Mikhail Epstein


"Tom Wolfe and Social(ist) Realism,"

Common Knowledge, 1992, Vol.1, No. 2, 1992, 147-160.

Like two people facing opposite sides of a wall, Eastern and Western cultures have opposite views of left and right. The idea of a free market economy, an established reality in the United States, is staunchly defended by "conservative" economists and politicians. In the Soviet Union, this same idea is championed by the "radical" forces. Likewise, Tom Wolfe's "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast. A literary manifesto for the new social novel" makes a stunning impression on a reader from the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Wolfe tilts at the "literary establishment" of modernist literature, offering in its stead this kind of "class approach" which has served as the literary establishment in the Soviet Union. Once unleashed by Lenin and Stalin, the beast named Socialist Realism stalked the Russian artistic mind and held it captive for many decades.

Since Wolfe himself holds up Russian novelists as an example to American writers, it is appropriate to subject Wolfe's arguments to the scrutiny of the Russian literary tradition. The iron curtain has fallen; the wall separating East from West lies shattered. A renewal of dialogue between Eastern and Western literatures creates the need to find a new conceptual framework in which identical things can be called by the same name.

Wolfe contended that the realist novel was left for dead in 1960 and only he himself resurrected it in Bonfire of the Vanities. Many critics and even novelists have shown that Wolfe underestimated the role which realism has played in post-1960 American literature. Few reviewers, however, called into doubt the very premise value of Wolfe's manifesto, namely the esthetic qualities of this type of writing which he calls most desireable and productive for contemporary literature: "...The future of the fictional novel would be in a highly detailed realism based on reporting..." (50) .

I do not intend to dwell on Wolfe's negative evaluation of American literature of the last thirty years, as this point has already been elaborated. What I would like to discuss is his positive ideas which are expressed in the two key words of his manifesto: "social" and "realism".


1. SOCIAL...

Personality and class

Out of reality's many dimensions, Tom Wolfe considers the social to be the most crucial for contemporary literature. He refers to Lionel Trilling's evaluation of the nineteenth century European novel: its highest success was the production of great characters through the portrayal of "class traits modified by personality." Whereas Trilling asserts that this old class structure had by now disintegrated, particularly in the United States, Wolfe believes that the social engagement of literature can and should be continued: "Again, I would say that precisely the opposite is the case. If we substitute for class the broader term status, that technique has never been more essential in portraying the innermost life of the individual." (51)

The idea that characters in a literary work are defined by their class nature and social milieu was an axiom of Soviet esthetics, as defined by Engels: "Realism presupposes, besides the authenticity of details, the truthful reproduction of typical characters in typical circumstances." A character was thought to be primarily a manifestation of social type, whether functioning as a landlord or a serf, a shock-worker or a Party leader. Even "the innermost life of the individual," personal sentiments and affairs of the heart should be determined by the upheavals of class struggle and labor efficiency.

As for Wolfe's model, the classic literature of the nineteenth century, great characters are not passively shaped by their circumstances; these figures rise to challenge them or escape from them. Such literary heroes as Eugene Onegin, Raskolnikov, Prince Mishkin, or Pierre Bezukhov are significant in that each is engaged in both internal and outer struggle with his own social status. It is a character's resistance to circumstances which makes him a true personality.

Mikhail Bakhtin, an outstanding Russian thinker, defined the essence of the novel as a genre: "In the novel, a man is either higher than his fate or lower than his humanity." A person cannot be limited by the narrow boundaries of his social role or fate. It is the disparity between the personal and the social which imparts the dynamics to a novel's plot. Fiction focuses on an individual as distinct from his class traits and not merely modifying them.

Nonfiction is an entirely different matter. Social mores can be presented in the form of characters who are nothing but the manifestation of some general type. This kind of journalistic characterization may be vivid and picturesque but in no case should be identified with fiction. Otherwise, fiction would be reduced to social generalizations in which individuals serve as an example for broader models or functions. This is what happened to Soviet literature, which turned out to be a collection of exemplary modes of thought and behavior.



"The lonely island" and "the narrow world"


As for other dimensions of reality: psychological, esthetic, mystical, metaphysical - Wolfe sees all of them as distracting literature from its social destination. Allegedly it is not enough for literature to be "good literature", it must eagerly meet the demands of historical circumstances. While he criticizes the modernist and minimalist schools of writing, Wolfe recognizes the literary accomplishment of their members: "Many of these writers were brilliant. They were virtuosos" (50). Are all of these qualities not enough for a writer to accomplish his literary destiny? Not at all, since Wolfe discloses the screaming disparity between the artistic talents and the wrong direction of their creative endeavors. "But what was the lonely island they had moved to?"

