Czech literature

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Czech literature

Czech literature, literary works that constitute part of the Czech culture and, except for some early compositions written in liturgical languages, is in the Czech language.

Early Literature

Czech literature dates from the 10th cent. The legends of St. Wenceslaus, composed in that century, were written in Old Church Slavonic. Until c.1400, Czech literature consisted mainly of Latin chronicles (Cosmas of Prague, 1125) and of Czech hymns, tales of chivalry, and romances in verse. The 15th cent. witnessed a poetic flowering that paralleled increasing national consciousness. In 1394, Smil Flaška of Pardubice initiated modern realistic Czech literature with an allegorical admonition in verse, New Council. In a similar vein were the sermons of Tomáš Štítný (c.1331–c.1401) and the works of the peasant mystic Petr Chelčický (The Net of the True Faith, 1440–43).

The language reforms of John Huss helped to make Czech an effective literary language for the writers of the Renaissance, as in the works of the humanists, in the religious and secular writings of the Moravian bishop Jan Blahoslav (1503–71), and in the histories of Veleslavin (1545–99). The crowning glory of the age was the Kralice Bible, translated by the Czech Brethren and published from 1579 to 1593. The Thirty Years War (1618–48) brought wholesale destruction of Czech literary works followed by repression of national life.

In the 17th cent. the great educator Comenius (Jan Amos Komenský), like many other Czechs, worked in exile, and the language was gradually reduced to little more than a peasant dialect. In the late 18th cent. men like the philologists Josef Dobrovský and Josef Jungmann helped to rehabilitate writing in Czech. Jan Kollár led the Pan-Slavic revival in the early 19th cent., while Karel Hynek Mácha, considered the foremost Czech poet, expressed a Byronic romanticism developed further by the novelist Božena Nĕmcová and the poet Karel J. Erben.

The Nineteenth Century

Pan-Slavism and romanticism dominated Czech literature in the first half of the 19th cent. František Palacký highlighted Slavic scholarship. The 9th- and 13th-century Slavic texts produced by Václav Hanka (1791–1861) were proved spurious; they became, however, part of the Czech literary tradition and remained influential. In the later 19th cent., when the poetry of Svatopluk Čech, Jan Neruda, and Joseph V. Sládek and the novels of Alois Jirásek achieved fame, literature was oriented toward the intellectual and the bourgeois.

Modern Czech Literature

After 1890 realism gained force with the writings of the influential critic Thomas Masaryk. Proletarian and rural themes were developed, and writers such as Jaroslav Vrchlický, J. S. Machar, Petr Bezruč, and Otokar Březina won fame at home, while Karel Čapek brought Czech literature into the mainstream of world letters. In the period from 1918 to 1938 Czech literature was the most cosmopolitan of the Slavonic literatures; at the same time native themes were cultivated. A dominant trend was the movement away from the intellectual and the individual toward the abstract and the hedonistic. Jaroslav Hašek produced his classic war satire, The Good Soldier Schweik (4 vol., 1920–23), and Franz Kafka dominated the literary circles of Prague.

The German occupation saw the destruction of Czech literary art and the death of many outstanding figures. After World War II a reorientation of Czech writing toward Russia ensued, and socialist realism became dominant in Czech literature. Postwar novelists of note include Egon Hostovský and Jan Drda. Some relaxation of the strictures of socialist realism was evident in the 1950s and 60s. The postwar emigration produced a great flowering in Czech letters, including two writers with world reputations, Milan Kundera and Josef Škvorecký.

Bibliography

See W. E. Harkins, ed., Anthology of Czech Literature (1953); M. Součková, A Literature in Crisis (1954) and The Czech Romantics (1958); P. Selver, ed., An Anthology of Czechoslovak Literature (1929, repr. 1969); W. E. Harkins, ed. and tr., Czech Prose (1983); A. Novák, Czech Literature (rev. ed. 1986); G. J. Kovtun, Czech and Slovak Literature in English (1984, 1988); An Anthology of Czech Literature (1990); P. Hruby, Daydreams and Nightmares: Czech Communist and Ex-Communist Literature, 1917–1987 (1990).

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