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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Isabel Florence Hapgood (1850–1928)
 
GOGOL has been called the “father of modern Russian realism,” and he has been credited with the creation of all the types which we meet in the great novelists who followed him. This is in great measure true, especially so far as the male characters are concerned. The germs at least, if not the condensed characterization in full, are recognizable in Gogol’s famous novel ‘Dead Souls,’ his Little-Russian stories ‘Tales from a Farm-House near Dikanka’ and ‘Mirgorod,’ and his comedy ‘The Inspector,’ which still holds the stage.  1
  It was precisely because of his genius in seizing the national types that the poet Pushkin, one of Gogol’s earliest and warmest admirers, gave to him the plans of ‘Dead Souls’ and ‘The Inspector,’ which he had intended to make use of himself. That he became the “father of Russian realism” was due not only to his own genius, but to the epoch in which he lived, though he solved the problem for himself quite independently of the Continental literatures which were undergoing the same process of transformation from romanticism to realism. For, nearly a hundred years before Gogol and his foreign contemporaries of the forties—the pioneers, in their respective countries, of the new literature—won the public, Europe had been living a sort of modern epic. In imitation of the ancient epics, writers portrayed heroes of gigantic powers in every direction, and set them in a framework of exceptional crises which aroused their powerful emotions in the cause of right, or their superhuman conflict with masterful persons or overwhelming woes. But the daily experience of those who suffered from the manifold miseries of battle and invasion in this modern epic epoch, made it impossible for them to disregard longer the claim on their sympathies of the common things and people of their world, though these can very easily be ignored when one reads the ancient epics. Thus did realism have its dawn in many lands when the era of peace gave men time to define their position, and when pseudo-classicism had at last palled on their taste, which had begun to recognize its coldness and inherent falsity.  2
  Naturally, in this new quest of Truth, romanticism and realism were mingled at first. This was the case with Gogol-Yanovsky, to give him his full name. But he soon struck out in the right path. He was born and reared in Little Russia, at Sorotchinsky, government of Poltava. He was separated by only two generations from the epoch of the Zaporozhian Kazak army, whose life he has recorded in his famous historical novel ‘Taras Bulba,’ his grandfather having been regimental scribe of the Kazaks, an office of honor. The spirit of the Zaporozhian Kazaks still lingered over the land, which was overflowing with legends, and with fervent, childlike piety of the superstitious order. At least one half of the Little-Russian stories which made Gogol’s fame he owes to his grandfather, who appears as Rudiy Panko the Bee-Farmer, in the ‘Tales from a Farm-House near Dikanka.’ His father, who represented the modern spirit, was an inimitable narrator of comic stories, and the talents of this father and grandfather rendered their house the social center of a very wide neighborhood.  3
  At school Gogol did not distinguish himself in his studies, but wrote a great deal, all of an imitative character, and got up school plays in emulation of those which he had seen at his own home. His lack of scholarship made it impossible for him to pursue the learned career of professor of history, on which he embarked after he had with labor obtained, and shortly renounced, the career of copying-clerk in St. Petersburg. His vast but dimly defined ambition to accomplish great things for his fatherland in some mysterious way, and fame for himself, equally suffered shipwreck to his mind; though if we consider the part which the realistic literature he founded has played on the world’s stage, we may count his apparent defeat a solid victory. His brief career as professor of history at the university was brought about by his ambition, and through the influence of the literary men whose friendship he had won by his first ‘Little-Russian Tales.’ They recognized his genius, and at last he himself recognized that the new style of writing which he had created was his vocation, and devoted himself wholly to literature. At the close of 1831 the first volume of ‘Tales from a Farm-House’ appeared, and had an immense success. The second volume, ‘Mirgorod,’ followed, with equal success. It contained a new element: the merriment of the first volume had been pure, unmixed; in the second volume he had developed not only the realism but that special trait of his genius, “laughter piercing through a mist of tears,” of which ‘Old-Fashioned Gentry’ and ‘How the Two Ivans Quarreled’ offer celebrated examples. But success always flew to Gogol’s head: he immediately began to despise these products of his true vocation, and to plan grandiose projects far beyond his powers of education and entirely outside the range of his talent. Now, for instance, he undertook a colossal work in nine volumes on the history of the Middle Ages. Happily, he abandoned that, after his studies of Little-Russian history incidental thereto had resulted in his epic of the highest art, ‘Taras Bulba.’  4