In Soviet criticism it was acceptable practice to distinguish between the "talent" and the "direction" of a writer. Even a brilliant author, if he chose an imporper social or ideological direction, risked wasting his talent and imperiling his career. According to Soviet "materialist" methodology, this happened to all avant-gardists and modernists who squandered their talents by turning away from reality and delving into spheres of fantasy and subjectivity. It is curious that the targets of Wolfe's manifesto and Soviet canonic esthetics coincide: "avant-garde position beyond realism..., Absurdist novels, Magical Realist novels," and so forth. (49)

It was in this very manner that Stalin's chief ideologue, Andrei Zhdanov, justified his attack against two among the few independent writers remaining in the Soviet Union, Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. "These works can only sow the sadness, depression, pessimism, attempts to escape the important issues of social life, deviate from the wide path of social life and activity into a narrow world of personal experience... wretched private feelings and digging in their petty persons."

A striking interchange emerges between Wolfe and Zhdanov across the continents and decades. "To be an engineer of human souls means to stand with both feet on the soil of real life. And this, in its turn, means a break with romanticism of the old type, with that romanticism which represented non-existent life and non-existent characters, and led the reader far away from the contradictions and the pressures of life to the world of the impossible, to the utopian world."

One can easily amplify this severe accusation with words of Tom Wolfe addressed to contemporary neo-romanticists, or "neo-fabulists": "...The action, if any, took place at no specific location... The characters had no background. They came from nowhere. They didn't use realistic speech. Nothing they said, did, or possesed indicated any class or ethnic origin." (49)

For its own part, social/socialist realism is ready to fight such unforgivable errors as "non-existent" characters "from nowhere" by providing these characters with clear class origins: "In our country, literary protagonists are active builders of a new life: male and female workers, male and female members of collective farms, Party members, economic planners, engineers, komsomolists, pioneers. These are principle types and principle characters of our Soviet literature." Certainly, as a consequence of these strict requirements of social/ socialist realism, those writers who failed to fit them were exiled to "nowhere," were doomed to the same "non-existence," which they unfortunately tried to represent in their verses and novels.



"The mightiest power" and "magnificent qualities"


Wolfe's passage continues in a manner familiar to those acquainted with the style of Soviet literary polemics: "But what was this lonely island they had moved to? After all, they, like me, happened to be alive in what is the American century, the century in which we had become the mightiest military power in all history... We were alive in the first moment since the dawn of time in which man was able at last to break the bonds of Earth's gravity and explore the rest of the universe... What a feast is spread out before every writer in America!" (50).

Try to substitute "American" for "Soviet" and "America" for the "Soviet Union" - and you will get a typical fragment from something like an anthology "Soviet Literature Guards Great Achievements," which might have been be published in Moscow by Politizdat, the Party publishing house. Of course, this "feast spread out before every writer" would render a severe verdict for those writers who irresponsibly oppose themselves to the festive spirit of great epoch and great country. They should have been overjoyed to live in the "society of affluence that reached clear down to the level of mechanics and tradesmen on a scale that would have made the Sun King blink." Why did they ungratefully turn away from the marvelous social reality and give themselves up to soul-searching "within the narrow limits which they had set for themselves"? (50).

A student of Soviet culture might ascribe these didactic passages to some officious critic of the thirties or fifties were it not for the fact that Wolfe mentions "mechanics and tradesmen" instead of "workers and peasants." This would be an honest mistake. There is a conspicuous similarity between what Wolfe wrote and what was written by Soviet literary ideologists and public prosecutors thirty and fifty years ago.

