Dostoevsky and the Literature of the American South

Article excerpt

Many prominent southern writers, including William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Walker Percy, among others, have attested to the importance of Fedor Dostoevsky to their work. (1) Many of these writers suggested that they identified with Dostoevsky not just as American writers but specifically as southern writers and that their southern heritage had a lot to do both with their attraction to and interpretation of Dostoevsky's novels. It is surprising then that there are virtually no scholarly evaluations of Dostoevsky's impact on southern writers as a group. (2)

Certainly, isolated and cursory remarks on the issue of Dostoevsky's reception by southerners may be found in the studies of individual southern writers, but even Jean Weisgerber, the author of the only book-length study discussing Dostoevsky's influence on a southern writer (Faulkner et Dostoevsky; Confluences et influences [1968]), in which he attempts to provide some context for Faulkner's reading of Dostoevsky, avoids the subject entirely. Several interesting observations on Dostoevsky's importance to southern writers are made in A. N. Nikoliukin's pre-Perestroika Soviet study, Vzaimosviazi literatur Rossii i SShA; Turgenev, Tolstoi, Dostoevskii i Amerika [Interrelations of Russian and (American Literatures: Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and America] (1987)--a significant work, despite the tendentiousness dictated by the time and place of its publication. Note must also be taken of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's provocative article, "Russian Literature and the Southern Literary Modernists" (1998), in which Wyatt-Brown, a prominent scholar of southern culture and literature, considers the affinities between the classical nineteenth-century Russian novelists, including Dostoevsky, and modern southern writers. (3) To date, however, the only scholarly article that focuses specifically and exclusively on Dostoevsky's impact on a group of southern writers is Temira Pachmuss's essay, "Dostoevsky and America's Southern Women Writers: Parallels and Confluences" (1981), in which Pachmuss examines the works of Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and of Eudora Welty--the latter, in a much sketchier fashion--for signs of possible Dostoevsky influence.

Pachmuss's essay, written for a Festschrift more than twenty years ago, is frequently cited in discussions of Dostoevsky's influence on individual southern writers, not only because it represents one of the very few attempts to account for the ways in which the southern identity of a group of writers mediated these writers' reception of Dostoevsky, but because Pachmuss has an in-depth knowledge of Dostoevsky's writings and philosophy (she published extensively on his work), which makes her analysis particularly noteworthy.

Pachmuss begins by claiming that despite "originating from two completely different cultural backgrounds, the works of Dostoevsky on the one hand, and of some of America's southern writers on the other, demonstrate a remarkable concurrence in themes, ideas, and techniques" (115). She then proceeds to analyze the treatment of loneliness, love, spiritual searching, physical deformity, and violence in the writings of O'Connor, McCullers, Welty, and Dostoevsky. Throughout her essay, Pachmuss maintains that it is Dostoevsky's Christian credo that impresses southern writers most, namely, "Dostoevsky's message that the existential, grotesque world of today ... may be saved from its spiritual perdition by the revelation of the fundamental principle of an all-forgiving and all-embracing love" (126). She posits earlier, by the way, that "Dostoevsky ... argues that genuine love ... lies in Christ and radiates from Him" (116). She concludes by saying that Dostoevsky "was a formative influence on twentieth-century Southern literature" (126).

The claims that Pachmuss puts forth in her article are generally well-argued, despite the fact that she never explains why southern writers would have to turn to a Russian novelist for the message "Jesus Saves"--a notion that they were surely familiar with, if only through roadside signs and bumper stickers. …

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