Northern Illinois University Press

Young Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1846-1847

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In early 1846, the young Dostoevsky was the toast of the town. The applause was deafening. Everyone wanted to meet the new writer who, with the publication of Poor Folk, was hailed as a savior, a prophet, and an idol whom God had chosen to lead Russian literature from alleged deserts to promised lands. It was a measure of the angst and concern for the fate and future of the national written expression that readers, writers, and reviewers embraced Dostoevsky with such excitement and joy. All wanted to meet the young man, to shake his hand, to talk with him, to introduce him to society, and, most important, to claim him as a colleague, teacher, and friend. “But who is this Dostoevsky?” people exclaimed. “For God’s sake, show him to me, introduce me to him!”

Two individuals were particularly taken with Dostoevsky.  One was the critic, Vissarion Belinsky; the other, the poet and editor, Nikolai Nekrasov. Both were avid proponents of progressivism in Russian literature and life. Both men also took heart that the national written expression, after an embarrassingly slow start, was moving to world-wide prominence and respect. They were particularly thrilled with what came to be known as the “Petersburg tradition” in Russian literature: fiction about “little” men and women who lived and loved, worked and died, often tragically, in the imperial city. Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk which they saw, wrongly, as an expose of a poor soul and his would-be love in urban “depths,” filled their bill nicely. It resonated handily with Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman” (1833), with Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospekt” and “The Nose”, and with so-called “physiological sketches” of Russian metropolitan life that appeared regularly in newspapers and journals, almanacs and anthologies  throughout the northern metropolis.  

Belinsky, Nekrasov, and others were in for the shock of their lives.  Dostoevsky could not have made a worse impression. If Russian readers, writers, and reviewers were expecting a strapping Goliath, they got a sickly David. In private, the writer of Poor Folk appeared frail and pale, chagrined and confused. In public, Dostoevsky was like an erupting volcano. His body shook and shuddered; his face was stormy and dark; his lips twisted and turned. The writer of Poor Folk did not accept people at face-value or with good intentions. Rather, he sensed threats and agendas from all. Anxiety and paranoia came to the fore. Anyone and anything raised his temper and fists. 

If Russian readers, writers, and reviewers were expecting a strapping Goliath, they got a sickly David.

There were three plausible, if problematic reasons for Dostoevsky’s behavior.

The success of Poor Folk had gone to Dostoevsky’s head. A legend in his own mind, he had become insufferable. The bragging and boasting were non-stop. The young writer was heir to Lord Byron, Pushkin, and Gogol. His second work, The Double, would challenge, if not vanquish Gogol’s Dead Souls

He was also insecure as a writer. Despite the braggadocio, Dostoevsky was having great difficulty with The Double. He also would have grave doubts over his next three pieces: “Mr. Prokharchin,” “The Landlady,” and “A Novel in Nine Letters.” Understandably, the young writer wondered if he had had beginner’s luck with Poor Folk, if he were a flash-in-the-pan who would exit Russian literature as quickly as he had entered it.

Finally, Dostoevsky was alien or indifferent to the socio-political liberalism that Belinsky and, Nekrasov wanted in literature. Rather, he focused on internal causes of human suffering. He explored schizophrenia, deviancy, and execution of self and others. He reflected on what made people tick – and explode.

Predictably, Belinsky and company were furious over what they saw as personal and fictional perfidy. The abuse, public and private, was unending. Dostoevsky was for them yesterday’s news. He was a traitor, a fop, and a fraud. What else could they think when portraits of a schizophrenic clerk, a churlish miser, scheming cardsharps, and a head-in-the-clouds intellectual in a ménage à trois with a young maiden and her father, husband, or lover (it is not clear whom) only reinforced stereotypes of Russia and Russians as backward, barbaric, and perverse?

The abuse, public and private, was unending. Dostoevsky was for them yesterday’s news. He was a traitor, a fop, and a fraud.

Dostoevsky also struggled with demons from within and without. He forgot God. He abandoned family and friends. He fought with Belinsky, Nekrasov, and others. He ran afoul of editors, publishers, and booksellers. Disorder and dissoluteness claimed heavy tolls.  Debts and loans mounted precariously. Illnesses—real and imagined—promised an early grave. Dostoevsky was also facing stiff competition from colleagues—Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Herzen among others—who had also begun their careers with a bang, but with strength and speed in subsequent writing. 

There were bright spots. Dostoevsky held fast to brother Mikhail. He became friends with Stepan Yanovsky, a physician and a kindred spirit. He enjoyed the company of select families: the Vielgorskys, the Beketovs, and the Maykovs. Dostoevsky also had his fans: the poet, Alexei Pleshcheev, and the critic, Valerian Maykov, who understood his writing in way that no one else did. 

Most importantly, Dostoevsky held fast to his dream as writer. Beyond fictional works, he penned a series of articles, entitled “A Petersburg Chronicle,” in which he detailed his fascination with “dreamers,” i.e., individuals who rebel against their lot in life and who, in his mature novels, would wreak havoc on themselves and the world. It comes at little surprise that when Dostoevsky reflected upon his youth in the twilight of his existence, he saw the first two years after Poor Folk as a time when he both cursed and embraced the darkness. It is also safe to say that later in life, Dostoevsky came to understand the years 1846 and 1847 as an initial foray into a self-styled, self-imposed and self-directed Golgotha during which twelve years of crucifixion were followed by twenty years of gradual resurrection and renewal. Whether Dostoevsky attained the latter is a matter of debate; whether he achieved the former, especially in the first two years after Poor Folk, is beyond a doubt. 

*Featured image by Thomas Ulrich.

Thomas Gaiton Marullo is Professor of Russian and Russian Literature at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, the first volume in this biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

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