  The first outcome of his recognition that literary work was his moral duty, not a mere pastime, was his great play ‘The Inspector.’ It was produced in April, 1836. The authorities steadfastly opposed its production; but the Emperor Nicholas I. heard of it, read it, ordered it produced, and upheld Gogol in enthusiastic delight. Officials, merchants, police, literary people, everybody, attacked the author. They had laughed at his pathos; now they raged at his comedy, refused to recognize their own portraits, and still tried to have the play prohibited. Gogol’s health and spirits were profoundly affected by this unexpected enmity. He fled abroad, and returned to Russia thereafter only at intervals for brief visits, and chiefly to Moscow, where most of his faithful friends lived. He traveled much, but spent most of his time in Rome, where his lavish charities kept him always poor, even after the complete success of ‘The Inspector’ and of the first part of ‘Dead Souls’ would have enabled him to exist in comfort. He was accustomed to say that he could only see Russia clearly when he was far from her, and in a measure he proved this by his inimitable first volume of ‘Dead Souls.’ Herein he justified Pushkin’s expectations in giving him that subject which would enable him to paint, in types, the classes and localities of his fatherland. But this long residence in Rome was fatal to his mind and health, and eventually extinguished the last sparks of genius. The Russian mind is peculiarly inclined to mysticism, and Russian writers of eminence seem to be even more susceptible in that direction than ordinary men. Of the noted writers in this century, Pushkin and Lermontov had leaned decidedly in that direction towards the end of their careers, brief as their lives were. Gogol was their intimate friend in Russia, and after he went abroad he was the intimate friend of the aged poet Zhukovsky, who became a mystic in his declining years.  5
  Even in his school days Gogol had shown, in his letters to his mother, a marked tendency to religious exaltation. Now, under the combined pressure of his personal inclinations, friendships, and the clerical atmosphere of Rome, he developed into a mystic and ascetic of the most pronounced type. In this frame of mind, he looked upon all his earlier writings as sins which must be atoned for; and yet his immense self-esteem was so flattered by the tremendous success of ‘The Inspector’ and of the first part of ‘Dead Souls,’ that he began to regard himself as a kind of divinely commissioned prophet, whose duty it was to exhort his fellow-men. The extract from these hortatory letters to his friends which he published convinced his countrymen that nothing more was to be expected from him. The failure of this volume only helped to plunge him into deeper depths of self-torture. In the few remaining lucid moments of his genius he worked at the second part of ‘Dead Souls,’ but destroyed what he had written in the moments of ecstatic remorse which followed. Thus the greatest work of his mature genius remains uncompleted. In 1848 he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and returned through Odessa to Moscow, where he lived until his death, growing constantly more mystical, more ascetic. Sleepless nights spent in prayer, fasting to the extent of trying to nourish himself (as it is affirmed that practiced ascetics successfully can) for a week on one of the tiny double loaves which are used in the Holy Communion, completed the ravages of his long-endured maladies.  6
  It was for publishing in a Moscow paper an enthusiastic obituary of the dead genius, which he had been forbidden to publish in St. Petersburg, that Turgenev was sent into residence on his estate, and enriched the world with the first work of the rising genius, ‘The Diary of a Sportsman.’ Acuteness of observation; natural, infectious, genuine humor; vivid realism; and an inimitable power of depicting national types, are Gogol’s distinguishing characteristics: and these in varying degrees are precisely the ingredients which have entered into the works of his successors and rendered Russian literature famous as a school.  7
  In reviewing Gogol’s work, we may set aside with but cursory mention his youthful idyl, written while still in the gymnasium, published anonymously and overwhelmed with ridicule, ‘Hans Kuchelgarten’; his ‘Arabesques,’ which are useful chiefly as a contribution to the study of the man and his opinions, not as permanent additions to literature; his ‘Extracts from Correspondence with Friends,’ which belong to the sermonizing, clouded period of his life’s close; and the divers ‘Fragments,’ both of prose and dramatic writing, all of which are conscientiously included in the complete editions of his writings.  8
  The only complete play which he wrote except ‘The Inspector’ is the comedy ‘Marriage,’ which is still acted, though very seldom. It is full of naturalness and his own peculiar humor, but its subject does not appeal to the universal public of all lands as nearly as does the plan of ‘The Inspector.’ The plot, in brief, is founded on a young girl’s meditations on marriage, and her actions which lead up to and follow those meditations. The Heroine, desirous of marrying, invokes the aid of the Match-maker, the old-time matrimonial agent in the Russian merchant and peasant classes by conventional etiquette. The Match-maker offers for her consideration several suitable men, all strangers; the Heroine makes her choice, and is very well content with her suitor. But she begins to meditate on the future, becomes moved to tears by the thought of her daughter’s possible unhappiness in a hypothetical wretched marriage in the dim future, and at last, unable to endure this painful prospect, she evades her betrothed and breaks off the match. While the characteristic and national touches are keen and true,—precursors of the vein which Ostrovsky so happily developed later,—the play must remain a matter of greater interest to Russians than to foreigners.  9
  The interest of ‘The Inspector,’ on the other hand, is universal: official negligence and corruption, bribery, masculine boastfulness and vanity, and feminine qualities to correspond, are the private prerogatives of no one nation, of no one epoch. The comedy possesses all the elements of social portraiture and satire without caricature: concentration of time, place, action, language, and a tremendous condensation of character traits which are not only truly, typically national, but which come within the ken of all fair-minded persons in other countries.  10
