Grigorovich in 1856
March 31, 1822|
Simbirsk, Imperial Russia
|Died||January 3, 1900
Saint Petersburg, Imperial Russia
|Education||Military engineering-technical university|
|Genre||Fiction, criticism, travel writing|
|Notable works||The Fishermen|
Dmitry Grigorovich was born in Simbirsk, where his family were members of the landed gentry. His father, a Russian, was a retired hussar officer, his mother, Cydonia de Varmont, was French, daughter of a royalist who perished on guillotine in the times of the Reign of Terror. Having lost his father early, Dmitry was brought up by his mother and grandmother, the two women who hardly spoke anything but French. Up until the age of 8 the boy had serious difficulties with his Russian, his late father's old kammerdiener being his first tutor.
I've been taking my lessons of Russian from servants, local peasants but mostly from my father's old kammerdiner Nikolai... For hours on end was he waiting for the moment I'd be let out to play and then he'd grab me by the hand and walk me through fields and groves, telling fairytales and all kinds of adventure stories. Cast in coldness of my lonely childhood, I was thawing only when having these walks with Nikolai.
From 1832 to 1835 he studied in a German gymnasium and then the French Monighetty boarding school in Moscow. He then did coursework at the Nikolayevsky Engineering Institute, where he made friends with his fellow student Fyodor Dostoyevsky who's got him interested in literature. In 1840 Grigorovich quit the institute (which he hated, anyway) after the severe punishment he'd received for failing to formally greet the Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich, as the latter was passing by. He joined then the Imperial Academy of Arts and here became close friends with Taras Shevchenko.
Upon leaving school, Grigorovich took a small room from the warder of the Academy of Arts. It was in the neighboring studios that he made his first literary acquaintances including Nikolay Nekrasov. Later, working at the Academy's chancellery, Grigorovich stroke friendships with actors and script-writers and started writing himself, beginning with the translations of French vaudevilles (The Inheritance, Champaigne and Opium, both 1843) into Russian. His first published original short stories were "The Theatre Carriage" (1844) and "A Doggie" (1845), both bearing strong Gogol influence. Both were noticed by Nekrasov who invited him to take part in the almanac Saint Petersburg's Physiology he was working upon. It was there that the St. Petersburg Organ Grinders (1845), a detailed study of the life of the travelling musicians of the city, was published, to be praised by influential critic Vissarion Belinsky, to whom the young author has been introduced, also by Nekrasov.
In the mid-1840s, Grigorovich renewed his friendship with Dostoyevsky after a chance meeting in the street. They soon moved in together. In 1846, Dostoyevsky read his first novel Poor Folk to Grigorovich, who was so impressed by the reading that he took the manuscript to Nekrasov, who soon published it. By this time he was working as a journalist, writing small sketches for Literaturnaya Gazeta and theatre feuilletons for Severnaya Ptchela.
Also in 1846 Andrey Krayevsky's Otechestvennye Zapiski (Nekrasov, who'd received the manuscript somehow forgot about it) published Grigorovich's short novel The Village. Influenced by his reading of Dickens's Oliver Twist but based on a true story of a peasant woman (from the village which belonged to his mother) who'd been forcefully married and was consequently beaten by her husband to death, the novel became one of the first in the Russian literature to strongly condemn the system of serfdom and "historically the first attempt of our literature to get closer to real people's life," according to Ivan Turgenev.
Grigorovich's second short novel Anton Goremyka (Luckless Anton, 1847), this time promptly published by Sovremennik, made the author famous. "Not a single Russian novel has yet made upon me such and impression of horrible, damning doom," Belinsky confided in a letter to critic Vasily Botkin. The realistic treatment of peasant life in these two novels was praised by fellow writers Shchedrin and Tolstoy among others, and had a considerable impact on the writing of that period. "There'd be not a single educated man in those times and in the years to come who'd read 'Luckless Anton' without tears of passion and hatred, damning the horrors of serfdom," wrote Pyotr Kropotkin. Anton Goremyka was included into the list of the "most dangerous publications of the year", alongside articles by Belinsky and Hertzen, by the Special Literature and Publishing Committee.
