From Consumption To Tuberculosis In Late 19th Century Russian Letters

Mary Delle LeBeau, University of Southern California

By the end of the 19th century, both the romantic and the realistic view of tuberculosis began to appear concurrently in Russian literature. At the beginning of the century, romantics depicted consumption as the slow, beautiful death. Byron longed to die of consumption and, unable to realize his wish, undertook a diet so strict as to make himself look thin and pale. Already in 1858, this attitude began to change in both Europe and Russia. Dobrolyubov, who, himself, died of tuberculosis, derided the allure of sickliness and championed the healthy development of the human organism.

The transition that occurred in the 19th century from the romanticizing of the illness consumption toward a more realistic view of the fatal disease of tuberculosis followed literary and philosophical trends. Early in the 19th century the age of epidemics had begun to slow as a social system of disease prevention was put into practice and the ugly specter of mass death made way for romantic death by consumption. By mid-century a positivist worldview overtook both Western and Russian culture and the romantic yearning for consumption began to wane.

The simultaneous appearance in Russian literature of both the romantic and the realistic views of tuberculosis appears in the work of two representative writers, Semyon Nadson and Anton Chekhov. Both contracted tuberculosis early in life, Nadson at 19, Chekhov at the age of 24. Both died untimely deaths from it. In the poetry of Nadson the disease itself played a much larger role, first as romantic metaphor and, later, in his depiction of the poet’s decaying body. By 1883 Nadson had become the most popular poet in Russia, known as poet-prophet of the cult of the tubercular poet. On the other hand, Chekhov, a doctor fully aware of the symptoms of tuberculosis, denied his own illness, even as late as 1897, when it was plainly obvious to those close to him. In his stories and plays Chekhov does depict characters dying of tuberculosis, using, in some works, romantic aspects and, in others, realistic details. But, other than these references to the illness, it is largely absent from his opus.

This paper proposes to explore the interesting phenomenon of both romantic and realistic depictions of tuberculosis at the close of the 19th century. The cultural attitudes and medical treatment of the illness in Russia will be included as background to the place tuberculosis had in the work of these two writers. In this way the author of this paper hopes to present the Russian perspective of tuberculosis at this time.