Less well known than his unparalleled poetry and pioneering imaginative prose, Aleksandr Pushkin’s essays, advocating supple language and a modern approach to literature, emerged from the crucible of the critical and journalistic polemic of his times. Pushkin wrote over 100 essays, critical fragments, rebuttals, notes, and reviews which in content are literary, theoretical, polemical, autobiographical, biographical, critical, historical, political, and satirical. The majority are short in length and brilliantly concentrated. Most remained in draft form and over half were published posthumously due to repressive censorship and the restrictive political situation. Friends learned of his ideas through discussion, the familiar letter, or circulation in manuscript form.
While Pushkin’s primary focus is on the issues of literature as an institution (classical, Romantic, and incipient realistic), as well as language, the readership, and publication, his concern for social, political, and historical issues is always present, at times in the form of circumspect discourse within other contexts. Indeed, some scholars perceive Pushkin’s notes as sketches toward an autobiography in lieu of the memoirs that were destroyed following the ill-fated Decembrist Rebellion in 1825.
Foremost in the remarkably erudite Pushkin’s focus is literature—Russian and foreign, particularly French, German, English, and classical—with increasing attention given to history, primarily to revolutions and cultural conflicts—from the Time of Troubles (1598–1613) to contemporary issues. His voice is that of the vanguard of the cultured elite, often years ahead of the times. In fact, his essays lend legitimacy to a nascent genre in Russian letters. John Bayley (1986) calls Pushkin’s “sense” of literature “dazzling” with “an unerring feeling for what makes a really great genius,” arguing that “Pushkin the artist is as detached and objective about a work of art—his own or another’s—as is Pushkin the critic.” Pushkin’s first known essay, “Moi zamechaniia ob russkom teatre” (wr. 1820; “My Observations on the Russian Theater”), advocates professionalism on the boards. The first published essay, “Pismo k izdateliu Syna otechestva” (pub. 1824;
“Letter to the Publisher of Son of the Fatherland”), tactfully subdues a polemic on Romanticism versus classicism concerning Pushkin’s poem, Bakhchisaraiskii fontan (The Fountain at Bakhchisarai), between his friend Prince Viazemskii and M.A.Dmitriev by maintaining that Romanticism finds resistance only in Western Europe.
Pushkin’s overarching concern is the unsuitability for modern abstract reasoning of contemporary Russian prose, despite the merits of Nikolai Karamzin’s literary and historical writings. Accordingly, Pushkin’s first article on literature, “O proze” (wr. 1822;
“On Prose”), promotes “accuracy and brevity” as the premier merits of prose and demands abundant ideas and thoughts. As in his poetry, the semantic and metaliterary, political, and personal levels of discourse are often encoded in the primary narrative. Paul Debreczeny (1983) finds that Pushkin’s expository prose is closest in language to his imaginative prose. In fact, the language and conceits of poetry and prose often intertwine and complement each other, as in his rebuttal poem “Moia rodoslovnaia” (“My Genealogy”) and the essay “Oproverzhenie na kritiki” (wr. 1830; “Refutation of Criticisms”).
Few of Pushkin’s essays were published until his confidant Baron Anton Delvig founded the Literaturnaia Gazeta (1830–35; Literary gazette). Fifteen of Pushkin’s 18 contributions filling the critical void deplored in his “O zhurnal noi kritike” (pub. 1830; “On Journalistic Criticism”) were anonymous or pseudonymous. Pushkin contends that some literary works, lacking sophisticated criticism, “appear, live, and die without receiving due evaluation.” He seeks critical interpretation rather than evaluative generalization of good versus bad. Nor are the critics the final judges, although reading them explains their relations among themselves and with the writers (“Razgovor o kritike” [draft undated; pub. 1884; “Conversation About Criticism”]). Pushkin founded Sovremennik (The contemporary) in 1836 to generate quality literature and criticism and to raise the aesthetic and critical awareness of his primarily upper-class readership after the authorities closed Literaturnaia gazeta. Six of his approximately 20 essays appeared anonymously in Sovremennik to circumvent the Tsar’s growing censorship.
Pushkin’s crisp, elegant, and precise style is informed by his Romantic leanings and Westernizing tendencies, on the one hand, and is part of the best of the Russian literary tradition, on the other, drawing from the wellspring of Russian chronicles and the vernacular. His precise yet nuanced vocabulary embraces foreign words and phrases for concepts lacking Russian equivalents. Pithy sayings, proverbs, and quotes, often in other languages, liven his cogent narrative. Many essays are responses, such as the unequivocal and reasoned “O prichinakh, zamedlivshikh khod nashei slovesnosti” (wr. 1824; “On the Factors That Delayed the Progress of Our Literature”), which lays the blame on the overwhelming use of French by the upper class, on Russian writers, and on the increasing influence of scholarly and scientific language. Pushkin’s objective of creating the institution of literary criticism and essays is at the fore of his polemical essay “Vozrazhenie na stat’iu A. Bestuzheva ‘Vzgliad na russkuiu slovesnost’ v techenie 1824 i nachala 1825 godov” (pub. 1834; “Objection to A.Bestuzhev’s Article ‘A View on Russian Literature During 1824 and the Beginning of 1825’”).
Crafting his essays as instructive models, Pushkin underscores the nascency of Russian literary criticism in “‘lstoriia poezii’ S.P.Shevyreva” (wr. 1836; “S.P.Shevyrev’s ‘History of Poetry’”). He further addresses the question in “O poezii klassicheskoi i romanicheskoi” (wr. 1825; “On Classical and Romantic Poetry”) by articulating that form (genre) determines which of the two schools poetry belongs to and rather broadly assigns to classicism all genres emanating from the Greeks. He credits the troubadours with inventing new genres, rhymes, and Romantic poems unfamiliar to the ancients.