A curious parallel can be drawn to arguments made by Zhdanov in the 1946 crackdown against Akhmatova and Zoshchenko. "Our people wait for Soviet writers to understand and generalize the enormous experience which the people acquired in the Great Patriotic War, to represent and generalize this heroism, with which people now work to restore the people's economy after the enemies' expulsion... Where will you find such a people and such a country as we have? Where will you find such magnificent qualities as those displayed by the Soviet people in the Great Patriotic War and which he shows every day in his occupation with work in transition towards peaceful development and the restoration of the economy and culture! Every day raises our people higher and higher... To represent these new qualities of the Soviet people... this is the task of every conscientious Soviet writer. "

It is hardly believable that the sotsial'nyi zakaz - "demand formulated by a social class" - which dominated the Soviet literature of the twenties - forties should be revived in contemporary American literature. I doubt that Tom Wolfe could have imagined whose path he is following in his "stalking the billion-footed beast"; but ideas have their own logic which often challenges an author's good intentions. The common premise of Zhdanov's and Wolfe's manifestoes is that a writer is obliged to do this or that because he lives in such a society, such a century, or among such a nation. They share the same normative approach: both seek to prescribe writers' duties and obligations before the society. The only difference is that Wolfe is proud of America's "mightiest military power," while Zhdanov, a skilled political demagogue, glorifies "peaceful development."


Metaphors of writing

It is interesting to note that Wolfe even uses the same critical metaphors as Zhdanov. In arguing that realism was not just a formal device but an unprecedented acheivement which cannot be surpassed by successive literary development, he likens it to a technological breakthrough: "The introduction of realism into literature in the eighteenth century by Richardson, Fielding, and Smollett was like the introduction of electricity into engineering... For writers to give up this power in the quest for a more up-to-date kind of fiction - it is as if an engineer were to set out to develop a more sophisticated machine by first of all discarding the principle of electricity..." (50-51).

This engineering metaphor is a favorite cliche of Stalinist literary theory. It was Stalin himself who coined the maxim which had to be used without fail in every critical article: "Writers are the engineers of human souls." Actually, Lenin had initiated such use of mechanical metaphors in his article "Party Organization and Party Literature" (1905): "Literature must become part of the common cause of the proletariat, 'a cog and a screw' of one single great Social-Democratic mechanism..." However Lenin, who had received a classical education, went on to qualify this crude image: "'All comparisons are lame', says a German proverb. So is my comparison of literature with a cog, of a living movement with a mechanism." By the middle of the thirties, the efforts to mechanize literature proved successful enough that Stalin and Zhdanov no longer felt a need to make any such qualifications.

The choice of metaphor cannot be but the expression of some general outlook. The technical image inevitably suggests itself when literature is to be manupulated. Wolfe's analogy between literature and engineering is a natural consequence of his conception of literature as reporting: both reduce fiction writing to some manageable and mechanical work.

Unfortunately, Wolfe's idea of progress in literature goes back not only to the positivistic twist of the nineteenth century. It also alludes to much more dangerous fallacies of the early twentieth century, which presupposed that the efficiency of literary labor may be enforced by social and political means, as a purely technological process.

Then it is already no surprise that the same kind of work can be accomplished by whole brigades of writers, as was done in the Soviet Union in the thirties or in North Korea even today. No doubt, if the ivory tower (in which a "high-brow modernist" finds his isolation from reality) is to be transformed into a factory section, then a brigade can do the work more efficiently than a lone person.

This leads to Wolfe's next metaphor: "At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping, Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property." (55). Is it not remarkable that Wolfe asks his colleagues to follow the model set in the Soviet Union in the thirties, when brigades of writers were dispatched to the construction sites of great canals to represent the labors of repressed and convicted people as examples of "mutual socialist transformation of man and nature?"

In those brave new times, it was believed that the collectivist mode of production could churn out Pushkins and Gogols in mass quantities. Unique in the past, they would naturally proliferate under the sensible sponsorship of the Party. The literature of the near future was imagined, in Wolfe's terms, as a battalion, or brigade of Tolstoys, vigorously composing hundreds of War and Peace's devoted to the Patriotic wars and socialist construction.

All Soviet people know by heart the following maxim from Lenin's "Party Organization and Party Literature": "One cannot live in society and be free from society." This famous citation was used with alacrity to suppress free artistic thinking and to denounce dissidents. However it is the bitter and agonizing experience of Russian literature, from Pushkin and Dostoevski to Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, that to live in the society and to be free of the society is what makes genuine literature.





Realism and Baroque: on Gogol

The term "realism" is so overused that, in order for it to signify anything, it must be applied to specific objects which themselves demand a realistic mode of description. Wolfe calls the United States a Baroque country, yet advises his colleagues to approach it with realistic methods. Would it not be more logical to approach an inherently Baroque country with those artistic means appropriate to the baroque, the literary method least compatible with journalistic technique?

