The Reception of American Transcendentalism in Russia

By Osipova, Elvira | American Studies International, February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Reception of American Transcendentalism in Russia


Osipova, Elvira, American Studies International


After several decades of suppression and neglect, the first appraisal of American transcendentalism in Russian scholarship appeared as a part of a general review of American literature in 1947. The publication of Volume I of The History of American Literature was a real academic feat in times of ideological strictures. The main editor, A. Startsev, was subsequently harassed, and plans for the publication of future volumes were discontinued.

His chapter on transcendentalism presented a consistent review of its philosophic roots, as well as a description of its main concepts in the context of American thought. The legacies of Emerson and Thoreau were covered in separate chapters containing analyses of their poetic techniques. However, in keeping with the spirit of the time, Startsev treated the philosophical mysticism of Emerson and Thoreau as "erroneous." He referred to transcendentalism as a "Romantic reaction against capitalism," underrating at the same time the social impact of its doctrines. (1) Thoreau's Walden experiment was regarded as "a flight from reality," and his individualism was equated with asocial behavior. Later, when Walden appeared in Russian translation in 1962, Startsev suppressed this politically motivated definition in his afterward to the publication, referring instead to the "moral and philosophical mysticism, cultivated by Transcendentalists" as a limitation. (2)

In line with the tradition of Soviet scholarship of the 1930s-1940s Nikolai Samokhvalov who wrote about Emerson and Thoreau in the late 1960s divided Transcendentalists into "bourgeois reformists" and "radical protesters." (3) However, beginning with the mid-1970s, the mere descriptive method, which characterized the first publications on American Transcendentalism, was superseded by more detailed studies of the works of its exponents.

The deepening interest in the aesthetics of American Romanticism produced the publication of a valuable source book of translations compiled by Alexander Nikolyukin in 1977. It contained some essays by Emerson and Thoreau. (4) A revival of interest in Emerson, who was widely published in Russia at the turn of the 19th century, signified a change in the moral, if not political atmosphere. After decades of veritable non-existence, Emerson's legacy gradually made a comeback. At the dawn of perestroika, in 1986, there appeared a volume in the series The Library of the Literature of the USA of Emerson's essays together with Thoreau's Walden. These translations facilitated the reception of Transcendentalism in Russia. Further translations were published in 1980 in a volume entitled The Publicist Works of American Romanticism edited by Alexander Nikolyukin. Here a new translation of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" appeared for the first time since 1917. Thoreau's "Plea for Captain John Brown" and excerpts from his journals enabled Russian readers to create a more comprehensive image of the sage of Concord.

An important aspect of the reception of American Transcendentalism on Russian soil is the realization of the "modernity" of Emerson and Thoreau, the significance of their "living thoughts." Indeed, politically laden doctrines of self-reliance and civil disobedience have rich connotations for the Russian mind. Emerson and Thoreau came to be considered by Soviet intellectuals as ideological allies in the time of conformism and fear. It was not merely incidental that Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" was published in Russia for the first time as late as 1977. Russian dissidents found justification of their beliefs in Thoreau's declarations, "Under a Government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison," and "We should be men first, and subjects afterwards." The ethical doctrines of the American writer helped Russian people to sustain themselves in the atmosphere of repression that was generated by the Soviet regime.

Russian literary scholars and philosophers, though employing somewhat different methods in the study of Transcendentalism, are unanimous in regarding Emerson and Thoreau as philosophers, not just writers and poets. …

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