“The Writings of Count Leo Tolstoi,” III (1887), 138-149.




[Harvard Monthly 3.4 (January, 1887): 138-149]




Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Translated by Isabel F. Hapgood. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co.

Anna Karenina. Translated by N. H. Dole. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co.

My Religion. Translated from the French by Huntington Smith. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co.

Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment. Anonymous Translation. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co.

Dupuy’s Great Masters of Russian Literature. Translated by N. H. Dole. New York: T. Y. Crowell & Co.


Herodotus tells us that the Egyptian priests shut off a child from all human intercourse, from his birth to his fourth year, to find out what language the child then would speak. This experiment, Herodotus wishes us to believe, was not successful. Some such experiment many have dreamt of making. We have all dreamt of taking an infant to some desert isle in the South Pacific; there in some wonderful way of fostering all his capacities, without the use of books, or any kind of set phrases, however; and finally of bringing him back to the conventional life of “enlightened” society, to see what he would think of it, what he would feel about it, and how he would express his thoughts and feelings.

            Nature has at last realized our dream,—not in the romantic way we should have don it, to be sure. She had to choose her subject among a people where education of a most modern and most radical kind is possible; among a people not tyrannized by an intellectual and spiritual past; among a people, moreover, whose language yet remains a language of words rather than one of set phrases and formal methods. We see very plainly why nature has not chosen her subject among us Americans. We are as a people much more formal and conventional in our beliefs and habits than any of the great Contintental peoples. Our language is now old and rich in literature. We talk in set phrases whether they be taken from the Bible, from our own classics, from the latest fashionable scribes, or from the streets. In common with the other “enlightened” nations our youth are subjected to the classics, to the fine arts, in short to culture. I do not mean [139] to imply that culture is general among us, or that we yearn for culture. I mean that the one among us who would express himself finds not only that he is shut in by our habits and conventions as a people, but also by the ideal of the beautiful which it is expected he shall strive to attain. That ideal of the beautiful in literature among us is a patched up one, to be sure; but it has great might, nevertheless. Our country is new, but as a people we are as old, in a certain sense—because we are not so open to new ideas—we are older than the other Occidental peoples.

            The youngest European people is the Russian. They are a people without an intellectual and spiritual past of their own; nor have they for centuries been subjected to the intellectual past of Greece and Rome. Classic literature and culture have not had time yet to get into the Russian blood. The Russian child is born free. His faculties have not been fenced in for many centuries. He will see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears, and taste with his own palate when he uses his senses. Then, if ever he desire to express his sensations and ideas, he will do it as if no one had done such a thing before. He will subject himself to the best education Europe can give him. That education will cultivate his naturally fresh and active faculties to the utmost; but it will not impress its own method of expression upon him. He will be too eager to know what the latest and most radical culture can tell him to have a care for the style in which it is told. The ideas, in so far as they are emancipating, will influence him, but the expression of the ideas will hardly leave a trace in his mind.

            For a time, however, the Russians, like all other young and strong peoples, were so overpowered by the very sight of modern culture that they could think of nothing but running towards it, and away from themselves, as fast as they could. Fifteen hundred years ago we ran away from ourselves towards the Judean modification of classic culture then prevalent. We ran for more than thirteen hundred years before we dared stop and turn about to see why we were running. We became aware that we had been running away from ourselves, selves that now did not seem at all terrible, that many of us gladly would have been nearer to, but it was too late. Greece, and Rome, and Judea had gotten into our blood. We had become [140] another people. The Russians, however, stopped running away from themselves in good time. The last generation refused to become Frenchmen or Germans. They would take all that France and Germany could give them for their needs, but no more. They would not consent to look out upon the world through French eyes, and to use French to tell what they saw.

