Letters are to essays or literature what conversations are to public addresses: informal and informative, chatty and, depending upon the audience, unself-conscious and unguarded. Incautious and immediate, letters can be the written equivalent of an analyst’s couch. While letters are never the events of an author’s life, they do shade and amplify the events and positions of the writer’s life.
The Turgenev letters do shade and amplify the well-known outlines and contents of Ivan Turgenev’s life. Born in 1818, into a wealthy, aristocractic family which divided its time between extensive rural holdings and the urbane life of Moscow, Turgenev had an early introduction to life as a producer of culture. In 1831, he studied philosophy in Berlin with the intellectual descendants of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The experience in Berlin was decisive for Turgenev. His own liberal orientation and understanding were shaped here as was his lifelong appreciation for things European. Back in Russia, Turgenev spent several years in the government service before returning to Europe in 1845. In Europe, particularly France, Turgenev began his life as an author in earnest. Despite spending more than half of his life away from Russia, Turgenev played an active role in the literary life of Russia. He was a regular contributor to several journals, especially the Contemporary. His best-known works include Zapiski okhotnika (1852; Russian Life in the Interior, 1855, better known as A Sportman’s Sketches, 1932), Dvoryanskoye gnezdo (1859; Liza, 1869, better known as A House of Gentlefolk, 1894), Otsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867), and Nov (1877; Virgin Soil, 1877).
The letters of Ivan Turgenev, legion in number and penned during a fifty-two-year period present to the reader a revealing, sustained look into the life of one of the major nineteenth century Russian writers. Ivan Turgenev’s life, as these letters report, coursed through a century rich in intellectual and social tumult and crisis. For all Russians, the most ominous problem was social: What was to be done about the Russian peasantry? As late as 1850, more than ninety-five percent of the Russian population lived in conditions that were legally and economically essentially feudal. The serf question had many facets, yet the prevailing concerns were economic and moral. The system which housed a literate Russian landowner aristocracy with an illiterate peasantry was economically inefficient. Nevertheless, both classes had enormous investments of emotion, money, and land in this system. This major social problem had moral dimensions as well. The moral question of serfdom was interconnected with the economic one, and because it was easier to resolve, at least intellectually, it was more easily and frequently discussed. No literate Russian in general and no Russian writer could avoid the issue of serfdom, for it raised additional issues: the relationship of the Russian writer to his society, the function of and audience for Russian literature, the applicability of European experiences and ideas to Russian problems. Should Russians import European ideas and solutions? Or should Russians draw upon their own experiences and resources?
These are only a few of the problems and dilemmas which acquired clarity and resolution throughout the nineteenth century. Turgenev and his contemporaries defined and redefined, defended and discarded these social and intellectual issues with the same passion and precision as did the inheritors and installers of these ideas in 1917.
Turgenev’s letters tell of his responses to the demanding, persistent intellectual and social concerns. They also speak of the mundane, prosaic items to which even the great persons of any age must attend: concerns about money, concerns of a father for his daughter, the personal and literary concerns of his many literary friends, of his poor health, and his entertainments: hunting, hounds, and chess. The letters of Ivan Turgenev reveal what is often missed or ignored in other studies: a full life.
The Turgenev Letters, numbering 334 in these two volumes, are representative of more than six thousand written by the author. David Lowe, the translator and editor, claims that his selection, the most complete now in English, is representative of the corpus of Turgenev’s correspondence. More than two hundred of the letters are translated here for the first time; the letters included span fifty-two years of the author’s life, from 1831 until his death in 1883. The bulk of the letters, though, were written after 1850, when his life as a regularly published author began. Lowe’s monumental task of culling these letters from Turgenev’s enormous correspondence was guided by a desire to illuminate the breadth of Turgenev’s interests and to emphasize the author’s well-known position as a kind of literary broker between Russian and European thought and culture. In both of these tasks, Lowe accomplishes what he intended.
The Turgenev revealed through these letters is one of extraordinary cultural erudition, passionately held convictions on literature, especially Russian literature, and the relationship between the Russian writer and his society. Turgenev’s letters are a running commentary on the nature of European and Russian culture, especially as the discussion revolved around conflicts between Westernizers and Slavophiles. Before the reform-minded Czar Alexander II emancipated the Russian peasantry in 1861, Turgenev, himself a landowner and serf-owner, considered how Russian society could be better reoriented. Long after the Ukase of 1861, Turgenev remained interested in the ways in which the abolition of serfdom fostered or retarded economic development. The relationship of the Russian writer to his society and the purpose of literature were other broad issues that preoccupied Turgenev.
The extent of Turgenev’s literary acquaintances is impressive. He maintained correspondence with every important Russian writer or thinker of the second half of the nineteenth century and with scores of lesser writers as well. Writers of the stature of Fyodor Dostoevski (1821-1881), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the Slavophile Sergey Aksakov (1791-1859), and Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891) were regular correspondents. Political theorists such...
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