Belinsky, “Letter to Gogol” (1847)
Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848)
The son of a provincial doctor, Belinsky was expelled from the University of Moscow (1832) (for lack of funds) and eeked out a living thereafter as a journalist, but he never emerged fully from his impoverished background. He was one of the first prominent members of the literary intelligentsia with a middle class background, the raznochintsy. As the century progressed, this group eventually came to dominate the Russian revolutionary movement. His first substantial critical articles were part of a series that he wrote for the journal Teleskop (“Telescope”) beginning in 1834. In them he expounded F.W.J. Schelling’s Romantic view of national character, applying it to Russian culture.
Belinsky was briefly managing editor of the Moskovsky nablyudatel (“Moscow Observer”) before obtaining a post in 1839 as chief critic for the journal Otechestvennyye zapiski (“National Annals”). The influential essays he published there on such writers as Aleksandr Pushkin and Nikolay Gogol helped shape the literary and social views of other Russian intellectuals for decades to come. By 1840 Belinsky had moved from the idealism of his early essays to a Hegelian view that art and the history of a nation are closely connected. He believed that Russian literature had to progress in order to help the still-embryonic Russian nation develop into a mature, civilized society.
Belinsky’s perceptive praise of such writers as Pushkin, Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Ivan Turgenev helped establish their early reputations. He laid the foundation for modern Russian literary criticism in his belief that Russian literature should honestly reflect Russian reality and that art should be judged for its social as well as its aesthetic qualities.
In 1846 Belinsky joined the review Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”), for which he wrote most of his last essays. In 1847 Belinsky was outraged when Gogol published his Selected Passages from a Correspondence with Friends in which he praised Nicholas I’s ideology of autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism. Belinsky responds furiously,
“Proponent of the knout, apostle of ignorance, champion of obscurantism and Stygian darkness, panegyrist of Tartar morals – what are you about! Look beneath your feet – you are standing on the brink of an abyss!...”
What is to be done instead?
What are Belinsky’s beliefs?
“Mankind will never be free until the last priest is strangled with the entrails of the last king.” (Attributed to Diderot by Jean-François de La Harpe in Cours de Littérature Ancienne et Moderne (1840))
Russia’s true character (3-4)
Russian people is different; mystic exaltation is
not in its nature; it has too much common sense, a too lucid and positive
mind, and therein, perhaps, lies the vastness of its historic destinies in
Role of the Russian Writer (4)
Only literature, despite the Tartar censorship, shows signs of life and progressive movement. That is why the title of writer is held in such esteem among us; that is why literary success is easy among us even for a writer of little talent.
What is it about “The Overcoat” which made Belinsky hail Gogol as a key proponent of his liberal, Westernizing approach to reform?
What did Belinsky miss?
Up until the 1840’s the writing of Pushkin and the early
Gogol can be considered forms of Russian Romanticism. When Belinsky
interpreted Gogol, he invented the