In the late 1840 - early 1850s Grigorovich's fame started to subside. On the one hand, it got eclipsed by the publication of Ivan Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches. On another, his own works of the 1848-1855 (so-called "Seven years of reaction") period were not quite up to the standard set by his first two masterpieces; highlighting the brighter sides of the Russian rural community's life of the time, they were closer to liberal doctrines then to the radical views of Chernyshevsky who was gaining more and more influence in Sovremennik. Several short stories of this period ("The Adventures of Nakatov", "The Short Term Wealth", "Svistulkin") featuring ridiculous characters, might have had certain satirical impact, but none of them was in any way subversive. The short novel Four Seasons (1849) the author himself defined as "a kind of simplistic Russian low-life idyll." "Things are as bad as they've never been. Now that censors are in such a fit of fierceness, to publish anything at all would be unsafe for me," Grigorovich complained in an 1850 letter.
Grigorovich's epic and somewhat amorphous novel Cart-Tracks (Prosyolochnye Dorogi, 1852) with its gallery of social parasites came under criticism for being overblown and obviously derivative from Gogol's Dead Souls. Much better received was his The Fishermen (Rybaki, 1853) novel, one of the earliest works of Russian literature hinting at the emergence of kulak (a rich, exploitative peasant) in the Russian rural environment. Hertzen in his detailed review praised the way the author managed to get rid of his early influences but deplored the lack of a strong, positive character amongst the people he portrayed. The Fishermen, according to Hertzen, "provided signs that the society in Russia started for the first time to recognize in its people an important social force." The emerging proletariat though drew little sympathy from the author. "The decline of morality in the Russian village is often predefined by the factory life," he opined.
Another novel dealing with the conflict between Russian serfs and their owners was The Settlers (Pereselentsy, 1855). Chernyshevsky, giving it a positive review, still refused to see (what he termed as) 'philanthropy' as the means of mending such a profound social schism. Critics of all camps, though, praised Grigorovich's descriptions of nature - the direct result of his early fascination with fine arts; lyrical extracts from his books became the school textbook stuff for the decades to come. Bot The Fishermen and The Settlers did a lot to strengthen Grigorovich's reputation as a serious author. Nekrasov has got him sign the special contract making sure he (alongside Turgenev, Ostrovsky and L.Tolstoy) would from then on write for Sovremennik exclusively.
In the mid-1950s, as the rift between Socialist radicals and liberals in the Russian literature reached the point of no return, Grigorovich made a strong neutral stand and attempted to pacify Nekrasov whose way of "quarrelling with other journals" was causing harm to both himself and Sovremennik, as Grigorovich saw it. In keeping with this spirit of peace and compromise was his next small novel The Ploughman (Pakhar, 1856), either a paean to the "strength of the Russian folk spirit", or the comment on a man of the land's utter endurance, depending on a viewpoint. The School of Hospitality (Shkola Gostepriimstva 1855), written under the influence of Alexander Druzhinin (and, allegedly, not without his direct participation), was in effect a swipe at Chernyshevsky, but the latter refused to be provoked and personal relations between the two men never soured, even if their ideological conflict was irreconcilable. Several years on, as Druzhinin and his 'arts for arts’ sake' clique instigated a dispute along the lines of 'free-thinking Pushkin vs. overcritical Gogol', Grigorovich backed the Chernyshevsky-led Sovremennik group, despite being friends with Druzhinin.
Notes on Modern Ways (Otcherki sovremennykh nravov, 1857), a satire published in Sovremennik, lashed against Russian bureaucracy, but first signs of the forthcoming crisis already were obvious. "Never before I've had such doubts about myself, there are times when I feel totally downtrodden," he wrote in a letter to Druzhinin as early as 1855.
In 1858, Grigorovich accepted the Russian Navy Ministry's invitation to make a round-Europe voyage on a warship Retvizan. The writer described his travels to Spain, France, Germany and Denmark as a part of this expedition in his book The Ship Retvizan (1858-1863). Back in Russia, Grigorovich started his own 'Popular reading' project but this 10-book series failed to make a significant impact. Grigorovich was going to comment the demolition of serfdom by another book, showing two generations of landowners, the old and the new, but his Two Generals (Dva generala, 1864) novel remained unfinished. In the mid-1860s he turned away from literature, returning to it only in the 1880s. "Fine arts have always interested me more than literature," admitted Grigorovich, who was collecting items of art from an early age and had a reputation of an erudite among specialists.
