(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The publication of Rabelais and His World (1968) in the United States just a few years after its author’s rediscovery in the Soviet Union helped prepare the way for the explosion of Western interest in the work of one of the twentieth century’s most important and exciting theorists, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Imagination (1981), a gathering of four essays from the 1930’s and 1940’s; Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1984), the significantly revised second (1963) edition of the book first published in 1929; the reissue of the Rabelais book by Indiana University Press the same year; Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (1986); Bakhtin’s two Tolstoy prefaces (1929) in Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges (1989); and the reader’s first direct look at Bakhtin’s early philosophical essays in Art and Answerability (1990). As if this chronologically haphazard publication history of Bakhtin’s works in English was not confusing and at times even contradictory enough, three additional texts appeared in translation attributed to Bakhtin even though they had originally appeared in the Soviet Union sixty years before under the names of Bakhtin’s associates, P. N. Medvedev’s The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1928; 1985); and V. N. Voloshinov’s Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (1927; 1987 [first translation 1976]) and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (1929; 1986). Led by two seminal essays by Julia Kristeva first published in France in 1967 and 1970 (translated 1973 and 1980), academic interest soon developed into an industry, even a religion having its own internecine debates and schisms. Under the title Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle (1981, translated 1984), Tzvetan Todorov provided a brief but influential “montage, halfway between anthology and commentary,” in an effort to make accessible, as well as to show the importance of, Bakhtin’s then still largely untranslated works. In 1984 Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist offered a critical biography that details Bakhtin’s life and includes excellent summaries of, as well as slightly slanted commentaries on, Bakhtin’s writings, including the disputed texts, which Clark and Holquist accept as Bakhtin’s and to which they devote nearly one-fifth of their pages. Gary Saul Morson edited two collections of essays, Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on His Work (1986) and, with Caryl Emerson, Rethinking Bakhtin, and British scholars Ken Hirschkopf and David Shepard added a third, Bakhtin and Cultural Theory (1989).

The decade of Bakhtin studies that began with The Dialogical Imagination ended with the publication of two very different syntheses and reassessments of his work, its meaning, and its reception: Holquist’s slim but nonetheless very useful “personal” introduction, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World (1990), and Morson and Emerson’s comprehensive tome, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. The need for Holquist’s book is clear: a concise introduction to and application of Bakhtin’s major terms and concepts chiefly intended for nonspecialists. The rationale behind Morson and Emerson’s work is more compelling and various, as well as more far-reaching. First, the piecemeal publication of Bakhtin’s works, particularly in the United States, which helped fuel interest in his theories of dialogism, carnival, the polyphonic novel, intertextuality, and the like, has made it difficult for even specialists to form an accurate image of a theory that, and a theorist who, seems at once provocative and contradictory, anticipating the most important theoretical issues and stances of the later twentieth century and yet curiously opposed to much poststructuralist thought. Second, the disputed texts issue needs to be resolved so that discussion of Bakhtin’s work can proceed on a more factual and less conjectural basis (conjectures not only about the disputed texts but also about texts written but then lost). Third, such a discussion must address itself to the ways in which Bakhtin’s thought developed and must find a way beyond hagiography and heroicizing in order to consider how best to extend and challenge Bakhtin’s ideas, to engage him in dialogical exchange rather than monological mimicry. Much to their credit, Morson and Emerson address themselves to every one of these points.

Certainly the most persuasive and important part of their book is the short chapter on the disputed texts, reprinted verbatim from the introduction to Rethinking Bakhtin. Believing that extending the Bakhtin canon does not necessarily improve an understanding of his work and contending rather commonsensically that “the burden of proof must lie with those who claim that Bakhtin wrote works signed by others,” Morson and Emerson reject Bakhtin’s authorship of the disputed texts but acknowledge and discuss in detail significant similarities (and differences) between Bakhtin on the one hand and Medvedev and Voloshinov on the other. (In acknowledging that the latter two may have “stimulated” Bakhtin to investigate new areas of thought and new ways of thinking, Morson and Emerson are...

(The entire section is 2140 words.)