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Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books


On Dale Peterson’s Up From Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul

Nancy Ruttenburg
New York University

Note: Presented at the “Race, Religion, and Nationalism: Three Books” Symposium, Amherst College, October 27, 2001. Copyright © 2001 by the author and the Trustees of Amherst College. All rights reserved.

     For those of us who have long suspected that the shared grandiosity of Russian and American literature must derive from some common cultural source, Dale Peterson’s recently published Up From Bondage: The Literatures of Russian and African American Soul comes as a revelation. This is so not because one would assume that the obvious historical incongruities of Russian and American life must ultimately overwhelm efforts to establish cross-cultural affinities. On the contrary: despite the obvious disparities, there are a number of potential touchstones for literary, and indeed broadly cultural comparative analysis. The challenge has been to identify an organizing principle for evaluating their relative significance. For example, in the first third of the nineteenth century (where Peterson’s inquiry begins with the writings of Pyotr Chaadaev and Ivan Kireevsky), America and Russia were both empires in the making, one growing westward and the other eastward against the resistance of indigenous populations. In both cases, imperial expansion was underwritten by a developing rhetoric of manifest destiny, a belief that the advancing, thus superior, culture had a clear call to illuminate the far reaches of the continent and ultimately the globe with its national-spiritual beacon. Both self-described “young” nations imagined a culturally moribund and spiritually corrupt Europe as a particular beneficiary of their advent. (It’s worth noting that their national messianisms were both shaped to some degree by the anti-Catholic biases of Russian Orthodoxy and American Protestantism.) But if the marginal nations jointly indulged the fantasy of a Europe on the brink of cultural obsolescence, the undeniable magnitude of its accomplishments also led their literati to generate and then defend themselves against indictments of their own relative inadequacies as cultural producers. Both wondered obsessively in print whether a national-cultural identity could even be said to exist if its expression was unrecognized by the outside world. Acknowledging their marginal status in relation to European dominance, both nations were marked in turn by the presence of an internally marginalized group: the slaves and serfs. Emancipation was proclaimed in Russia in 1861 and in the United States in 1863 when roughly one-third of their populations lived in bondage. Historian Peter Kolchin, author of Unfree Labor, a comparative study of Russian serfdom and American slavery, attributed the development of servitude in both instances to “geographic and economic expansion in areas of sparse settlement” and established that by the late eighteenth century it had taken the form of chattel slavery: not just the labor but the bodies of Russian serfs and African-American slaves were considered the personal property of their masters.1 Emancipation, a prerequisite for the integrity of national identity both cultures sought for the fulfillment of their self-appointed destinies, also posed enormous and ongoing conceptual challenges to that integrity. The great accomplishment of Dale Peterson’s book is to recognize the centrality and the complexity of this shared legacy of bondageboth as reality and as privileged metaphorto the Russian/American case, a legacy he traces in the evolution of its literary expression on both fronts over one hundred and fifty years.

     Peterson thus offers a paradigm for a comparative literary history in which the juxtaposition of national cultures does not rely on direct influence for its validity. Russian writers and African-American writers were not comparing notes in European salons or academic conferences, or even indirectly through the medium of European journals (although Russian writers and their “unhyphenated” American contemporaries sometimes were). Instead, Peterson argues, “something already present in the cultural self-awareness of African American intellectuals” allowed them to see in Russian literature an “emancipatory example” for the expression of “double-consciousness,” first, as a fact of mental life for the culturally marginal (as W. E. B. Du Bois famously established); second, as the object of novelistic representations of a minority consciousness; and third, as a representational strategy Russian and African-American writers discovered for showing the predicament as well as the distinguishing trait of an embattled collective identity.2 Peterson’s encompassing term for this shared “structure of mentality” and its literary product is “soul.” It refers to the spiritual life or “genius” of the folk insofar as that spirit achieves textual incarnation as the material ground of a distinctive cultural vitality: “soul” germinates a long while in its original “soil” (undocumented folk life) before the cultivators of culture succeed in bringing it to the surfacethat is, until the vernacular expression of the Russian serf and the African-American slave and their descendants becomes visible or audible on the printed page or musical score. Once textually harnessed, these vernacular forms possess the power to “decolonize” (according to Henry Louis Gates) the hegemonic wordthat is (in Peterson’s formulation), they possess the power to challenge the primacy of “forms of literacy that have historically erased Russian and black folk from substantial existence” (4). The vernacular exercises this power against established literary forms by introducing alternative, sometimes subversive, meanings on the level of the individual word or utterance as well as on the level of larger verbal structures, the novel in particular. This “double-voicedness” of the word and of the novel, in its capacity as an orchestrator of multiple voices (according to Mikhail Bakhtin), facilitates the literary representation of minority “double-consciousness.” Thus does the turn to the linguistic theories of the Russian philosopher Bakhtin on the part of contemporary African-American literary theoriststheir appropriation of “double-voicedness” for the expression of “double-consciousness”inform the latest chapter (and Peterson’s last) in a long-standing engagement of African-American literature and theory with its Russian “precursor” (3).3