Wolfe in vain tries to identify Gogol as his predecessor in social realism worthy of Russia's/America's vastness. The idea of Gogol as a pillar of realism was once a popular Soviet conception. But most contemporary Soviet critics agree that Gogol represents nothing but Baroque type creativity with its deliberate exaggeration of minor details and double-play, as well as its fantastic, over-emphatic and ornate style, or just what Wolfe himself condemns as "magical realism". Probably the vastness shared by Russia and America may be more authentically portrayed not through reporting, but through wild fantasy. Only free imagination can embrace in the microcosm of a novel such a great macrocosm as is presented by multinational and multicultural societies.


Fantasy and reality: on Dostoevski

Tom Wolfe refers to Philip Roth's pronouncement of 1961 which allegedly proved to be fatal for American realism in the last decades. "He made a statement that had a terrific impact on other young writers. 'We now live in an age,' he said, 'in which the imagination of the novelist lies helpless before what he knows he will read in tomorrow morning's newspaper. 'The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures daily that are the envy of any novelist' ...The lesson that a generation of serious young writers learned from Roth's lament was that it was time to avert their eyes." (48)

A century earlier, the same lesson was taught by Dostoevski. He was among the first in Russian literature to appreciate the newspaper chronicle as a source for the novel, claiming that everyday facts, in their unbelieveable logic, are superior to any fantasy. It might have been more relevant to refer directly to Dostoevski, but for Wolfe's scheme such a reference would have been ruinous. I also understand why Dostoevski (unlike Tolstoy) is not among Wolfe's favorite writers For Dostoevski, the fantastic nature of reality did not prevent but argued for the most wild fantasy penetrating into the substance of fiction. One can find the following famous statement in his correspondence: "I have my own specific outlook on reality (in art) and what the majority calls almost fantastic and exceptional, this sometimes comprises for me... the very essence of the real." Dostoevski did not doubt that reality itself is shaped by human fantasy and in this sense he called St. Petersburg (then Russia's capital) the most fictious city in the world because it came out of the fantasy of Peter the Great.

In other words, the fictional element is a constituent part of the reality and the writer is all the more a realist the more he gives freedom to his own imagination. In the same letter, Dostoevski wrote: "In my mind, the everyday occurence and conventional view of it is not realism at all, but even the opposite of realism." In Dostoevski's theory as well as practice, realism includes the boundless play of imagination since reality itself is far from being everyday occurence suceptible to reporting devices.

Thus the "terrific" seduction of young writers occured long before they read Roth's essay. Of course the genre of literary manifesto does not oblige one to make rigorous references to original sources, provided that the manifesto fulfills its purpose: to proclaim something absolutely new. In the case of stalking the billion- footed beast, Wolfe's utterances betray the genre of manifesto. Rather, they fit into a framework of memorandum, being reminiscient of past literary discussions in almost every detail. Perhaps it is the theory of Literary Progress that makes Tom Wolfe to prefer Roth and his contemporaries to the earlier authors as the sources of citations.



Progress in Literature?

Adhering to this theory of literary progress, Wolfe naïvely surmises that pre-realistic writers such as Homer and Shakespeare were less successful in fascinating their audience than realist writers. "No one was ever moved to tears by reading about the unhappy fates of heroes and heroines in Homer, Sophocles, Molière, Racine, Sydney, Spencer, or Shakespeare." (50). Many of our contemporaries, not to mention ancient Greeks and Elizabetian Englishmen, will agree that by the intensity of readers' reactions, Shakespeare and Sophocles remains superior to Sinclair Lewis or even Zola, to whom Wolfe refers as the highest models of reporting realism.

Wolfe's assertion that "the effect on the emotions of an everyday realism such as Richardson's was something that had never been conceived of before," (50) is likewise highly doubtful. It was exactly the intention and the power of ancient epics to have the listener identify himself with the rhapsodes, bards, and troubadors and to share all of the emotions of the hero. And if to discern any "progress" in literature, or more precisely just some direction of change, it is not the growth of the reader's empathy with the characters, but rather the growing analytical distance which allows the reader, while being absorbed in the narrative, at the same time examine and explore it from the outside. This is the crucial quality which distinguishes literary plot from ordinary life, where participants are so absorbed in the situation that they are deprived of any critical distance from it. Literature is a unique instrument of self-awareness, which allows the reader to be, yet to not be the person presented to him in the imaginary realm.

Why bother with fiction?

