The Peasants in Early Turkish Literature

By Karaomerlioglu, Asim | East European Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Peasants in Early Turkish Literature

Karaomerlioglu, Asim, East European Quarterly

In the Turkey of the 1930s, the peasants and villages had been a major concern and interest for the Republican intellectuals. As a matter of fact, a peasantist discourse, the so-called koyculuk, was widely accepted and disseminated by the Republican elites. This phenomenon could be observed in the activities and publications of the People's Houses, in the Village Institutes experience and in the ideological debates concerning the attempts at land reform during the interwar era. (1) In a nutshell, the ideology of peasantism denied class-based ideologies; aspired to a static, undifferentiated society; attempted to find a mass base for nationalism in a predominantly agrarian country while preempting grass-roots movements; feared and vilified socialist revolution; recognized the need to respond to the demands of the agrarian population in the troubled times of the Great Depression; aimed to consolidate the conservatism of the regime by relying on the supposedly conservative fabric of the Turkish peasants; and inspired a nationalist myth-making process that sought the "real" Turk in villages. Any inquiry into the intellectual history of peasantism, though, requires also taking into account peasantist leanings in Turkish literature. The main reason for this is that literature used to play a more significant role in Turkish intellectual life than it did in many other countries. For one thing, the omnipresent and restrictive censorship during the single-party era made it difficult to support and spread ideological positions through any medium other than literary works. The widespread perception among the intellectuals was that it was safer to express thoughts of opposition via literary works. Besides, the Turkish intelligentsia, like their nineteenth-century Russian counterparts, loved using literature as a way of expressing, defending and spreading their own ideological and historical views. (2) This tendency was complemented by the availability of readers who enjoyed picking up political and historiographical standpoints from literary works, especially from novels.

The first literary work which focused on village themes and chose villagers and village life as its topic goes back to the early 1890s. Nabizade Nazim's Kara Bibik, in fact a story of around forty pages, is the first fictional narrative which deals with the rural social problems of ignorance, poverty, landowner exploitation and usury, as well as the emotional and sexual behavior of the villagers. (3) Ebubekir Hazim Tepeyran's Kucuk Papa, published in 1910, presents the heavy tax burden of the peasants, the indifference of the officials and medical doctors towards the peasantry, the "backwardness" of Anatolia, the wretched conditions of the schools and roads, the problems of the draft and the like. (4)

After the establishment of modern Turkey, the number of literary works increased considerably; however, it should be noted that the so-called "peasantist literature" as a genre reached its peak not only in the single-party era, but from the early 1950s onwards. Nevertheless, despite their relative weakness, the early Republican literary works paved the way for this later flourishing of the peasantist genre. Novels and short stories from the single-party era offer rich opportunities for analyzing elite perceptions of the peasantry and village life. Many outstanding Turkish literary figures wrote on these issues and helped create a body of literary works that reflected their own worldviews rather than the actual conditions in the Turkish countryside. Especially important among these writers were Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoglu, Sabahattin Ali, and Memduh Pevket Esendal. They were not, however, simply complying with peasantist ideology, nor were they directly inspired by it. Moreover, each of these authors represented different agendas, concerns and perspectives on the same issues. In this article I shall examine these distinguished authors from the single-party era who represented different styles and perspectives as they related to village themes and the peasantry. …

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