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Poverty of the Imagination

Nineteenth Century Russian Literature about the Poor

Herman, David

Publication Year: 2001

The primal scene of all nineteenth century western thought might involve an observer gazing at someone poor, most commonly on the streets of a great metropolis, and wondering what the spectacle meant in human, moral, political, and metaphysical terms. For Russia, most of whose people hovered near the poverty line throughout history, the scene is one of special significance, presenting a plethora of questions and possibilities for writers who wished to depict the spiritual and material reality of Russian life. How these writers responded, and what their portrayal of poverty reveals and articulates about core values of Russian culture, is the subject of this book, which offers a compelling look into the peculiar convergence in nineteenth century Russian literature of ideas about the poor and about the processes of art.

Published by: Northwestern University Press

Series: Studies in Russian Literature and Theory


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pp. v-7

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pp. vii-viii

The writing of this book taught me what it means to be indebted, by which I mean, in a manner not unlike that of Pushkin’s improvisor, to discover in my own work themes and viewpoints others have imparted to me over the years. Above all I owe thanks to Hugh McLean for having faith in me long before I did myself, for letting me potter about in the sloppy and, at times it seemed, purely fictitious workshop of my ideas, and finally for his friendship....

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Introduction: Poverty and Imagination

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pp. ix-xx

Russian literature boasts a long and varied tradition of works about or including the poor, and its history is yet to be written. This is not that book. The present work proposes instead something at once more modest and more ambitious: to explore what might be called the poetics of the perception of poverty.1 To approach poverty as a cultural construction, the initial...

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Chapter One. Expelled from the Garden of Poverty: Sympathy and Literacy in “Poor Liza”

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pp. 1-35

KARAMZIN’S “POOR LIZA” tells a story simple enough on the surface. A poor peasant girl is taken advantage of by a rich aristocrat. Seduced and abandoned, Liza drowns herself. What complicates Karamzin’s text, however, is the question of literacy. On one hand, “Poor Liza” can be read as casting the blame for the tragedy on the hero’s...

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Chapter Two. The Call of Poverty: Learning to Love the Low in “Egyptian Nights”

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pp. 36-77

THE NARRATIVE OF “POOR LIZA” provided Russian culture with what proved to be an exceptionally durable model for conceiving and portraying interactions between the poor and the nonpoor— a model far more lasting, it should be noted, than the story’s wild but then fleeting popularity. An important countermodel, however, is given by Pushkin’s...

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Chapter Three. The Meaning of Poverty: Gogol’s Petersburg Tales

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pp. 78-107

IN THIS CHAPTER we turn to Gogol’s Petersburg tales, five stories about the downtrodden and impoverished in Russia’s daunting and cruel metropolis.1 In the last 100 years, the tales’ fame has rested on their absurd violations of narrative and logical propriety, but at the same time they address a number of serious topics, most prominently poverty...

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Chapter Four. Gogol against Sympathy

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pp. 108-142

GOGOL CONTINUED TO WRESTLE with the ambiguity of poverty even after his career as an artist came to an end. In “Poor Liza” and “Egyptian Nights” we have seen two projects of uniting with the poor on grounds of sympathy, projects with their own motives, their unique successes and, perhaps more strikingly, failures. Yet for all the...

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Chapter Five. “The Poverty of Our Literature”

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pp. 143-167

THE TEXTS WE HAVE SEEN thus far, though not numerous, exemplify a much broader pattern found across an array of works by a variety of authors. In Russian writing from Karamzin on, poverty serves as a broad (and undoubtedly not always conscious) metaphor for Russia’s perceived cultural position vis-à-vis Europe, regularly spawning, in...

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Chapter Six. By His Poverty: Dostoevsky and the Imitations of Christ

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pp. 168-201

AS PUSHKIN READ his Karamzin attentively, so Dostoevsky digested his Gogol with great seriousness. It has long been a cornerstone of Dostoevsky studies that the writer began his career by reacting against, or parodying, his forebear.1 That the national preoccupation with poverty and imagination stands at the heart of their dispute, however, is not...

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Conclusion: The Wealth of the Russian Imagination

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pp. 202-212

THE TRADITION CATALOGUED HERE finds Russian authors writing about penury within a cultural and figural framework inherited from Karamzin. The writers in question begin from shared assumptions, but quickly diverge as they begin to weave their own narratives. This continuous return to and resistance against a common center meanwhile...


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pp. 213-261


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pp. 263-273


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pp. 275-282

E-ISBN-13: 9780810121300
Print-ISBN-13: 9780810116924

Page Count: 282
Publication Year: 2001

Edition: 1
Series Title: Studies in Russian Literature and Theory