The vastest majority of Wolfe's article is devoted to the importance of reporting for the writer. "I speak as a journalist, with some enthusiasm, as you can detect, a journalist who has tried to capture the beast in long narratives of both nonfiction and fiction." (56). The amazing quality of this "capturing" approach is that it does not allow one to discriminate between fiction and nonfiction. Moreover, in spite of all author's assurances that he is aiming at a "literary manifesto for the new social novel," the reader gets the impression that Wolfe has in mind only nonfiction.

Had this intention been declared more explicitly, it would have saved - and simultaneously ruined - the whole affair, making pointless to argue with such a trivial suggestion: reporting is what gives value to nonfiction writing. But then why bother with a literary manifesto? Why proclaim reporting as the bright future of the fictional novel?

Only in the next to last paragraph does Wolfe raise the other, much more important question: what gives reporting a quality of literature? Granting for the moment that fiction gains a great deal from reporting, one must ask what reporting stands to gain from fiction. Why should a writer or a reader prefer a realistic novel to a well-written journalistic report? Wolfe spares to this question no more than one and a half sentences: "The economy with which realistic fiction can bring the many currents of a city together in a single, fairly simple story was something that I eventually found exhilirating. It is a facility that is not available to a journalist..." (56).

It is amusing and horrifying to propose, as Wolfe implies, that fiction was necessary for Balzac only in order to bring together different currents of French society which in reality existed separately. Wolfe's implication is that Balzac was just a journalist when he described old Goriot, the ambitious Rastignac, and Vautrin the criminal, and that he became a genuine novelist only when he put them all together in his celebrated Père Goriot. In Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy was a good reporter of St. Petersburg aristocratic society and Russian peasantry, but he turns into a great novelist only when he combines these pictures.


Russian predecessors of an American realist


This theory of fiction as a combination of journalist pieces, a montage of photographic images of reality was expounded by a nineteenth century Russian writer and revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky. His dissertation The Esthetic Relationship of Art to Reality (1855) became a manifesto for Russian social realism in the mid 19th century and essentially shaped the esthetics of 20th century socialist realism. Chernyshevsky stated that literature is secondary to reality and gave a number of examples when the beauty in the arts proved to be inferior to the beauty in nature. But then, victoriously concluding his argument, he suddenly was forced to puzzle himself and the reader with the question: why does art exist, if in all respects it is inferior to reality and has only the best destiny in its truthful representation?

I doubt that Chernyshevsky's naïve answer would appeal to Tom Wolfe, but the father of Russian social realism declared that literature is needed simply because it can substitute for more immediate and evident knowledge hardly attainable for some individuals. In Chernyshevsky's view, no one would prefer to look at a painting presenting a stormy sea if he could afford to go to the seashore and look at it in person. "But not all people live near the sea; many never have the opportunity to see it even once in their lives, but they would like very much to see and admire it, so seascapes are interesting and pleasing to them." To report, to photograph in order to replace some distant or absent aspects of reality - this is the best that art can do for the viewer. But what comprises then the esthetic specificity of art?

"Nothing!" proposed the Russian critic Pisarev, a follower of Chernyshevsky. In his notorious article "The Destruction of Esthetics", Pisarev justly concluded that Chernyshevsky did not at all construct new esthetics but destroyed the possibility of any future esthetics. Literature lost its specific value and turned out to be a reliable reproduction of life: then aestetics dies once and for ever, joining such pseudosciences as alchemy and astrology and giving place to the reliable social and historical approaches to reality.

In Pisarev's view, Chernyshevsky entered the esthetic realm only in order to destroy it from within. The true consequences of such realistic esthetics may be only the destruction of esthetics itself in favor of other approaches to reality. "The doctrine of The Esthetic Relationship... is remarkable in that when breaking the shackles of all estheticic theories it does not simply substitute them with new shackles. This doctrine tells decisively that the right to pronounce final judgement on artistic works belongs not to estheticians, who can judge only the form, but to a thinking man who judges the contents, that is the phenomena of life." From now on literary critics in their whole discussion "will be forced to develop their whole-world outlook; they will have to delve into natural sciences, history, social science, politics, and moral philosophy, but not a single word will be said between them about art, because the meaning of the whole discussion will be concluded in the contents and not in the form of the artistic work."

