Conversation About Dante Essay - Critical Context

Osip Mandelstam

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Mandelstam’s essay was less a novel departure from his long-maturing perceptions about the nature of poetic creativity than it was a rich synthesis and a brilliantly reflective culmination of what proved to be his life’s work. His inventiveness and literary idiosyncrasies were present in many of his earlier works, although in germinal form. He had always been, as he correctly defined himself, a raznochinets, although he is now regarded as one of Russia’s premier poets: a lofty tribute from a culture always distinguished by its regard for poetry.

Thus, while Mandelstam was indeed appreciated by many of his peers, his literary career was an unsuccessful one. Although he frequently published in pre-Revolutionary journals, he seemed in many ways cut off from his age, perhaps because he had spent two years of study abroad in a particularly xenophobic era, perhaps because he lacked some of the prestige that might have come from successfully completing his work at St. Petersburg University, or perhaps because he was a Jew. Moreover, unlike most Russian males in their twenties, he neither fought in World War I nor was actively caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution—however much, as was true of most intellectuals, he favored it.

Continuing to write after 1917, during those years when the state organized or controlled literary activity for its own purposes, he was out of favor. After 1928, efforts by the Stalinist state to discredit him intensified to such an extent that he kept few notes or manuscripts, preferring that he and his remarkable wife, Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina, memorize his works. Commencing in the early 1930’s and continuing until his death, he was subjected to arrests or, in company with Nadezhda, to exiles.

Very much a man caught in the harsh realities of his times, Mandelstam dealt with them as directly as he could. He vigorously engaged in the discussions and polemics between Symbolists and Acmeists and the splinter groups that they spawned, and he was alert to the main intellectual currents that had developed over the centuries in the West as well as in the Soviet Union. On balance, however, he was in many ways a noncontextual figure; the most important aspects of his life were rooted in “literary time.”