David Herman. «Poverty of the Imagination: Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature about the Poor». Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 302 pp, including bibliography and index. ISBN 0810116928.
David Herman's monograph is one of those rare books in scholarship about literature that weaves a new thread of interpretation through an established set of canonical works. He argues his case with obvious enthusiasm and buttresses it with convincing proofs. Most of his thesis is based on an interpretation of select literary texts in a more traditional style of literary analysis, and he uses biographical sources as necessary to explain some of the paradoxes he uncovers. The result is a solid piece of scholarship.
As the title implies, what is examined in this volume is the connection between material poverty and artistic inspiration. Fundamentally, the question revolves around the province of imagination: do the materially poor occupy a privileged place, where artistic striving is possible because of a purity of soul untainted by the vices - and compromises - of possessive greed and desire (think struggling artist)? Or, on the contrary, are they simply too burdened by the daily struggle to survive and thereby unable to devote time - a luxury in this context - to imagining the type of alternative realities preceding, by necessity, artistic creation? Herman examines Nikolai Karamzin ("Poor Liza"), Alexander Pushkin ("Egyptian Nights"), Nikolai Gogol (Petersburg Tales), and Fedor Dostoevsky (primarily The Idiot). He also discusses Nikolai Strakhov, Lev Tolstoy, and Vissarion Belinsky, among others. It is a breathtaking sweep of Russian letters of the nineteenth century.
Throughout the book, Herman examines the nineteenth-century notion that simple Russians do not possess the imaginative faculties that educated Europeans seemed naturally to display at will. Whatever the writer under consideration and whatever the ultimate result of poverty he portrays, Herman argues that the crucial moment of imaginative inspiration, as located in the nexus of poverty, lies in the ability to place oneself in the mental space of others, thereby feeling what they must feel. In Karamzin, such a transposition of mental vantage point leads to disaster, for the imaginative realm of the elite plays under different rules than that of the impoverished classes. Pushkin, in a parallel to his own life, advocates a connection between poverty and the power of imagination and artistic creation. Herman brilliantly examines "Egyptian Nights" and places it against the backdrop of Pushkin's own stature as an outsider who must perform for others, all the while wondering about his financial needs and the costs required to blend into high society. Gogol's Petersburg stories, in particular "The Overcoat," have been seen as a plea to bear witness to the suffering of the poor. Herman, however, in a deft analysis of this and the other Petersburg stories (such as "The Portrait") indicates that in fact Gogol asks of us no such thing. The poor are suffering on account of God's chastisement and are doomed if they aspire to the heights of poetic and artistic imagination. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, restores the power of the imagination to the poor, according to Herman. This power is at the center of The Idiot and is the ultimate salvation of Russia, for it is the source of a clarity of vision enabling the selfless love of the other, unclouded by material needs. In his discussion of Dostoevsky's famous speech on Pushkin at the dedication of Moscow's monument to the poet in 1880, Herman writes: "Dostoevsky chooses to conclude, however, on a tragic note, with a lament for his countrymen's failure to heed Pushkin's example" (197). What is needed, according to Dostoevsky, is the example of Christ.
It is clear that the essence of poverty, as expressed materially, but also as an extended allegory for the compulsive imitativeness of Akakii Akakievich, itself a metaphor for Russia's slavish cultural imitation of the West, lies at the source of the power of imagination, whether successful or not. Herman tackles the issue with grace and with a driving analysis that sheds new light on the issues underscoring some of the most beloved literature of the 1800s. Much of this is perhaps a repackaging of questions raised by other scholars, but this particular recombination is novel and at times truly enlightening, as in Herman's discussion of Gogol's works. David Herman's monograph is an exceptional contribution to Slavic literary studies.
University of Denver
Beaudoin, Luc. "Rev. of David Herman. Poverty of the Imagination: Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature about the Poor. Pushkin Review 5 (2002): 133-34. Retrieved from: <http://www.pushkiniana.org/index.php/backissues/pr05-2002/138-vol05reviews/300-review-beaudoin-poverty-of-the-imagination>.