  The volume with which he scored his first success, and which must remain a classic, is ‘Evenings at a Farm-House near Dikanka.’ As the second volume, ‘Mirgorod,’ and his volume of ‘St. Petersburg Tales,’ all combine essentially the same ingredients, though in varying measure, we may consider them together. All the tales in the first two volumes are from his beloved birthplace, Little Russia. Some of them are simply the artistic and literary rendering of popular legends, whose counterparts may be found in the folk literature of other lands. Such are the story of the vampire, ‘Vy,’ ‘St. John’s Eve,’ and the exquisite ‘A May Night,’ where the famous poetical spirit of the Ukraina is displayed in its full force and beauty. ‘The Lost Document,’ ‘Sorotchinsky Fair,’ ‘The Enchanted Spot,’ and others of like legendary but more exclusively national character, show the same fertility of wit and skill of management, with close study of everyday customs, superstitions, and life, which render them invaluable to both Russians and foreigners.  11
  More important than these, however, are such stories as ‘Old-Fashioned Gentry’ (or ‘Farmers’), where keen but kindly wit, more tempered than the mirth of youthful high spirits which had imbued the fantastic tales, is mingled with the purest, deepest pathos and minute delineation of character and customs, in an inimitable work of the highest art. To this category belong also ‘How the Two Ivans Quarreled’ (the full title, ‘How Ivan Ivan’itch and Ivan Nikifor’itch Quarreled,’ is rather unwieldy for the foreign ear), and ‘The Cloak,’ from the volume of ‘St. Petersburg Tales.’ We may also count ‘The Nevsky Prospekt’ with these; while ‘The Portrait’ is semi-fantastic, ‘The Nose’ and ‘The Calash’ are wholly so, though not legendary, and ‘The Diary of a Madman’ is unexcelled as an amusing but touching study of a diseased mind in the ranks of petty officialdom.  12
  Gogol’s capital work, however, is his ‘Dead Souls.’ In it he carried to its highest point his talent for accurate delineation of his countrymen and the conditions of their life. There is less pathos than in some of his short tales; but all the other elements are perfected. Pushkin’s generosity and sound judgment were never better shown than in the gift which he made to Gogol of the plan of this book. He could not have executed it himself as well. The work must forever rank as a Russian classic; it ought to rank as a universal classic. The types are as fresh, true, and vivid to one who knows the Russia of to-day as they were when they were first introduced to the enthusiastic public of 1842.  13
  In the pre-Emancipation days, a soul meant a male serf. The women were not counted in the periodical revisions, though the working unit, a tyaglo, consisted of a man, his wife, and his horse—the indispensable trinity to agricultural labor. In the interval between the revisions, a landed proprietor continued to pay for all the serfs accredited to him on the official list, the births being reckoned for convenience as an exact offset to the deaths. Another provision of the law was, that no one should purchase serfs without the land to which they belonged, except for the purpose of colonization. An ingenious fraud suggested by a combination of these two laws forms the foundation of ‘Dead Souls.’ The hero, Tchitchikoff, is an official who has struggled up ambitiously and shrewdly, through numerous vicissitudes of bribe-taking, extortion, and ensuing discomfiture, to a snug berth in the custom-house service, from which he is ejected under circumstances which render further flights difficult if not impossible. In this strait he hits upon the idea of purchasing from landed proprietors of mediocre probity the souls who are dead, though still nominally alive, and on whom they are forced to pay taxes. Land is being given away gratuitously, in the southern governments of Kherson and Tauris, to any one who will settle upon it, as every one knows. His plan is to buy one thousand non-existent serfs (“dead souls”), at a maximum of one hundred rubles apiece, for colonization on an equally non-existent estate in the south, and then, by mortgaging them to the loan bank for the nobility known as the Council of Guardians, obtain a capital of two hundred thousand rubles. In pursuance of this clever scheme he sets out on his travels, visits provincial towns and the estates of landed gentry of every shade of character, dishonesty, and financial standing, where he either buys for a song, or cajoles from them as a gift, large numbers of “dead souls.” It is unnecessary and impossible to do more than reinforce the hint which this statement contains, by the assurance that Gogol used to the uttermost the magnificent opportunity thus afforded him of showing up Russian life and manners. Though the scene of Tchitchikoff’s wanderings does not include either capital, the life there does not escape the author’s notice in his asides and illustrative arguments. It may also be said that while his talent lies pre-eminently in the delineation of men, he does not fail in his portraits of women; though as a rule these are more general—in the nature of a composite photograph—than particular. The day for minute analysis of feminine character had not arrived, and in all Gogol’s works there is, properly speaking, no such thing as the heroine playing a first-class rôle, whether of the antique or the modern pattern.  14
  Gogol’s great historical novel, ‘Taras Bulba,’ which deals with the famous Kazak republic of the Dniepr Falls (Zaporózhya), stands equally with his other volumes of the first rank in poetry, dramatic power, and truth to life. It possesses also a force of tragedy and passion in love which are altogether lacking, or but faintly indicated, in his other masterpieces.  15
 
 
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