Acknowledging his friend’s mind, learning, and literary grace in “Vozrazhenie na stat’I Kiukhelbekera v Mnemozine” (wr. 1825–26; “Objection to Kiukhelbeker’s Articles in Mnemosyne”), Pushkin goes on to illuminate several of his errors concerning the superiority of classical genres over Romantic ones; he also defines the aesthetic categories of the beautiful and maps out the theoretical conditions of inspiration and imagination. Ernest J.Simmons (1935) ranks Pushkin’s critical judgments on English literature with those of Keats for keenness of perception and farsighted veracity.
Without compromising his integrity of thought in fulfulling Emperor Nicholas’ commissioned “O narodnom vospitanii” (wr. 1828; “On Public Education”), Pushkin shifts the responsibility for the “recent events” (the December Rebellion) onto insufficient enlightenment and morality as well as onto foreign influences that find fertile ground in poorly educated minds. He introduces several criticisms, such as the preoccupation with advancement and the insular patriarchal education of young nobles by their social inferiors. He hints at his own situation, as in other essays. This essay exemplifies Pushkin’s advocacy of the Lancaster method of mutual teaching, of abolishing both corporal punishment and examinations, the latter by then having become a clandestine business for professors. Republican concepts, he argues to an autocratic emperor, should be part of the curriculum, the better to undermine their allure of novelty.
While Pushkin seems fascinated by democratic republicanism and the American experience, he also perceives the faults of and the tendency to idealize both the natural state of life (James Fenimore Cooper, Chateaubriand) and the United States, as shown in his essay “Dzhon Tenner” (1836; “John Tanner”).
Censorship receives oblique attention in a commentary on an ultra-conservative inveighing against seditious and amoral foreign literature in “Mnenie E.E.Lobanova o dukhe slovesnosti, kak inostrannoi, tak i otechestvennoi” (1836; “E.E. Lobanov’s Opinion on the Spirit of Foreign and National Literature”). Pushkin parries Lobanov’s call for the censor “to penetrate all designs of writers” by quoting rules restricting judgment to the text’s actual meaning rather than its alleged intent.
In “Frakiiskie elegii: Stikhotvoreniia Viktora Tepliakova” (1836; “Thracian Elegies:
The Poems of Viktor Tepliakov”) Pushkin expounds an enriching tenet of Russian poetics—imitation as faith in one’s own ability to discover new worlds by following in the footsteps of genius and the desire to study one’s model in order to give it new life.
Pushkin’s essays were published gradually as the political situation permitted, many in 1855, 1885, even as late as 1930; consequently their influence on the Russian essay was kept to a minimum, while Vissarion Belinskii and others reigned supreme. No sizable study of Pushkin’s essays exists, although several recent publications discuss them.
Instead Pushkin’s essays are used in biographical studies and as sources for elucidating his imaginative writing.
Born 8 June 1799 in Moscow. Studied at the Imperial lycée, Tsarskoe Selo, near St.Petersburg, 1812–17. Member of the Arzamas literary society. Civil servant, St.Petersburg, 1817–20. Exiled in southern Russia and Pskov province, for unpublished political poems, 1820–26, then returned to St.Petersburg. Visited his brother Lev and friends who were fighting the Turks in the Russian Army in Transcaucasia, 1829.
Married Natalia Goncharova, 1831. Founding editor, Sovremennik, 1836–37. Died (following a duel) in St.Petersburg, 11 February 1837.
Essays and Related Prose
The Critical Prose, edited and translated by Carl R.Proffer, 1970
Pushkin on Literature, edited and translated by Tatiana Wolff, 1971; revised edition, 1986
Pushkin-kritik, edited by E.N.Lebedev and V.S.Lysenko, 1978
Other writings: poetry, the novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin (1831), the drama-in-verse Boris Godunov (1831), the novel Kapitanskata dochka (1836; The Captain’s Daughter), short stories (including Pikovaia dama [The Queen of Spades], 1834), and correspondence (collected in Letters, edited and translated by J.Thomas Shaw, 3 vols., 1963).
Collected works editions: Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 17 vols., 1937–49, reprinted 1994–(in progress); Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, edited by B.V.Tomashevskii, 10 vols., 1977–79.
Bibliografiia proizvedenii A.S.Pushkina i literatura o nem, 1886–99, 1918–57, Moscow/Leningrad, 8 parts, 1949, 1952–60
Pushkiniana 1900–10 and 1911–17, Leningrad, 2 vols., 1929, 1937
Wreath, P.J., and A.I.Wreath, “Alexander Pushkin: A Bibliography of Criticism in English: 1920–75,” CanadianAmerican Slavic Studies (Summer 1976):279–304
Bayley, John, “In Search of Pushkin,” in Pushkin on Literature, edited and translated by Tatiana Wolff, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, and London: Athlone Press, revised edition, 1986
Debreczeny, Paul, The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1983
Driver, Sam, Pu(kin: Literature and Social Ideas, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989
Frank, Semion, “Pushkin kak politicheskii myslitel’,” in Pushkin v russkoi filisofskoi kritike: Konets XlX-pervaia polovina XX vv, edited by R.A.Gal’tseva, Moscow: Kniga, 1990
Levkovich, la. L., Avtobiograficheskaia proza i pis’ma Pushkina, Leningrad: Nauka, 1988
Petrunina, N.N., Proza Pushkina: Puti evoliutsii, Leningrad: Nauka, 1987
Simmons, Ernest J., English Literature and Culture in Russia (1553–1840), New York: Octagon, 1964 (original edition, 1935)
Todd, William Mills III, The Familiar Letter as a Literary Genre in the Age of Pushkin, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976
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