- Chekhov and Our Age: Responses to Chekhov by American Writers and Scholars
In Chekhov and Our Age: Responses to Chekhov by American Writers and Scholars, the editor, James McConkey, has published a series of lectures in conjunction with the Chekhov and Contemporary Writing Festival held at Cornell University during the academic year 1977-1978. In this series, McConkey sought to have American scholars and writers address Chekhov in relation to their own work, American literature, and/or the present world—in itself, an interesting and potentially fruitful idea. McConkey's choice of topics and speakers is also quite good. Such scholars as the late Rufus W. Mathewson, Jr., Simon Karlinsky, and Ralph Lindheim, and such writers as the late John Cheever and George P. Elliott, as well as Walker Percy, Harold Brodkey, Denise Levertov, Hollis Summers, Howard Moss, and Eudora Welty reflect upon three broad areas: A Bridge between Chekhov and Present-Day Writers; The Importance of Chekhov in Our Time; and Studies of Specific Works (Three Sisters and an early, neglected story, "The Neighbors"). At last, one initially thinks, the thorny questions of Chekhov's place in Russian and European literature, his "modern" tendencies, his "impressionism," and his impact on twentieth-century writers will receive the attention they have long been denied but so richly deserve.
Sadly, these expectations are unfulfilled. Repeatedly, scholars and writers contend that Chekhov did something "new" or "revolutionary" in fiction; but, rather than pinpoint where his innovations lay, they opt for scattered comments, ongoing metaphors, purple prose, and "dramatic reading"—plot summaries, all of which might be fine for a cold night in Ithaca, but, as concerns Chekhov, add little' that is not known or might not be easily surmised.
Most disappointing in this regard is Mathewson, who seeks to posit Chekhov's influence on Joyce and Hemingway, but in a highly tentative, almost defensive way. To his credit, Mathewson dismisses the "pragmatic" criticism of the Soviets, who insist that Chekhov is a budding Bolshevik—stagings of Three Sisters in the Soviet Union end with the "Internationale" and a stage-wide picture of the Kremlin—as well as the "sentimental" views of others who posit that he was "the voice of twilight Russia." Mathewson, however, steps away from the task at hand: that is, to affirm Chekhov as a "chief legislator or licenser of a new and distinct way of writing" and to examine his impact "on a range of writers from Katherine Mansfield and Sherwood Anderson through John O'Hara and Isaac Babel to Flannery O'Connor, Yurii Kazakov and Grace Paley." Instead, Mathewson posits almost coincidental "affinities" and "literary likenesses" between Chekhov and the "icebergs" (the story beneath the surface) of Hemingway in his Forty-Nine Stories and the "epiphanies" (the heightened consciousness) of Joyce in Dubliners. Mathewson knows that sufficient evidence is as yet lacking to posit direct influence between Chekhov and his two colleagues. His notion of "intuitive apprehensions," however, that Chekhov, Hemingway, and Joyce expressed similar themes in similar ways, blunts the pioneering thrust of his efforts and leads him to superficialities, plot summaries, and the like. Karlinksy, too, misses an opportunity to explore Chekhov's "modern" bent when he limits [End Page 380] Chekhov's scenes of urban and rural decay primarily to the writer's concerns about the ecology.
The writers of the festival likewise sense Chekhov's "innovations" and "revolution" in literature, but they also fail to shed new light on the writer and his art. Collectively, they sound like the characters of his dramas. In precise, almost parodic "Chekhovian discourse," they bemoan the times and modern literature in lavish, trite detail; talk more abut themselves than the topic at hand; and plea for new writers, fiction, beginnings, and eras with all the aplomb of Irina, crying "To Moscow! To Moscow!" in Three Sisters. Revealingly, the titles of their talks bespeak almost a langour in their task: Elliott, "Warm Heart, Cold Eye"; Percy, "Novelist as...