People’s Commissariat of Education. First chair, Moscow Writers’ Union, 1918, and the All-Russian Writers’ Union, 1920–11; head of the literary section, Moscow Academy of Artistic Sciences, 1922–25. Died (of heart failure) in Moscow, 19 February 1925.
Essays and Related Prose
Istoriia molodoi Rossii, 1908
Istoricheskie zapiski, 1910
Obrazy prosh logo, 1912
Troistvennyi obraz sovershenstva (The triple image of perfection) (treatise), 1918
Mechta i mysl’ I.S.Turgeneva (I.S.Turgenev’s dream and idea), 1919
Videnie poeta (The poet’s vision), 1920
Mudrost’ Pushkina (The wisdom of Pushkin) (collection), 1921
Perepiska iz dvukh uglov, with Viacheslav Ivanov, 1921; as “Corner-to-Corner Correspondence,” translated by Gertrude Vakar, in Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology, edited by Marc Raeff, 1966:372–401; as Correspondence Across a Room, translated by Lisa Sergio 1984
Stat’i o Pushkine (Articles about Pushkin), 1926
Other writings: books on the 19th-century Moscow intelligentsia, philosophy, and religion, and correspondence. Also organized and edited Vekhi essay anthology (1909; Landmarks).
Berman, Iakov Z., M.O.Gershenzon: Bibliografiia, Odessa: Odespoligraf, 1928
Florovsky, George, “Michael Gerschensohn,” Slavonic Review 14 (1926):315–31
Grossman, Leonid, “Gershenzon-pisatel’,” in Stat’i o Pushkine by Gershenzon, Chicago: Russian Language Specialties, 1968:iii–xiv (original edition, 1926)
Horowitz, Brian, “M.O.Gershenzon and the Perception of a Leader in Russia’s Silver- Age Culture,” Wiener Slavistischer Almanach 29 (1992):45–73
Horowitz, Brian, “Ot Vekh’ k russkoi revoliutsii: Dva filosofa N.A. Berdiaev I M.O.Gershenzon,” Vestnik Russkogo Studencheskogo Khristianskogo Dvizheniia 166 (1992):89–132
Horowitz, Brian, “A Jewish-Christian Rift in Twentieth-Century Russian Philosophy: N.A.Berdiaev and M.O.Gershenzon,” Russian Review 53, no. 4 (October 1994):497– 514
Horowitz, Brian, “From the Annals of the Literary Life of Russia’s Silver Age: The Tempestuous Relationship of S.A.Vengerov and M.O.Gershenzon,” Wiener Slavistischer Almanach 35 (1995): 77–95
Horowitz, Brian, The Myth of A.S.Pushkin in Russia’s Silver Age: M.O.Gershenzon, Pushkinist, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1996
Kotrelev, N.V., and E.B.Rashkovskii, “M.O.Gershenzon,” in Russkie pisateli: Biobibliograficheskii slovar’, vol. 1, edited by P. A.Nikolaeva, Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1990:555–57
Levin, Arthur, The Life and Work of Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon (1869–1925): A Study in the History of the Russian Silver Age (dissertation), Berkeley: University of California, 1968
Levin, Arthur, “M.O.Gershenzon’s ‘Revolutionary’ Poem,” Études Slaves et Est- Européenes 15 (1970):69–75
Levin, Arthur, “The Making of a Russian Scholar: The Apprenticeship of
M.O.Gershenzon,” California Slavic Studies 7 (1973): 99–120
Levin, Arthur, “Andrey Bely, M.O.Gershenzon, and Vekhi: A Rejoinder to
N.Valentinov,” in Andrey Bely: A Critical Review, edited by Gerald Janaček,
Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978:169–80
Poggioli, Renato, “A Correspondence from Opposite Corners,” in his The Phoenix and the Spider: A Book of Essays About Some Russian Writers and Their View of the Self, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1957:208–28
Praskurina, Vera, “M.O.Gershenzon—Istorik kul’tury,” in Griboedovskaia Moskva by Gershenzon, Moscow: Moskovskii Rabochii, 1989:3–26
Praskurina, Vera, “Viacheslav Ivanov i Mikhail Gershenzon: Na puti k Perepiske iz dvukh uglov,” Cahiers du Monde Russe 35, nos. 1–2 (1994):377–92
Shestov, Lev, “O vechnoi knige: Pamiati o Gershenzone,” Sovremennye Zapiski 24 (1925):237–45
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