Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia

Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia

Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia

Gogol's Afterlife: The Evolution of a Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia


The evolution of Russian authorship as exemplified by Gogol's social and aesthetic reception from 1829 to 1952.

Nikolai Gogol's claim to the title of national literary classic is incontestable. Since his lifetime, every generation of Russian writers and readers has had to come to terms somehow with his ingeniously suggestive and comically virtuosic art. An exemplar for popular audiences no less than for the intelligentsia, Gogol was pressed into service under the tsarist and Soviet regimes for causes both aesthetic and political, official and unofficial. In Gogol's Afterlife, Stephen Moeller-Sally explores how he achieved this peculiar brand of cultural authority and later maintained it, despite dramatic shifts in the organization of Russian literature and society.

Beginning with Gogol's debut and extending well into the twentieth century, this elegantly written and meticulously researched work offers nothing short of a sociology of modern Russian literature. Together with the history of Gogol's social and aesthetic reception, it describes the institutional evolution of Russian literature and the changing relationship of the Russian writer to nation, state, and society. Moeller-Sally puts a wealth of historical material under a finely calibrated critical lens to show how the rise of the reading public in nineteenth-century Russia prepared the ground for a popular nationalism centered around the literary classics.

Part I charts the historical and cultural currents that shaped Gogol's reputation among the educated classes of late Imperial Russia, devoting particular attention to the models of authorship Gogol himself devised in response to his changing audience and developingauthorial mission. Part II takes a panoramic view of the social milieu in which Gogol's status evolved, describing the intelligentsia's efforts to propagate his life and works among the newly literate populations of post-Reform Ru


How, after all, did Nikolai Gogol become a classic? The designation is so much a reflex in Russia's cultural consciousness that this question seems never to occur. And yet, to answer it proves not quite the straightforward task that we might suppose.

In point of fact, Gogol's life and writing correspond only meagerly to the values historically associated with the classic. Take, for example, the definition offered by Gogol's French contemporary Charles Augustin SainteBeuve in one of his best-known Causeries du lundi, “What Is a Classic?”:

A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has en
riched the human spirit, who has truly increased its treasure, who has caused
it to take a step forward, who has discovered some unequivocal moral truth
or laid fresh hold on some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed
known and explored; who has conveyed his thought, his observation, or his
discovery in whatever form, only let it be liberal and grand, choice and judi
cious, intrinsically wholesome and seemly; who has spoken to all men in a
style of his own which at that same time turns out to be every man's style, a
style that is new without neologism, at once new and old, easily contempora
neous with every age.

Inspired by the example of Goethe, Sainte-Beuve equates the classic with what is “healthy,” “vigorous, fresh, and hardy”—not qualities that sit comfortably with Gogol. Monomaniacs, existers, and other sundry dead souls populate almost all of his fictional works. And the man himself, infirm from youth, was by all accounts an inveterate hypochondriac (when he was not genuinely suffering from hemorrhoids or bouts of dyspepsia).

To address the terms of Sainte-Beuve's definition more explicitly, several of Gogol's masterpieces fit into the category of the “choice and judicious,” the “intrinsically wholesome and seemly” only with the most skillful maneuvering, if at all. Gogol's contemporary critics often vilified him for breaches of literary decorum, and Stepan Shevyrev, editor of the Moscow Observer, refused to publish “The Nose” because he found it “filthy.” Add . . .

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