Chernyshevsky himself is very close to such a destructive conclusion. Perhaps all that which restrained him from denouncing estethics in toto was the simple consideration that he was writing a dissertation for his Master of Arts degree. Nevertheless he succeeded to denigrate this very "arts" in every possible way: "Defence of reality as against fantasy, the endeavour to prove that works of art cannot possibly stand comparison with living reality - such is the essence of this essay. ... The images of imagination are only pale and nearly always unsuccessful imitation of reality... Reproduction of life is the general characteristic of art and constitutes its essence. ... By its reproductions, art merely reminds us of what in life is of interest to us and strives to acquaint us to some degree with those interesting aspects of life which we have not had occasion to experience or see in reality."

What remains for imagination? Chernyshevsky prefers to put the very word "imagination" in quotes because he doubts that it has any reasonable meaning. "The power of 'creative imagination' is very limited: it can only combine impressions obtained from experience... One thing the artist could do: he could combine in his ideal the forehead of one beutiful woman, the nose of a second, the mouth and chin of a third..." Chernyshevsky argues here precisely like Agafiia Tikhonovna from Gogol's "The Marriage" who dreamed of placing the chin of one bridegroom against the beard of another - and for this reason, by the way, could not bring herself to marry anyone.

Disparaging "creative imagination," Chernyshevsky invariably accompanies it with the words "combining," "combination": "...The intervention of imagination as the ability to alter (by means of combination) the impressions of the senses..."; "the intervention of combining imagination seems least necessary..."; "still wider scope for the intervention of combining imagination is provided..." In Chernyshevsky's theory, imagination is capable only to combine what pre-have already existed in reality, just as in Tom Wolfe's view, "fiction can bring the many currents of a city together..."

"To combine," "to bring together," to juxtapose various pieces of reality which exist by themselves when truthfully "reproduced" or "reported" - this, for both heralds of realism, is the hallmark of imagination. In addition, as a reader could notice, imagination necessarily means for Chernyshevsky "intervention," implying some alien and hostile force. Imagination is not an inborn quality of art but an impudent invader who dares to intervene into the holy domain of art as "faithful reproduction of life." In the same manner Tom Wolfe, after he had been writing his novel for at least a year, suddenly understood that it is nothing but "fiction" which he "eventually found exhilirating." (56). As if "fiction" is not the nature of novel but something found "eventually."

The destruction of art is a naïve, but highly coherent, (anti)esthetic position. To be as cohesive as Chernyshevsky and Pisarev had been, Wolfe would have needed to end his manifesto on the social novel by nullifying the genre of the fictional novel. Perhaps the only reason why the author did not cross this last boundary and reserved some place in the very end to praise literature is that he was writing a literary manifesto.


The logic of ideas

Perhaps I am too harsh in my criticism of Tom Wolfe's recommendations: presumably he suggests a worthy alternative to high modernism in a time when its public appeal seems near exhaustion. I only want to say that such conceptions periodically emerge in the history of literature and with the same inevitability yield place to other conceptions. In my view, Tom Wolfe's manifesto plays a similar role as Chernyshevsky's manifesto played in the second half of the 19th century. It was useful as a stern denunciation of those imitators of romanticism who lived out their last days in the 1850s. However, the best literature which could be created in accordance with this manifesto proved to be that which Chernyshevsky himself wrote. Most people agree that even his greatest accomplishment What Is To Be Done? takes a modest place among the achievements of Russian artistic genius. Neither Dostoevski nor Tolstoy followed Chernyshevsky's precepts in writing their novels, though they created truly new relationships of art to reality.

But then again, Lenin, the architect of both Party organization and Party literature, proved to be a faithful disciple of Chernyshevsky. Lenin angrily rejected disparaging remarks about the literary qualities of Chernyshevsky's novel. He acknowledged its enormous influence on his whole world outlook: "...It captivated me. It made me over completely.... It's something that charges you up for the whole of your life."

Finally, Zhdanov pretended to the legal successorship of this "great tradition": "Therefore, the best tradition of Soviet literature is continuation of the best traditions of Russian literature of the 19th century, those traditions which were created by our great revolutionary democrats - Belinsky, Dobroliubov, Chernyshevsky, Saltykov-Shchedrin..." Of course, Chernyshevsky personally is not responsible for the persecution of Mandelshtam and Babel, Akhmatova and Zoshchenko, for the succesful hunting and beheading of this wonderful billion-headed beast of artistic imagination. Yet ideas have not only their own logic, but also their own responsibility. When the slogan of "social realism" is pronounced, how can one guarantee against easy continuation: the logic of "social engagement" is so quick to add the three lacking letters to provide "socialist realism" with its full literal and spiritual meaning.


