Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time

By Joseph Frank; Mary Petrusewicz | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 21

Into the Fray

Dostoevsky's presence in St. Petersburg was soon noticed by the larger literary fraternity in which he was so eager to resume his place. Just a few days after establishing residence, he was elected a member of the newly founded Society for Aid to Needy Writers and Scholars, usually called the Literary Fund. Dostoevsky lent his support to the activities of the fund, and not only through his participation in the numerous readings and events that the society organized to fill its coffer. Difficult as it is to imagine, he also performed the tasks of an efficient and conscientious administrator. Elected secretary of the fund's administrative committee in 1863, he kept the records of the meetings and handled the considerable correspondence of this organization with skill and dispatch.

The very first benefit organized by the Literary Fund took place on January 10, 1860, and Dostoevsky would certainly have been attracted by the program, which announced a reading by Turgenev of his newly written, deeply meditative, and highly controversial essay, “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” a work that marked an important moment in the social-cultural debate of the early 1860s. An amicable exchange of notes between the two a few months after the benefit reveals that the rancorous breakup of their friendship in 1845 had been, at least for the moment, forgotten. Dostoevsky thoroughly absorbed the essay, whose ideas left significant traces on his own thinking and on his image of the selfsacrificing Don Quixote type in Prince Myshkin. For Turgenev's famous pages proved to be a panegyric of the man of faith, Don Quixote, who is held up for admiration in preference to the worldly, skeptical, disillusioned Hamlet, “sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought.” Don Quixote is inspired by an ideal greater than himself (even if a comically deluded one), and this elevates him to a moral superiority that towers over the indecisive Hamlet.

Turgenev pretended to be dissecting two eternal psychological types that always had existed in human nature; but everyone knew that the Hamlets of Russian literature were the “superfluous men,” the well-meaning but powerless and hopelessly impractical members of the gentry liberal intelligentsia. The Don Quixotes, on the other hand, were those who had died on the European barricades in 1848 (like the protagonist of Turgenev's own Rudin) and those members of the younger generation in Russia ready once again to sacrifice themselves for

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