Reviews, PR 10 (2007)

Review: David Bethea, ed. «The Pushkin Handbook»

David M. Bethea, ed. The Pushkin Handbook. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. xlii + 665 pp. ISBN 0-299-19560-0. Index. Cloth.


     The authors in this collection implicitly and explicitly compare The Pushkin Handbook with the 1966 volume Pushkin: Itogi i problemy izucheniia. As several contributors note, the drawback of the earlier tome was its ideological commitment to official optimism, i.e., to the idea that scholarship, like Soviet society, was infinitely improving. This belief in the perfectibility of humanity became strangely applied to the study of the “national poet.” A new volume appeared necessary now, says its editor, David Bethea, because the ideological mandates of the past are no longer in force and one can head in entirely new directions. I would also add that some of the best Pushkin research in the last forty years has been taking place in the United States, pursued by American scholars (many of them Russian-born). The sense that The Handbook can be the central volume about Pushkin scholarship for our own age is self-consciously expressed by the authors. William Mills Todd III, for example, titles his contribution—with the Itogi volume in mind—“Pushkin and Society: Post-1966 Perspectives.”

     Although the goal of The Handbook is certainly to bring scholarship up to date, its epistemological orientation also reflects an attachment to the past. The titles of the articles show deep respect for Pushkin studies of an earlier age: “Pushkin and Romanticism,” “Pushkin and Realism,” or “Pushkin and French Literature.” Although the traditional “Pushkin and x” topics are present, some novelties do appear. One finds Stephanie Sandler’s “The Puskin Myth in Russia,” Svetlana Evdokimova and Vladimir Golstein’s “Pushkiniana as an Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Criticism,” and David Bethea’s “Pushkin as a Historical Thinker” (not historian or influenced by history, but a thinker in his own right!).

     Like the earlier compendium of 1966, the contributors summarize the arguments of scholars, analyze intellectual schools of thought, and give their own predictions about where scholarship is heading. By isolating the arguments and intellectual approaches of earlier scholars, the authors save one a good deal of time. In fact, one learns as much about Russian and Soviet schools of criticism as Pushkin. However, I noticed a distinct preference for Russian-language criticism and a provincial neglect of contributions by younger Americans and also English and European scholars.

     The Handbook consists of twenty-eight contributions written in English and Russian. The majority of the contributors will be well known to professionals in the field. In addition to David Bethea, Caryl Emerson, Lauren Leighton, Stephanie Sandler, Boris Gasparov, and Alexander Dolinin, one finds the late V. Vatsuro, the late Sergei Fomichev and the late Mikhail Gasparov (all much lamented), as well as Oleg Proskurin.

     It is hard to predict whether the volume will have the same success as Itogi had. However, even if The Handbook does not attain the same cult status as the earlier volume, there is a good deal here that deepens our knowledge of Pushkin scholarship. For example, I especially enjoyed reading Boris Gasparov, who takes issue with the entire idea of Hegelian progressivism, claiming that there is no reason to think that Realism was an improvement on Romanticism. Besides Boris Gasparov, David Bethea strongly argues against reading Pushkin in a teleological fashion. Pushkin did not exist just to become the patriarch, father of Gogol’, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Apparently such thinking is not merely a historical relic, but has defenders even today.

     I am full of praise for David Bethea, who reads Pushkin very well, contextualizing him in his epoch, insightfully comparing him to contemporaries and predecessors. In his article on Pushkin as a historical thinker, Bethea claims that the poet could not follow the path of Karamzin not only because he did not have the Sitzfleisch, but also because he was determined to preserve the role of chance in history. For that reason, he especially felt attracted to revolution and upheaval because of its indeterminate quality. Among other essays that I particularly admired, I also applaud Mikhail Gasparov’s piece on Pushkin and poetic form, Vadim Vatsuro’s article on literary movements in Pushkin’s time, Stephanie Sandler’s piece on the Pushkin myth and Caryl Emerson and Boris Katz’s contribution on the poet and music.

     In his introduction David Bethea touches on some serious issues regarding the financing of Pushkin studies in the universities, the “marketability” of scholarship, and the decrease in the number of readers interested in serious humanistic books. Aware of all the obstacles in our day, he places his faith in an emotional and intellectual attachment to the poet and his work that I call love.

In the aftermath of  glasnost’ and perestroika, Pushkin studies have grown and cross-fertilized (especially in the years leading up to and following the bicentenary in 1999), even as literary studies have shrunk and exhibited signs of exhaustion. This may be due in part to the fact that with the rise in “secondary” thinking (thinking about literary matters with greater and greater sophistication in order to attract the attention of an audience that seems less and less interested), Pushkin seems so undeniably “primary.”

     Although the volume does not resolve the big questions—whether Pushkin stands for individualism or collectivity, ethics or rather aesthetics, Russia or universalism—one can sense that the authors love Pushkin. That attachment is not an affectation, but has become the identifying marker of a Pushkinist. Whether this emphasis represents a retreat from a dismal scholarly marketplace or not, I cannot say. What I can say is that this love has driven scholarship for over 150 years and there seems no shortage now. That fact alone should afford us cautious optimism for the future.


Brian Horowitz
Tulane University


Download: Horowitz, Brian. Rev. of The Pushkin Handbook, ed. David Bethea. Pushkin Review 10 (2007): 163 – 65.