            Russian literature began as the organ of a medizing propaganda. It dragged on for a century without producing anything Russian. Then Poushkin and Gogol wrote books that to some extent were the expression of a really Russian view of the world. But they were yet too powerfully swayed by outside models and methods. Turgenev came after them. Most of us are acquainted with his writings. We know that he writes about Russian life; that he has a wonderful insight into the human heart; that he understood, and successfully portrayed some very typically Russian, yet typically human characters. We know that his methods as a writer are wonderful. Who surpasses him in his special power, the power of vivid portrayal? I cannot think of one. Then his good taste, his poetic insight, his poetry,—what exquisite prose-poems he gives us!—his wit, his autumnal irony are all things for which we have an almost unbounded admiration. But Turgenev yet belongs to the generations of Russians that were running away from themselves. He is almost an Occidental with an accidental, though mastering and sympathetic, interest in Russia. He is cosmopolitan, at times more so than Mr. Henry James. We should be thankful. For his very cosmopolitanism, perhaps, Turgenev has given us a number of beautiful works. They are not so Russian that we read them with difficulty; and they are works of art, they are beautiful. Turgenev always follows “the Occidental custom” as M. de Voguë—to whom I take this first opportunity of acknowledging I owe almost all that I have to say here—calls it, the custom of form, and artistic unity. Turgenev, therefore, remains the only Russian writer that has written great and beautiful things.

            The writer whom nature has chosen as subject for the experiment of which I spoke in my opening paragraph has written only one story, of considerable length, that has almost perfect form and pervading beauty. That story alone, Katia,—so called in the French, the best accessible [141] translation,—excellent as it is, full of insight into two human lives, and reminding us in the first part of Mr. Shorthouse’s Sir Percival, and at times of Turgenev’s masterpiece Liza, that story alone would hardly entitle its writer to the possession of the quality which all of us that read him feel bound to yield to him, the quality of greatness. “He has written only one beautiful story, and that of no extraordinary beauty; and yet you call him great. How is that?” I wish some one would tell me. Karenin, the husband of Tolstoi’s heroine in his Anna Karenina doubtless could have told me. Great statesman that he was, he had many doubts in political matters, but he held the most certain and most rigid opinions concerning art, and literature, and music. Like some of us, he held the rigidest opinions of that which he knew the least about, of music. Alas that doubt as to the principles of art and literature is not a mark of greatness! How great a few of us then would be! Literature thus far has refused to become a science, to uncover to us its underlying principles. We can establish no canons in literature as we can in the plastic arts. Some of us frantically attempt to foist the principles of the plastic arts upon literature. We who are guilty of the attempt best understand how hopeless, nay, how absurd it is. At last we are driven to acknowledge that we have no convincing principles. We are driven to acknowledge in that meek tone which Tolstoi’s Mlle. Sherer always used when she spoke of any member of the Imperial family, that we know nothing but the impression a writer makes upon us.

            But is it not to say a great deal of Tolstoi, to say that in him nature tried the experiment of bringing an almost perfect and almost free intellect to observe the world and report what it sees? Tolstoi is not at all an inventive genius. He gives us no new plots. His characters are not new. As we read his romances we say of the characters: “Of course we have made your acquaintance before, but it is curious that we never knew you until now.” Tolstoi, we feel it, must think little of invention. How absurd it is, when we think of it, to invent, when the people and things we see are of sufficient interest! And to Tolstoi with his fresh and penetrating gaze the every-day people and sights are bound to be of sufficient interest. In fact our author’s writings are nothing but descriptions either of what he [142] himself is and does, or of what the people about him are and do. Beyond his observation he seldom goes. But what a power of observation! We wonder if all our writers are blind; or is it that they are cowards, that they dare not go out of the beaten tracks and tell what they really see.

            Tolstoi, of course, is a realist. Nature would have made a sorry failure of her experiment had she brought a pair of eyes to look upon this world through an ever present golden mist. His very first book, the one that has left the most pleasing and most welcome impression upon me, The Cossacks, shows us the writer, at once. “If this work be premeditated,” we think, “it is surprisingly audacious.” The Caucasus had been the paradise of the Russian poets. They did not see it with their eyes. They saw it, as M. de Voguë tells us, through Byron’s Corsair and Bride of Abydos. But here is this youngling, barely twenty-five, who goes there, and sees it with his own penetrating eyes, and tells us all about it, as if he had never heard of Byron and Poushkin.

            Born in the highest rank, Tolstoi’s life has been passed to a great extent in the midst of that class. His principal characters all belong to the highest Russian society. We know from our reading of Turgenev that he occupies himself wholly with the middle classes, the lower nobility. Dostoievsky is the portrayer of the lowest classes. It is curious that these three great writers supplement each other, and thus together treat of Russian life in its completeness.

