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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Russian Novelists

By Harriet Waters Preston (1836–1911)

[Born in Danvers, Mass., 1836. Died in Cambridge, Mass., 1911. The Spell of the Russian Writers.—The Atlantic Monthly. 1887.]


IT is Dickens who, simultaneously with Gogol, marks the transition from romanticism to realism in the literature of his own country. And not Dickens himself, as it seems to me, begins his work in higher spirits, less hampered by the behests of a “cold moral” or teased by the importunities of any fundamental doubt. The temper of both men altered sadly as the years went on. That of Gogol changed the earlier and more profoundly, by just so much as he was more thorough in his practice of the new method; more sincere and unreserved in his adoption of that principle of blank veracity on which what we call realism must needs rest. No man retains into mature life the spirits of his youth who does not also retain a certain number of illusions. Dickens was the first of the present generation of English realists, but he was never altogether a realist. He was romantic and rhetorical to his dying day. Gogol is rhetorical too, sometimes, especially in those eloquent apostrophes to Russia which abound in the first volume of the “Ames Mortes,” but he is never romantic. He published, it is true, in his melancholy last years, after his writings had secured him many enemies, a number of elaborate letters on the subject of the “Ames Mortes,” in which he claimed to have been actuated, from the first conception of the book, by a high philanthropic purpose. I cannot quite believe it. He simply, as I think, undertook to tell what he saw, and what he saw began by diverting and ended by overpowering him. He was like those heroes in the old-fashioned fairy-tales who, having dared to fix their eyes upon a magic mirror, saw the smooth surface begin slowly to darken and to swirl, and grim depths open, and fierce forms emerge, until the whole uncanny thing was thick with strife and grew some with all manner of horror. He had set himself dispassionately to observe the social condition of rural Russia in the last years of serfdom. There is no hint in all the “Ames Mortes” that he ever personally questioned the righteousness of that “peculiar institution” of Russia, or seriously regarded the serf otherwise than as a piece of property. He seems hardly to have troubled himself about the serf at all. It is what he sees of the effect of slavery, and the semi-barbarism it implies, upon the master, which ends by taking all the heart out of him.


Turguéneff went away to a career of honor and emolument in a foreign land, and yet he went away broken-hearted, and the fixed sentiment which underlies all the wonderfully varied studies of Russian life which he subsequently made from a distance is one of despair. Turguéneff and Gogol are the true Nihilists, though the latter never knew the name of his complaint, and the former was bitterly accused of having trenched on Dostoïevsky’s province, in assuming to discuss and illustrate it. With minds congenitally clear of cant, they had plunged fearlessly—the elder even jauntily—into the deep labyrinth of latter-day speculation; but neither went far enough, before he died, to discern the faint spark of light at the extremity of the noisome cavern, or suspect the point of its ultimate issue.

For Nihilism, in its largest acceptation, that is to say the flat negation of all faith and hope, whether in the social, political, or spiritual order, is not a possible permanent attitude of the human mind. Whatever it may mean, whether it be for our consolation or our delusion, the fact is so. The planet must return from its eclipse, the soul from its nadir of universal denial. It seems strange to think of Dostoïevsky, the mouthpiece of the “humiliated and offended,” the master of horrors, as the prophet of such a return, and yet I find him to have been so. He, more than any of the rest of these new men and would-be teachers, has been unfortunate in the order in which his productions have been given to the western world. It is hardly possible to comprehend or even tolerate “Crime et Châtiment” without having first read the “Souvenirs de la Maison des Morts”; or fully to appreciate the latter without knowing something of the personal history of the author. I must also confess to having been myself beaten by “Crime et Châtiment,” when I first attempted to read it. I began the book, and had not nerve enough to finish it. But I did afterwards read the “Souvenirs” from beginning to end, and this, which was really the earlier work, reconciled me to the later. It is one long, dry chronicle of human misery, of which not a single distressing or even revolting detail is spared the reader; but it is a chronicle of such misery endured unto the end, and, before the end, surmounted by the might of the inviolable human will.


The rereading, or readjustment, of Christianity proposed by Count Leo Tolstoï in “Ma Religion” has its fantastic features. It recalls the earliest presentation of that doctrine, at least in this: that it can hardly fail to prove a “stumbling-block” to one half the well-instructed world, and an epitome of “foolishness” to the other. It consists merely in a perfectly literal interpretation of the fundamental precepts, resist not evil, be not angry, commit no adultery, swear not, judge not. Even the qualifications which our Lord himself is supposed to have admitted in the passage, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause,” and in the one excepted case to the interdict against divorce, our amateur theologian rejects as the glosses of uncandid commentators, or the concessions of an interested priesthood. He then proceeds to show that the logical results of his own rigid interpretations, if reduced to practice, would be something more than revolutionary. They would involve the abolition of all personal and class distinctions; the effacement of the bounds of empire; the end alike of the farce of formally administered justice and of the violent monstrosity of war; the annihilation of so much even of the sense of individuality as is implied in the expectation of personal rewards and punishments, whether here or hereafter. For all this he professes himself ready. The man of great possessions and transcendent mental endowment, the practised magistrate, the trained soldier, the consummate artist, the whilom statesman, having found peace in the theoretic acceptance of unadulterated Christian doctrine as he conceives it, offers himself as an example of its perfect practicability.

“Ma Religion” was given to the world as the literary testament of the author of “Guerre et Paix” and “Anna Karénine.” From the hour of the date inscribed upon its final page—Moscow, February 22, 1884—he disappeared from the scene of his immense achievements and the company of his intellectual and social peers. He went away to his estates in Central Russia, to test in his own person his theories of lowly-mindedness, passivity, and universal equality. He undertook to live henceforth with and like the poorest of his own peasants, by the exercise of a humble handicraft.

Those who know him best say that he will inevitably return some day; that this phase will pass, as so many others have passed with Tolstoï: and that we need by no means bemoan ourselves over the notion that he has said his last word at fifty-seven. Indeed, he seems to have foreshadowed such a return in his treatment of the characters of Bezouchof and Lenine, with both of whom we instinctively understand the author himself to be so closely identified. We are bound, I think, to hope that Turguéneff’s last prayer may be granted; those of us, at least, who are still worldly-minded enough to lament the rarity of great talents in this last quarter of our century.

And yet, there is a secret demurrer; there are counter-currents of sympathy. A suspicion will now and then arise of something divinely irrational, something—in all reverence be it said—remotely messianic, in the sacrifice of this extraordinary man. The seigneur would become as a slave, the towering intelligence as folly, if by any means the sufferer may be consoled, the needy assisted. Here, at any rate, is the consistency of the apostolic age. And is it not true that when all is said, when we have uttered our impatient protest against the unconditional surrender of the point of honor, and had our laugh out, it may be, at the flagrant absurdity of any doctrine of nonresistance, a quiet inner voice will sometimes make itself heard with inquiries like these:

“Is there anything, after all, on which you yourself look back with less satisfaction than your own self-permitted resentments, your attempted reprisals for distinctly unmerited personal wrong? What is the feeling with which you are wont to find yourself regarding all public military pageants and spectacles of warlike preparation? Is it not one of sickening disgust at the ghastly folly, the impudent anachronism, of the whole thing?” In Europe, at all events, the strain of the counter-preparations for mutual destruction, the heaping of armaments on one side and the other, has been carried to so preposterous and oppressive a pitch that even plain, practical statesmen like Signor Bonghi, in Rome, are beginning seriously to discuss the alternative of general disarmament, the elimination altogether of the appeal to arms from the future international policy of the historic states.