Mikhail Bakhtin Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Bakhtin had an impact on literary theory, especially on point of view in the novel; on the philosophy and interrelatedness of language and society; on the extension of areas of linguistics and schools of literary theory; and on modern philosophy, presenting an alternative to systems based on Greek philosophers.

Early Life

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born November 16, 1895, in the provincial capital of Orel, Russia. Untitled and unpropertied, he came from a noble family who, like their city, dated back to the late Middle Ages. His father and grandfather were owner and manager, respectively, of state banks. The third of five children, Mikhail was closer to his elder brother Nikolai than to his three sisters or his parents. A German governess taught the boys Greek poetry in German translation.

When Bakhtin was nine years old, the family moved to Vilnius, the Russian-ruled capital of Lithuania. In this multiethnic center, his outlook was broadened even though the schools and church that he attended were Russian. He was influenced by new movements such as Symbolism and by the spirit of revolutionary change. A lifelong process of debate and dialogue was begun between Bakhtin and his brother and with others. Bakhtin’s extensive reading included among others Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Six years later, Bakhtin’s family moved to Odessa, a major city of the Ukraine. Bakhtin attended and finished the school known as the First Gymnasium; he then attended the University of Odessa for one year, studying with the philological faculty. At sixteen, he contracted osteomyelitis.

From 1914 to 1918, Bakhtin attended the University of St. Petersburg, rooming with his brother Nikolai. Of several professors, the most influential was Faddei F. Zelinsky, credited with laying the foundation for Bakhtin’s knowledge of philosophy and literature. Bakhtin’s graduation in 1918, following Nikolai’s departure for the White Army in 1917 and eventual self-exile to England, marked the end of the preparatory stage of his life.

Life’s Work

During the years 1918 through 1929, Bakhtin established lifelong friendships with artistic and intellectual people, developed and expressed his own ideas, did extensive work on his own writings, married, and saw his first works published. He became the center of a series of informal groups comprising people from a wide variety of backgrounds, areas of achievement, and political and ideological persuasions. At Nevel, where he and his family moved in 1918, members of the Bakhtin circle included Lev Vasilyevich Pumpiansky, Valentin Nikolayevich Voloshinov, and the musician Maria Veniaminova Yudina. Bakhtin maintained his personal and philosophical commitment to Christianity at a time when all religions were suppressed in the Soviet Union. His first known publication was a two-page article in a local periodical in 1919 entitled Iskusstvo i otvetstvennost (art and responsibility). The ideas he expressed in this article were later developed into those of his mature works.

In 1920, Bakhtin moved to nearby Vitebsk, where the circle re-formed and expanded to include new members such as Ivan Ivanovich Sollertinsky and Pavel Nikolayevich Medvedev. In addition to writing and keeping notebooks, Bakhtin taught at Vitebsk Higher Institute of Education and held several other positions. The worsening of his osteomyelitis was complicated by typhoid in 1921, and he was nursed by Elena Aleksandrovna Okolovich; their fifty-year marriage began later that year and ended with her death in 1971.

Bakhtin spent the years 1924 through 1929 in Leningrad, where he lived on a progressively reduced medical pension. His health prohibited public activity, but he was able to meet with members of his circle and to lecture in private apartments. Works published by his friends contained his ideas but their Marxist ideology, thus making them politically acceptable for publication. Opinion varies as to authorship of these collaborative works. Some scholars believe that Bakhtin wrote them in their entirety; some believe that he composed the bulk of these texts, with his friends adding the requisite ideology; others are convinced that the works were actually written by those under whose names they were published, and merely reflect the influence of Bakhtin. One work signed by the scientist Ivan Ivanovich Kanaev questions the claims of vitalism. Of the four works attributed to Medvedev, the best known is Formal’ nyi metod v literaturovedenii: Kriticheskoe vvedenie v sotsiologicheskuyu poetiku (1928; The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, 1978). One of Voloshinov’s seven titles...