Postscript. Glasnost' frees the imagination

I would advance that even not long ago Wolfe's manifesto could have found many adherents in the Soviet Union. A considerable part of the intelligentsia felt that the critical realism of the 19th century was the hallmark and the most precious legacy of Russian literature. Many admirers of this classical tradition have been inspired by Alexander Solzhenitsyn's example, but this writer is perhaps a most persuasive argument against critical realism as a method of modern art. When Solzhenitsyn wrote a truthful investigation of Stalin's camps, The Gulag Archipelago, he shook the world by the force of his artistic nonfiction. However, Solzhenitsyn's multivolumed series of novels devoted to pre-revolutionary Russia, The Red Wheel, does not find many readers even among his devotees in the Soviet Union - for the very reason that it is great journalism artificially shaped into fiction.

Works like Rybakov's Children of the Arbat or Duduntsev's White Clothes were very popular in the Soviet Union and even abroad until the political and social information which they conveyed about Stalin's circle or the case of Lysenko could be presented only in fictional forms. Now, journalism and scholarship are free to accomplish this job much more thoroughly than could be dreamt of by novelists five or ten years ago.

Reporting as the basis of fiction loses its appeal even for a Soviet reader who has yearned for reliable information for seventy years. New perspectives in fiction are opened for those authors who avoid journalism and give themselves up to "wild fantasies" not reduced to veritable facts and prototypes. Today's literary works must vie for a reader's attention on the basis of their artistic quality and not the information contained therein. The time of censorship when literature was forced to serve as the sole forum for public opinion in Russia is over. Now, philosophers, economists, journalists, demographers, historians all compete with writers in mastering the readership. The only advantage held by literature in this competition is not its philosophical generalizations, historical thoroughness, or journalistic reporting, but the power of its artistic imagination.




See Novelists' Letters concerning Wolfe's manifesto in Harper's Magazine, February 1990; also see Robert Towers. The Flap Over Tom Wolfe: How Real is The Retreat From Realism? The New York Times Book Review. January 28, 1990, pp.15-16.

Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast. A literary manifesto for the new social novel. By Tom Wolfe. Harper's Magazine. November 1989. Page numbers will be indicated in the text.

Doklad t. Zhdanova o zhurnalakh "Zvezda" i "Leningrad." Sokrashchennaia i obobshchennaia stenogramma dokladov t. Zhdanova na sobranii partiinogo aktiva i na sobranii pisatelei v Leningrade. OGIZ. Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury.[Moscow], 1946, pp. 12, 16-17. All works cited from Russian sources were translated by the author.

A. Zhdanov. Sovetskaia literatura - samaia ideinaia, samaia peredovaia literatura v mire. Rech na Pervom Vsesoiuznom s''ezde sovetskikh pisatelei 17 avgusta 1934 goda. Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1953, p.9.

Ibidem, p.8.


Doklad t. Zhdanova..., pp.19,36.

The Lenin Anthology. Ed.by Robert C.Tucker. W.W.Norton & Company. New York, London,1975, p.149.

Ibidem, 151.

In the last paragraph of his manifesto Wolfe refers to the the lyrical and patriotic conclusion of Gogol's masterpiece: " At the end of Dead Souls, Gogol asks, 'Whither art thou soaring away to, then, Russia? Give me an answer!' Russia gives none but only goes faster, and 'the air, rent to shreds, thunders and turns to wind,' and Gogol hangs on, breathless, his eyes filled with wonder. America today, in a headlong rush of her own, may or may not truly need a literature worthy of her vastness. But American novelists, without any doubt, truly need, in this neurasthenic hour, the spirit to go along for that wild ride." (56)

Feodor Dostoevski. Pis'ma (vol. 1-4. Moscow - Leningrad, 1928-1959), vol.2, 1930, p.169.


N.G.Chernyshevsky. Selected Philosophical Essays. Moscow, Foreign languages publishing house, 1953, p.364.

"... It was necessary to destroy esthetics completely, it was necessary to send them to the same place to which we have relegated alchemy and astrology."D.I.Pisarev, Sochineniia v 4 tomakh. Moscow, Gosudarstvennoe izdatel'stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1956, p.419.

Ibidem, p.434.


N.G.Chernyshevsky, op. cit., pp. 379, 381.

Ibidem, p.340.

Ibidem, pp.377, 378.

The Lenin Anthology, p.xxxi.

Doklad t. Zhdanova..., p.26.


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