            Tolstoi’s first hero, naturally, is himself. When I first read The Cossacks, knowing little of the writer, I kept saying to myself: “This is no invention, no flight of the imagination. This is what the writer must have lived, must have pondered over, as he lived it, and then had the boldness to write down.” Olenin, the hero of Tolstoi’s first novel, is a young nobleman half wary of life, the life he knew, the life of high society. He has a simplicity of nature, however, and a blitheness of soul that urge him to try other conditions. He feels in the depths of his being an interest, and therefore a hope in himself that drives him to sever his enthralling connections, and to go to the dream-land of the Russian, the Caucasus. But Olenin does not go there to dream. He goes there to live, to see, to think. He sees many things; but after all, his especial interest is in himself. And [143] to me it seems that his interest in himself is almost impersonal. He does not study himself because it is his self; but because he feels wonderful things going on within him that he fain would know the meaning of. He really never knows whether or no he is in love with the beautiful, untamed, blood-enkindling Cossack maiden, Marianka. It is little to say that Marianka is really alive. I have not found a single imperfectly animated character, no matter how little important it be, in all of Tolstoi’s writings. But Marianka seems to have more life than most of us can conceive. The blood seems to throb hotter in her veins, her step seems to have more exhilaration in it, her carriage seems to have more majesty than anything we ever see. Of course, a poet might spin some such glorious life out of his own brain; but we feel convinced that Marianka must have lived, in flesh and blood. Her successful lover, Lukashka, is not only a living Cossack, but by the complete naturalness of his character and life, he serves to make us know better Olenin, who in his heart envies Lukashka,—to a great extent his very ideal, and his successful rival in love, and life itself as it seems.

            Tolstoi in his very first work already shows that utter faithlessness in modern culture, that love of and longing for the life of nature, the wild, full-blooded, completely harmonious life of the Cossack, as in Olenin’s case; or of the peasant, as in the case of the later avatar of himself, Levin.

            Full twenty years passed between the writing of Tolstoi’s first novel, and the romance of which Levin, whom I have just mentioned, is the hero. The writer remains unchanged. He lived a great deal the while, and seems to have left nothing that he lived undescribed. He  went back in his memory to his early childhood, and tells us about it in his work entitled Childhood. In Boyhood and Youth he tells us of his experience of those ages of his life. Nothing is idealized. But what a wonderful thing to have kept his childhood so far into life that he can tell us about it with that simplicity, that utter naturalness, that complete frankness which characterize these sketches! Most of us, even early in our youth, can think of childhood, of boyhood, of the beginning of youth as something far behind us; that we hardly can connect with our present selves. But is it not the very [144] characteristic of genius that it always adds to its capacity without ever losing? Your genius is a man that in the very glory of his manhood can be a mere child; he is one that has gained innumerable new organs without once losing an old one. In these sketches we already find that wonderful mark of his genius, his description of death. Ah, here, indeed is imagination! For no amount of observation, not even sympathy of the completest kind, would enable one to have that knowledge of the very minutest psychologic, and physiologic conditions of the dying that we find throughout his works.

            In his Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth it is the death of his mother that is faithfully described. But let us make a leap from that to a sketch written last March, The Death of Ivan Ilitsh. No one will read it without saying: “How horribly real, but, oh, how terribly true! Such is man at death.” The pain, and weakness, and cowardice of the dying; the heartlessness, indifference, and meanness of the living,—no one has made us see them as Tolstoi does in this sketch. Nothing can be more realistic; but it is not brutal. Tolstoi is an out and out realist; yet he never offends us, as the French realists do. Why is it? For one reason, because he does not vivisect and anatomize for mere pleasure or curiosity, as Flaubert even, despite his almost total lack of atmosphere, does. And other French realists seem too much like bold, bad boys at school, who do something very, very naughty, and then turn round to demand the plaudits of their mates. Tolstoi is a realist, because he describes life as it is. Indeed in his two great—big, we might say with some justice,—romances, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina his aim seems to be no less than to give us a complete picture of life as he sees it. But he never describes without purpose. He has something to say. You do not know it all beforehand; when you have read through a book of Tolstoi’s you feel that you really have been told something.