In 1862 Grigorovich travelled to London to study English art at the 1862 International Exhibition and in other galleries. In 1863 he published an account of his studies, Paintings by English Artists at London Exhibitions in 1862, in The Russian Messenger. The article was significant both for providing the most comprehensive analysis of British painting yet to appear in the Russian press, and for Grigorovich's comments on the merits of British painting in comparison with those of other European schools. He especially liked the works of William Holman Hunt. In 1864 he was elected the Secretary of the Russian Society for Encouraging Artists and held this post 20 years, doing a lot to improve the art education throughout the country. The History of Art museum he organized at the Society was credited with being one of the best in Europe of its kind. At the School of Drawing Grigorovish gathered the best teachers of the country, made sure exhibitions and contests were being held regularly, with winners receiving grants from the Society. Grigorovich was the first to discover and support soon-to-be famous painters Fyodor Vasilyev and Ilya Repin. F or his achievements as the Society's leader Grigorovich was awarded the title of the Actual State Councilor and a lifetime pension.
In 1883 Grigorovich the writer made a stunning comeback with the "Gutta-Percha Boy" (Guttaperchevy Maltchik) which was unanimously hailed as the author's 'little masterpiece'. The story of a hapless circus virtuoso made its way into the Russian classic children's reading lists and was adapted for the big screen twice, in 1915 and 1957. Also in 1883 Grigorovich translated Prosper Mérimée's "Le Vase Etrusque" into Russian, his version since then having being regarded as unsurpassed. In 1885 his satirical novel Acrobats of Charity (Akrobaty blagotvoritelnosti) made quite a stir. It’s title became a popular token phrase (used, notably, by Lenin in one of his 1901 works) and the book, adapted into a play called The Suede People, was produced for the Moscow Art Theatre by Konstantin Stanislavsky.
In 1886, Grigorovich wrote his celebrated letter to the young writer Anton Chekhov, telling him that he had a gift, and that he should take his literary efforts more seriously. In his reply Chekhov said: "Your letter, my kind, fervently beloved bringer of good tidings, struck me like a flash of lightning. I almost burst into tears, I was overwhelmed, and now I feel it has left a deep trace in my soul."  In his Literary Memoirs (1892-1993) Grigorovich created a vast panorama of Russian 1840s-1850s literary scene and (while carefully avoiding political issues) left vivid portraits of people he knew well, like Ivan Turgenev, Vasily Botkin and Leo Tolstoy.
Dmitry Vasilyevich Grigorovich died in Saint Petersburg on January 3, 1900. He was buried at the Volkovo Cemetery.
Dmitry Grigorovich is generally regarded as the first writer to have shown the real life of the Russian rural community in its full detail, following the tradition of the so-called Natural School which he in the 1840s represented. His first two short novels, The Village and Anton Goremyka, are seen as precursors of several important works by Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Leskov. On the other hand, as a harsh critic of serfdom, he’s been linked to the line of Radishchev, Griboyedov and Pushkin.
Fellow writers, critics and political activists (like Alexander Hertzen) noted the impact his second novel Anton Goremyka especially has had upon the development of social consciousness in Russia. It greatly influenced the new, politically-minded generation of Russian enlightened readership of the mid-19th century and in many ways helped launching the early socialist movement in the country. Saltykov-Shchedrin called the first two books by Grigorovich "a springtime rain which invigorated Russian literary soil"; both made the Russian society aware for the first time of the plight of a muzhik, a human being, not an abstraction, according to the great satirist. Leo Tolstoy praised Grigorovich for having portrayed Russian peasants "with love, respect and something close to trepidation," writing of enormous impact his "vast, epic tapestries like Anton Goremyka have made."
According to Semyon Vengerov, Grigorovich achieved his peak in his first two novels. "All of his later books were written with the same sympathy for the common man, but failed to excite," the historian of literature argued. Many critics of the Russian left (Vengerov included) made much of the fact that Grigorovich (as well as Turgenev) allegedly 'hated' Chernyshevsky; they saw his ideology, therefore, as seriously deficient, simply for being not radical enough. Critics from all camps, though, admired Grigorovich for his fine, simple, yet colourful language and called him "the master of natural landscape". This gift developed apparently as a result of his love for fine arts and painting, but still was quite extraordinary for someone who'd been brought up by two French women and up until the age of eight spoke hardly any Russian at all.
- The Cruel City, (novel-1855/56), Cassell Publishing Company, 1891. from Google Books
- The Peasant, (short novel), from Russian Sketches, Smith Elder & Co, 1913. from Archive.org
- The Fishermen, (novel-1853), Stanley Paul and Co, 1916. from Archive.org
- Kropotkin, Peter. Russian Literature (New York: McClure, Phillips & Co. 1905).
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