restricted access Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 1031-1033

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Book Review

Up from Bondage:
The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul


Dale E. Peterson. Up from Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. x + 249 pp.

In Up from Bondage, Dale Peterson, Professor of Russian at Amherst College, takes a new approach to what has traditionally been called comparative literature. Using a Bakhtinian model both to explain his material and to structure his discussion, he offers an analysis of Russian and African-American nationalisms. He does this through close readings of literary and cultural texts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. His approach uses Bakhtin to create, in effect, dialogue between the two groups and to suggest the multiple perspectives within each one. At the end of the book he discusses the importance of contestation rather than consonance of voices in the Russian theorist's work, a point he emphasizes throughout the work in showing how Russian and African-American writers have sought to define a notion of ethnic "soul" as the basis of group identity.

He justifies bringing these two groups together in part on the basis of the considerable similarities in their efforts at self-definition. And behind these efforts is a shared sense of being marginalized by Western civilization. Both have been seen as outside the rationalist tradition and thus outside the only history that really matters. Literary artists and intellectuals have responded to this situation, over several generations, by reframing the meaning of the ethnic "nation." [End Page 1031]

Peterson begins in the nineteenth century with articulations by Alexander Crummell and Peter Chaadaev of what he calls missionary nationalism. Each of them begins by accepting the Eurocentric view of their group's cultural emptiness, of their inferiority as civilizations to the West. But it is precisely out of this lack that the special place of the group in history can emerge. Those who have in fact failed to develop adequate traditions are in a position to select the best of Europe and thus to move civilization to another level.

After establishing W. E. B. Du Bois and Ivan Kireevsky as the key formulators of alternatives that establish the value of ethnic cultures, Peterson then moves through a series of chapters that suggest the literary and cultural variations that have been played on the theme. These include Dostoevsky and Du Bois (in The Souls of Black Folk) defining the notion of a group "soul"; Ivan Turgenev, Charles Chesnutt, and Zora Neale Hurston identifying the voices of the folk as the authentic expressions of this soul; and Dostoevsky and James Weldon Johnson suggesting the importance of the Bakhtinian double voice, which in these cases emerges from the underground.

One challenge to this notion of "soul" came from two writers associated with communist issues: Maxim Gorky and Richard Wright. Peterson is concerned not so much with their political radicalism, though that plays a part in the analysis, as with their rejection of the images of their groups that had been created, which they both saw as counterproductive to the development of a modern, humanistic perspective. In their autobiographies, they depict their own heroic struggle against the negative aspects of group sensibility.

A different challenge comes in the effort to accept a group-based identity connected to "soul" while insisting on its multicultural and thus modern reality. In the Eurasian and New Negro movements, leading figures argued for a rejection of an essentialist understanding of the group, while indicating that there were historical and cultural reasons for a version of cultural nationalism. Peterson's analysis concludes with examinations of two contemporary novels, Valentin Rasputin's Farewell to Matyora and Gloria Naylor's Mama Day, as texts that undertake a reclamation of the folk world as an alternative to the disruptions of postmodern culture.

For readers unfamiliar with either Russian or American cultural and literary histories, it is important to be aware of Peterson's own [End Page 1032] disruptions of literary and intellectual history. He does not proceed...