Academic journal article Pushkin Review

The Poet Turned Journalist: Alexander Pushkin and the Reading Public

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

The Poet Turned Journalist: Alexander Pushkin and the Reading Public

Article excerpt

Abstract: When contextualized in relation to the period's publically circulated perceptions about the press, the book market, and the reading public, Alexander Pushkin's relatively understudied forays into professional journalism complicate our understanding both of the poet's strategies for navigating the contemporary cultural landscape and of the characteristics of the literary institutions themselves.

Key words: Pushkin, journalism, print culture, history of the book, history of reading, Bulgarin, Grech

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In January of 1838, Faddei Bulgarin published an article titled "Readers and Writers" ("Chitateli i pisateli") in the Northern Bee (Severnaia pchela), the newspaper he edited jointly with his long-time collaborator Nikolai Grech. Structured as a casual conversat ion between a professional writer, who is a stand-in for Bulgarin, and his friend who, it is indicated emphatically, is not a cultural producer, the article treats lightheartedly the position of writers in relation to their audiences. Bulgarin writes,

   [it] is not the writer but the reader who reigns, legislates, and
   judges in literature; and where does the reader pronounce these
   judgments? At the lectern, in journals? No, at the whist game, at
   dinner, at tea, near the fireplace; and the verdicts uttered by the
   reader sotto voce, sometimes with half a phrase [vpolfrazy]
   disperse throughout society and strike the proud writer in the most
   sensitive place--the pocket! (1)

Given Bulgarin's reputation as a second-rate writer with an unapologetically commercial interest in the middling segments of the reading public, the commodification of culture implicit in the statement that the reader's poor appraisal results, first and most importantly of all, in a loss of profit is unsurprising. With the assertion that "[h]e is your reader--end of story! He is your master [khoziain]; he has every right to announce to society whether you are clever or stupid, engaging or boring, educated or an ignoramus" Bulgarin reiterates the oft-articulated terms of his relationship with his audience, whom he tended to address as a group comprised of his social equals or even superiors throughout his career. (2) However, the inflation of the average reader's role--and that in the episode above the readers utter their evaluative words not at the lectern but over tea or a game of whist underscores the non-institutional character of this audience of private citizens--functions primarily as a rhetorical tactic. The readers who are empowered to make all-important judgments about the quality of literature on the pages of Bulgarin's and Grech's periodicals are largely Active; and they are ventriloquized in a series of moves that ensure not the reader's but the journalist-critic's position as an arbiter of middlebrow taste and a major force capable of directing the period's book market. (3) As I will outline briefly in the pages below, Bulgarin and Grech wrote into being what appeared to be a robustly influential audience, a discursive construct which they then wielded with gusto, according to the exigencies of the moment. (4)

To indicate multiple ways in which aspects of the period's media environment-- perceptions about the book market,, the characteristics of a growing public as these were articulated by the press, and the evolving position of cultural producers--shed light on Alexander Pushkin's relatively understudied forays into professional journalism will be my main objective in this essay. (5)

The dynamics between writer and audience receive ample treatment throughout Pushkin's career. (6) Some of his works rehearse expbcitly the demands of a public constituted by the print media vis-a-vis the cultural producer cast as a poet. The probably deliberately unfinished (7) prose work called "Fragment" ("Otryvok," 1830 and 1832) contains a statement to which Pushkin would return in a later, also unfinished, but more mature and better-known work, "Egyptian Nights" ("Egipetskie nochi," 1835), which has long been read for its complex and systematic contemplation of the status of art, especially poetry, in the age of literary commerce. …

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