Tolstoi in the Sixties

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Readers who consider Voina i mir (1868-1869; War and Peace, 1886) less than perfectly focused, full of digressions or, in the words of Henry James, a “loose baggy monster,” find corroboration and explanation for the novel’s disjointed structure in Boris Eikhenbaum’s analysis. In his earlier books on Tolstoy, Molodoi Tolstoi (1922; The Young Tolstoi, 1972) and Lev Tolstoi Vol. I (1928), Eikhenbaum describes the trends, genres, and writers confronting the author as he tried to find his literary niche. Eikhenbaum’s approach to Lev Tolstoi, Vol. II (1931; Tolstoi in the Sixties) was partly determined by the political climate of the late 1920’s. Eikhenbaum was not only a distinguished literary critic and scholar of Western literature, but also one of the foremost adherents of the Russian Formalist school of literary criticism which flourished briefly in the immediate postrevolutionary period. The Formalists analyzed literature in terms of stylistic devices, language, and artistic structure; they were concerned with the internal coherence of the literary work rather than with its relationship to the external world. Their theories came under severe criticism by Communist ideologues, who referred to Eikhenbaum’s work as soulless stylistics and insisted that literature should be treated in socioeconomic terms and not as an autonomous discipline. In response, Eikhenbaum explored approaches more in harmony with these Marxist tenets. He proposed, in Tolstoi in the Sixties, to study the relationship between literature and social environment by delineating the cultural mores acting upon the author, including the influence of other writers, contacts abroad, current philosophical notions, literary tradition, and public expectation. Such a parameter preserved literature’s independent status, but integrated enough extraliterary matter to give the analysis the required sociological shading. Eikhenbaum also remained satisfied that his scholarly integrity had not been impaired, since the investigated influences caused Tolstoy to alter his literary behavior, and thus became proper material for inclusion into literary biography.

The first part of the book’s four divisions, “Tolstoi Outside of Literature,” chronicles Tolstoy’s activity after he temporarily gave up fiction and withdrew to his estate. Tolstoy’s early works had been only moderately successful. He himself was dissatisfied with his conventional style, which differed little from that of other writing of the time, and he groped for a more solemn form of expression. He also reacted negatively to the belligerent tone of the radical writers, whose emergence in full force had become possible after Czar Alexander II replaced his repressive predecessor Nikolas I in 1855. As literature became prominently politicized, crowding out “art for art’s sake” counter-trends, Tolstoy found himself stranded. He had barely made a name for himself in the literary world when shifting interests deprived him of a forum. Not yet recognized as an independent or influential intelligent, and unwilling to commit himself to either radicals, moderates, or to the tradition-minded Slavophiles, he was forced to seek refuge in his class position as aristocratic landowner.

Eikhenbaum offers a detailed account of Tolstoy’s subsequent pedagogical activity, with special attention to Tolstoy’s interest in German populist educators. These lengthy exchanges with minor European figures, such as the novelist Berthold Auerbach, the populist Wilhelm Riehl, and the pedagogues Adolf Diesterweg and Friedrich Froebel, make for fairly cumbersome reading, but they leave the impression that Tolstoy pursued the topic of primary education less for its own sake than for the opportunity to get back into print as a challenger of prevailing liberal methodology. After he became a teacher of peasant children in 1859, he published his observations and conclusions, together with demonstrative short stories, in his own journal Yasnaya polyana, and thus brought his name before the public once more. His writings of that time reveal a boldly conservative attitude. He rejected compulsory education in favor of preserving the essence of common people in its original state. Eikhenbaum excuses this and similar ultratraditional positions by labeling Tolstoy “archaistic,” possessed of a historical consciousness which firmly anchored new developments to the roots of the past.

There also emerges, however, a portrait of a class-conscious aristocrat seeking theories to justify his rejection of rapid social and political change. This stance brought Tolstoy the desired notoriety, as leading writers and commentators of various ideological persuasions engaged in a bitter journalistic polemic with him. Eikhenbaum’s samples of these exchanges show that Tolstoy was generally known as an eccentric landowner, supported by few. Tolstoy’s insistence that moral upbringing is superior to learning, and his assertions that he would renovate outmoded values to make them applicable to contemporary conditions, failed to impress. When the czarist government ordered police searches of his premises, he angrily...

(The entire section is 2132 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Choice. XIX, June, 1982, p. 1408.

Library Journal. CVII, March 15, 1982, p. 638.

The New Republic. CLXXXVI, June 2, 1982, p. 35.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, April 18, 1982, p. 14.

Publishers Weekly. CCXX, December 11, 1981, p. 56.