William Lyon Phelps on Russian literature

Here is an illuminating excerpt from an essay on Russian literature by William Lyon Phelps (1865 – 1943). Given the somewhat disparaging remark he makes about early American literature, it should be remembered that Phelps was himself an American. Indeed, he has the distinction of being the first professor at an American university to teach a course on the modern novel. This was during his tenure at the Yale, where his conservative colleagues were hugely disapproving of such a ‘lightweight’ initiative. He felt obliged to discontinue the course in the wake of unwelcome media attention, though his adoring pupils persuaded him to teach it privately on an extra-curricular basis. Phelps lived on his wife’s family estate near Lake Huron – he renamed the mansion The House of the Seven Gables, after a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Phelps was clearly quite a character. He built an 18-hole golf course on the estate. He also played baseball, and had a radio show.  

At the start, we notice a rather curious fact, which sharply differentiates Russian literature from the literature of England, France, Spain, Italy, and even from that of Germany. Russia is old; her literature is new. Russian history goes back to the ninth century; Russian literature, so far as it interests the world, begins in the nineteenth. Russian literature and American literature are twins. But there is this strong contrast, caused partly by the difference in the age of the two nations. In the early years of the nineteenth century, American literature sounds like a child learning to talk, and then aping its elders; Russian literature is the voice of a giant, waking from a long sleep, and becoming articulate. It is as though the world had watched this giant’s deep slumber for a long time, wondering what he would say when he awakened. And what he has said has been well worth the thousand years of waiting.

To an educated native Slav, or to a professor of the Russian language, twenty or thirty Russian authors would no doubt seem important; but the general foreign reading public is quite properly mainly interested in only five standard writers, although contemporary novelists like Gorki, Artsybashev, Andreev, and others are at this moment deservedly attracting wide attention. The great five, whose place in the world’s literature seems absolutely secure, are Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi. The man who killed Pushkin in a duel survived till 1895, and Tolstoi died in 1910. These figures show in how short a time Russian literature has had its origin, development, and full fruition.

Pushkin, who was born in 1799 and died in 1838, is the founder of Russian literature, and it is difficult to overestimate his influence. He is the first, and still the most generally beloved, of all their national poets. The wild enthusiasm that greeted his verse has never passed away, and he has generally been regarded in Russia as one of the great poets of the world. Yet Matthew Arnold announced in his Olympian manner, “The Russians have not yet had a great poet.” It is always difficult fully to appreciate poetry in a foreign language, especially when the language is so strange as Russian. It is certain that no modern European tongue has been able fairly to represent the beauty of Pushkin’s verse, to make foreigners feel him as Russians feel him, in any such measure as the Germans succeeded with Shakespeare, as Bayard Taylor with Goethe, as Ludwig Fulda with Rostand. The translations of Pushkin and of Lermontov have never impressed foreign readers in the superlative degree. The glory of English literature is its poetry; the glory of Russian literature is its prose fiction.

Pushkin was, for a time at any rate, a Romantic, largely influenced, as all the world was then, by Byron. He is full of sentiment, smiles and tears, and passionate enthusiasms. He therefore struck out in a path in which he has had no great followers; for the big men in Russian literature are all Realists. Romanticism is as foreign to the spirit of Russian Realism as it is to French Classicism. What is peculiarly Slavonic about Pushkin is his simplicity, his naïveté. Though affected by foreign models, he was close to the soil. This is shown particularly in his prose tales, and it is here that his title as Founder of Russian Literature is most clearly demonstrated. He took Russia away from the artificiality of the eighteenth century, and exhibited the possibilities of native material in the native tongue.

The founder of the mighty school of Russian Realism was Gogol. Filled with enthusiasm for Pushkin, he nevertheless took a different course, and became Russia’s first great novelist. Furthermore, although a melancholy man, he is the only Russian humorist who has made the world laugh out loud. Humour is not a salient quality in Russian fiction. Then came the brilliant follower of Gogol, Ivan Turgenev. In him Russian literary art reached its climax, and the art of the modern novel as well. He is not only the greatest master of prose style that Russia has ever produced; he is the only Russian who has shown genius in Construction. Perhaps no novels in any language have shown the impeccable beauty of form attained in the works of Turgenev. George Moore queries, “Is not Turgenev the greatest artist that has existed since antiquity?”

Dostoevski, seven years older than Tolstoi, and three years younger than Turgenev, was not so much a Realist as a Naturalist; his chief interest was in the psychological processes of the unclassed. His foreign fame is constantly growing brighter, for his works have an extraordinary vitality. Finally appeared Leo Tolstoi, whose literary career extended nearly sixty years. During the last twenty years of his life, he was generally regarded as the world’s greatest living author; his books enjoyed an enormous circulation, and he probably influenced more individuals by his pen than any other man of his time.

In the novels of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi we ought to find all the prominent traits in the Russian character.

It is a rather curious thing, that Russia, which has never had a parliamentary government, and where political history has been very little influenced by the spoken word, should have so much finer an instrument of expression than England, where matters of the greatest importance have been settled by open and public speech for nearly three hundred years. One would think that the constant use of the language in the national forum for purposes of argument and persuasion would help to make it flexible and subtle; and that the almost total absence of such employment would tend toward narrowness and rigidity. In this instance exactly the contrary is the case. If we may trust the testimony of those who know, we are forced to the conclusion that the English language, compared with the Russian, is nothing but an awkward dialect. Compared with Russian, the English language is decidedly weak in synonyms, and in the various shades of meaning that make for precision. Indeed, with the exception of Polish, Russian is probably the greatest language in the world, in richness, variety, definiteness, and elegance. It is also capable of saying much in little, and saying it with tremendous force. In Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring, where the reader hears constantly phrases in Italian, French, and German, it will be remembered that the ladies ask Sanin to sing something in his mother tongue. “The ladies praised his voice and the music, but were more struck with the softness and sonorousness of the Russian language.” I remember being similarly affected years ago when I heard King Lear read aloud in Russian. Baron von der Bruggen says, “there is the wonderful wealth of the language, which, as a popular tongue, is more flexible, more expressive of thought than any other living tongue I know of.” No one has paid a better tribute than Gogol:–

“The Russian people express themselves forcibly; and if they once bestow an epithet upon a person, it will descend to his race and posterity; he will bear it about with him, in service, in retreat, in Petersburg, and to the ends of the earth; and use what cunning he will, ennoble his career as he will thereafter, nothing is of the slightest use; that nickname will caw of itself at the top of its crow’s voice, and will show clearly whence the bird has flown. A pointed epithet once uttered is the same as though it were written down, and an axe will not cut it out.”