Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays

Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays

Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays

Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays


Russian formalists emerged from the Russian Revolution with ideas about the independence of literature. They enjoyed that independence until Stalin shut them down. This title includes four essays that represent key points in the formalists' short history.


Despite the serious attention given Slavic Formalist literary criticism in René Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature and Victor Eriich’s thorough study of the Russian branch, readers of English have had little chance to examine the works themselves. Historically, the fact that during the 1920’s a group of Russian critics urged the separation of literature and politics challenges our popular clichés about Soviet control of literary theory, and the fact that the group was “disciplined” about 1930 confirms them. But this is just a part of the long and complex story of unorthodox views in the Soviet Union, and cannot be pursued here. Our topic is the internal history of the movement and the theory it developed.

An English-speaking reader going through the early works of the Formalists will often feel that, despite differences of names and details of argument, he is on familiar ground. With the necessary adjustments, he recognizes some of the concepts of the New Critics, their strategies, and even their enemies. Both the Russian and the Anglo-American movements began brashly by assuming that the traditional academic approaches to literature were invalid because they avoided literature. T. E. Hulme, who caught the spirit of the New Critics long before they were given a name, chided poets for their eagerness to jump impulsively from poems into the infinite,

1. René Wellek and Austin Warren, Theory of Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1949), introduction to Pt. IV, and Chaps. 13 and 16.

2. Victor Erlich, Russian Formalism: History-Doctrine (Vol. IV in Slauistic Printings and Reprintings. ed. Cornelis H. Van ,Schooneveld; ’S-Gravenhage: Mouton & Co, 1955).

We are heavily indebted to Mr. Eriich’s fine pioneering study, both because it stimulated our initial interest in Russian Formalism and because, when well into our work, we found that he had done his job so expertly that our introductory material could do little more than summarize what he had found.

3. T. E. Hulme, Speculations: Essays on Humanism and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Herbert Read (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co 1936), p. 116.

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