The Term narodnost' in Orest Somov’s “On Romanticism”

David Cooper, University of Illinois- Urbana-Champaign

While Prince Viazemsky frequently has been credited with inventing the term narodnost', he cannot really be credited with making it the subject of public debate it became in the 1820s and beyond. It was Orest Somov who initiated the public discussion of the term that would involve Viazemsky, Mikhail Dmitriev, Kiukhel'beker, Pushkin and others. Somov deployed the term in his series of three essays entitled “On Romanticism” in 1823, linking it to Romanticism and the idea of a national literature. Earlier American criticism attached a wide range of meanings to the term in Somov’s discourse (Leighton) while more recent criticism has emphasized the imperial aspect of the term (Hokanson, A. Wachtel). I argue that Somov’s essays represent a careful attempt to create a terminological usage of the word, that is, to restrict its usage and its meaning to a narrow sphere. He uses the abstract noun only four times in over 100 pages and not at all in the third essay, in which he outlines what is indeed a highly imperialist literary vision. Three of the four usages occur in passages that are translations from Madame de Staël’s “De l’Allemagne” and concern the German writers Bürger, Schiller, and Goethe and all translate different French phrases. I examine these passages closely in an attempt to reconstruct how Somov intended the term to be taken and used. I suggest that it is the linkage of narodnost' to the image of the protean poet, Goethe, rather than the imperialist passages of the third essay, that was most suggestive to Gogol' and Dostoevsky in their creation of the myth of Pushkin and their imperial vision of the Russian mission that Pushkin represents.

Hokanson, Katya. “Literary Imperialism, Narodnost' and Pushkin’s Invention of the Caucasus.” Russian Review 53, no. 3 (July 1994): 336-52.

Leighton, Lauren. Russian Romanticism: Two Essays. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.

Wachtel, Andrew. “Translation, Imperialism, and National Self-Definition in Russia.” Public Culture 11, no. 1 (1999): 49-73.