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Mikhail Bakhtin Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Danow, David K. The Thought of Mikhail Bakhtin: From Word to Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This gracefully written introduction is a clear and accessible presentation of Bakhtin’s thought for readers encountering the philosopher for the first time.

Dentith, Simon. Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader. New York: Routledge, 1995. This anthology reprints excerpts from Bakhtin’s key works and presents well-researched critical guides to the concepts in those works.

Emerson, Caryl. The First Hundred Years of Mikhail Bakhtin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997. An indispensable book for those who wish to explore the ongoing world of Bakhtin scholarship. It provides an in-depth overview of the issues debated by Russian Bakhtinians as well as those debated by Bakhtin scholars of the English-speaking world.

Emerson, Caryl, and Gary Saul Morson. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990. Though it is a little too detailed to be an accessible introduction to Bakhtin’s philosophy, this is an invaluable companion to anyone trying to read his entire body of work.

Holquist, Michael, and Katerina Clark. Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. An excellent biography of the man and a penetrating study of his ideas. Includes useful and unusually thorough summaries of Bakhtin’s major works, terms, and concepts. Notable in part for its assertion that selected works of Bakhtin’s associates, Pavel Medvedev and Valentin Voloshinov, were in fact the work of Bakhtin, dictated to his friends and published under their names when he was out of favor with the Stalinist government.

Vice, Sue. Introducing Bakhtin. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. Though this may not be the most definitive guide to Bakhtin’s thought available, its use of contemporary references in long discussions of Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia, polyphony, dialogism, and the carnival make it helpful for those coming to his work with only a basic knowledge.

Mikhail Bakhtin Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In the late 1970’s, Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (BEHK-tehn) emerged from decades of obscurity to be hailed as one of the leading and most original theorists in a remarkably wide variety of disciplines ranging from linguistics and the social sciences to semiotics and literary criticism. Bakhtin, who was born in Orel, south of Moscow, in 1895, studied philology at the University of Odessa and later at Petrograd. He began his teaching career in a provincial elementary school, from where he went to secondary schools and the teachers’ college at Saransk. Three books written in the 1920’s—Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship, and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language—have been attributed to him, either in their entirety or in part, even though the works were signed by his friends and colleagues V. N. Voloshinov and P. N. Medvedev. The political climate in postrevolutionary Russia, as revolutionary freedom gave way to political repression, may have necessitated this deception on the part of a writer whose religious views made him suspect. In 1929, the year he published the early version of his important study of Fyodor Dostoevski, Bakhtin was sentenced to internal exile and forced to work as a clerk on the Siberian border. He returned to teaching in 1936 but was beset by difficulties in the following years. In 1938, chronic osteomyelitis led to the amputation of his leg, and acceptance of his doctoral dissertation on François Rabelais, written and submitted in 1940, was delayed for political reasons until 1952 (and left unpublished until 1965). Despite physical infirmities, political difficulties, exile, and a demanding teaching schedule, Bakhtin wrote copiously throughout his entire career, but few of his books appeared under his own name during his lifetime. Only in his final years did his work begin to exert some influence on the new generation of Soviet intellectuals.{$S[A]Voloshinov, V. N.;Bakhtin, Mikhail}{$S[A]Medvedev, P. N.;Bakhtin, Mikhail}

At the time of his death in 1975, Bakhtin was largely unknown outside the Soviet Union. Within a decade, that situation changed dramatically. The reason for this sudden rise to fame had less to do with those critiques of Freudianism, Marxism, structuralism, and the social sciences that Bakhtin had...

(The entire section is 951 words.)

Mikhail Bakhtin Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Bakhtin had a profound impact on the philosophy and interrelatedness of language and society, on the extension of linguistics and literary theory, and on modern philosophical systems.

Early Life

Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was born November 16, 1895, in the provincial capital of Orel, Russia. Untitled and unpropertied, he came from a noble family who, like their city, dated back to the late Middle Ages. His father and grandfather were owner and manager, respectively, of state banks. The third of five children, Mikhail was closer to his elder brother Nikolai than to his three sisters or his parents. A German governess taught the boys Greek poetry in German...

(The entire section is 1842 words.)