            Tolstoi has always had the purpose, so shameless for a writer, of teaching; and had he done nothing else, my readers never would have been troubled with this article. He teaches however in the legitimate way, the way English writers unfortunately seem to think insufficient, he teaches by the exhibition of tendency. He makes us see at every step where things are going, to what they are bound to come if they continue. He shows us in [145] every one of his characters their Karma as the Hindoos call it,—the sum total of a man’s passions and actions added to what these were at birth. There surely is no method of teaching so efficacious with a rational being as this exhibition of Karma. To convince a man that not the slightest action, not the slightest sensation, or thought is lost, that they all leave an eternal effect upon us, and therefore upon the universe, is, it seems to me, to convince him of the necessity of carefully weighing and judging all his passions, thoughts, and actions. Every page of Tolstoi bears this conviction in upon us.

            Passing over all his wonderful war sketches, passing over such prose-poems as Three Deaths, the last section of which is absolutely perfect, passing over War and Peace, too shapeless, and vast, and great to be considered here, let us consider the work in which there is the most excellent exhibition of Karma, let us look for a moment at the sublime, if not always beautiful romance, Anna Karenina.

            It treats of the love of Anna, married to the statesman Alexei Karenin, and Vrousky, a young nobleman. Anna is indubitably the heroine of the romance, but Vrousky is not the hero. In reality he is not a very important character. He is fully alive, noble, brave; but after we have read through the book we feel that our interest has never been great in Vrousky, except in so far as he is the lover of Anna. The real hero is Levin, a nobleman in the early strength of his manhood, who is searching empirically for a nobler life than society can give, for an ideal of life if such a thing exists, in his estates in the country, which he himself superintends. Levin is not the typical Russian. He is too sincere and determined in his sincerity for that. He is however a character that Tolstoi himself greatly admires. Levin is by no means an ideal. He is human in his many weaknesses, in his rashness, his irresolution; but he always has the good of his neighbors, and his own highest good at heart, and we see him ever struggling for a happy and noble life.

            Levin is, perhaps, the most interesting, most sympathetic character of the book. His own story keeps twining in with the chapters that tell us Anna’s story. Between the two there is little connection of the obvious kind. We would not want the chapters that treat of Levin away. Indeed [146] M. de Voguë says, speaking of the double plot: “Never has preacher made a more striking distinction between his picture of Hell and his picture of Purgatory.” Besides many of these chapters are of unparalleled beauty. The descriptions of Levin’s life and troubles on his estate are full of a straight simplicity, a naturalness, a sweetness withal, that have been surpassed only by Tolstoi himself, in such of his latest sketches as The Godson, and What Makes People Live. The first half of the third part is the country itself with all its welcome toil, sweet rest, and really exalted blitheness. One can never forget the picture of Levin mowing after the leader, while his arms seem to grow dry with fatigue, while the sweat is bathing him in a cold, refreshing bath. Then we can actually feel the rest creeping down our limbs, too, with its nerve-inspiring balm, when at the last moment he rests in the midst of the windrows of the sweetly pungent, fresh-cut hay.

            The love of Anna for Vrousky is “illicit.” But Tolstoi was too wise to ascribe any magical force to the word adultery. His object is not to tell us the thrilling incidents of a liaison; but to show what its effect has been upon its two members. Far from preaching to us the conventional sermon that Flaubert’s Mme. Bovary does, it should shock the worshippers of domesticity by showing, as it certainly does, that illicit love is not necessarily vulgarizing. Neither Anna nor Vrousky become vulgarized. Just because Anna’s nature remains a noble one she foregoes life when life can no longer be lived nobly; while such a vulgar creature as the Princess Betsey lives on, a-vulgarizing. In what, then, does the tragedy of Anna’s and Vrousky’s love consist?

            Love to a womanly woman satisfies all the cravings and needs of the soul. For the cravings and needs of the soul of the manly man a woman’s love is insufficient. Most affairs of love have something in them of the compact between Faust and Mephistopheles. “You serve me now assiduously,” the woman unconsciously is saying to the man, “and I will return the favor hereafter.” A man is not likely to be eaten up by a growing passion for a love that is assured him. He will, once assured of his love, return to his usual interests, or seek new ones. Those new interests ever will seem to his companion her rivals in love. She will try to make way [147] with them, and her attempts are bound to result at last in making her a bore and a burden.

            One of the great benefits of legal marriage is the assurance of permanence to the bond that it gives. An illicit connection between man and woman is only too likely to result in tragedy, or, infinitely worse, in bestialization.

            The plot of Anna Karenina is as old as literature. Homer treats of it in Calypso’s desire to detain Ulysses. Virgil treats of it more tragically in Dido’s love for Aeneas. Indeed, I fancy the Greek myth of the Sirens is but another version of the story. Anna would make Vrousky hers, body and soul. She would allow him no life outside of her own. She would drink up his soul. Tolstoi does not wish us to suspect that Anna’s thirst may be greater than any Vrousky can quench. He wishes us to believe that Vrousky’s love was, and would have continued to be sufficient, had Anna consented to remain at east in it. That, however, she could not do, for the very reason that she was not his wife; that her husband was living; and for the reason, also, that by her unbounded love for her and her husband’s son, an inseverable link was formed between them.

            What has Tolstoi done with this old and simple plot? He has treated it in his own style. You would not suppose that he suspected that others had written about it. He studies it carefully, and writes it down accurately and precisely. He sees it. There is not a particle of romance in his study. True to nature, he tells us little about the growth, or the degrees of Vrousky’s or Anna’s love. They become aware of it by very little things. Anna does not fully realize that she loves Vrousky until she meets her husband after tow days’ absence, and suddenly discovers that his cars are dreadfully long. Her suspicion that Vrousky’s love for her is waning seems confirmed when the motions and sounds she makes in drinking a glass of tea work, as she observes, on his nerves. There is nothing, we may be assured, that so indicates our feelings toward a person, as the indulgence or severity with which we regard that person’s behavior at the table, or even on far more trivial occasions.

            Tolstoi can hardly be said to possess a style distinct from the matter of his treatment. The manner is much more in his case a quality in the [148] writer, than a quality in the writing. Roughly speaking, however, we may say that the great characteristic of his style is his use of metaphors. He chooses them nearer ordinary life than others have dared to do, and we wonder why we have not thought of them. We take our metaphors from books, or construct them in the measure of books. Tolstoi, wonder-child of that experiment of nature that I spoke of, unconsciously, with utter simplicity, uses only the most obvious, if also most striking comparisons. Speaking of Levin’s seeking in science for a guide to life, Tolstoi says:—“He was in the position of a man who seeks to find food in a toy-store, or a gun-shop.” Of the recent wonderfully instrumentalized, but not particularly impressive music Levin says:—“He felt like a deaf man who sees dancing.” A little hat Tolstoi compares to “a cap over a lamp.” One more, giving a painter’s opinion of amateurs:—“No one can prevent a man from making for himself a big wax doll, and kissing it; but if this man takes his doll and sits in the presence of lovers, and makes his caresses before them, then it becomes unpleasant to the lover.”

            Russian is naturally ironical, as French is naturally witty. But even in Russian, Tolstoi’s sarcasm, if not irony, is remarkable. Where can more withering sarcasm be found than certain passages, and whole chapters of that strange, but inevitable work of his genius, My Religion! He says:—“It would be much more simple to organize a method of living, conformable to the law of Jesus, and then to pray for tribunals, and massacres, and wars if these things be indispensable to our happiness.” “Believers profess to do everything,” he says, “but they forget one little detail,—the practice of the Commandments of Jesus.” The whole chapter that tells us of the martyrs to “the word” is incomparable for the withering sting of its sarcasm.

            I have neither inclination nor space to speak of Tolstoi’s philosophy as a system. In spite of himself, Tolstoi is an artist. No one is greater than he when he tells what he sees with his outer or inner eye. Many surpass him when he attempts to philosophize about his vision. As to his system of abjuration of culture, and deification of the peasant—it is the supplement of the angle of originality, and of keenness of observation. As a lover of literature I rejoice in the manifestation of originality and observation, [149] even if they be supplemented by a weak system,—especially if that system, so weak as a philosophy, finds the perfectly artistic expression that it does in such beautifully simple, and exquisite stories as What Makes People Live, or The Godson, or Mouzhik Pachom.