     The literatures of “soul,” we learn, are polemicalor to use Bakhtin’s language again, dialogicalfrom the outset. The Russian and African-American canons comprise a “similarly constructed sequence of philosophical replies and artistic refutations” of the dominant culture’s portrait of the marginalized, but also of the latter’s own internalization of that portrait, and even of successive responses to its internalization (7). The sheer complexity of response and refutation to some influential but contested view of the “folk” or the “people” points to what I have called elsewhere a “double marginalization”4 the simultaneous experience of being marginalized by a “superior” culture (as Americans and Russians were by the Western Europeans, or as African-Americans were by white Americans), and then marginalizing in turn (the “folk base,” whether Russian peasant or African-American). A member of the marginalized can assume the position of the marginalizer; one and the same writer can identify now with one group, now the other, depending on the rhetorical demands of the moment, or the evolution of his or her understanding of the represented folk. (The folk, it bears noting, do not, as the objects of representation, enjoy this prerogative of switching perspective. On the other hand, if not as a class or “subject” position then as a concept, the “folk” possesses an enduring vitality in its ability to explode hypothetical constructs about it, even when offered by writers ambitious to speak “as” the people rather than “for” them.) Peterson insists that although “soul” has been understood at certain cultural-historical moments in essentialist terms, it is always, fundamentally, in flux; this must be true insofar as “soul”an apprehension of the “unrealized cultural potential organically present in the body of the people” (6)is not a reality, but the function of a writerly identity or perspective which is also in flux. Peterson’s chapters take us through these authorial oscillations of perspective from marginalizing to marginalized on two national-cultural fronts, all the while keeping careful track of telling differences within a broader generic or theoretical similarity of response.

     In the first chapter, for example, which pairs Pyotor Chaadaev with Alexander Crummell as “missionary nationalists,” the “acknowledged forefathers of modern Russian and pan-African nationalist discourse,” we see how the story of “soul” begins with a strong refutation of the concept of an essential ethnic identity (14). For Chaadaev, in the absence of any noteworthy cultural expression or achievement in Russia in comparison with Europe, there could be no ethnic particularity unless the absence of defining features constituted the Russians’ distinguishing trait. Chaadaev thus penned his Lettres philosophiques in opposition to Nicholas I’s cultural imperialism and its rallying formula, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, National Identity,” which he derided as an artificial foundation as insubstantial as the Russian cultural life it aimed to bring into being. In his subsequent Apologie d’un fou, Chaadaev revised his denunciation of the national-cultural vacuum to showcase Russian character, precisely for its historic isolation and self-effacing tendencies, as the harbinger of a universalist Christian future. Similarly Crummell, although expressing both separatist and assimilationist impulses in the aftermath of emancipation, steadily interpreted the extreme marginalization of formerly enslaved African-Americans as a providential guarantee of their future centrality in a universal Christian civilization. Because history had providentially prevented their development of cultural particularity, no misplaced devotion to it will keep them from claiming their central role in the new global civilization. Thus do Chaadaev and Crummell’s denial of cultural particularity or essence anticipate the cultural messianism of Ivan Kireevsky on the one hand and W. E. B. Du Bois on the other, who in varying degrees portrayed the Russian and African-American folk enacting through the rituals of their daily lives a principled, if unarticulated, rejection of the dominant culture’s individualism. This rejection of individualism underwrites their originality, which in turn guarantees their messianic destiny.

     Double marginalization; double-voicedness and double consciousness; paired oscillations on two national fronts: Peterson impressively holds in focus the multiplying, internally dialogized symmetries of the Russian/African-American parallel while registering the divergences and dissymmetries. His chapters lucidly map out the dizzying intricacies of specular relationships or replicating structures (like the mimesis of a mimesis) as they develop dialectically over time (that is, as they generate something new out of reply and refutation). The persuasiveness of Peterson’s argument ultimately depends on the reader’s acceptance of the unexpected pairing at the study’s heart: the analogy between Russian elites struggling to write the peasant into textual existence and African-American elites struggling similarly with the recalcitrant literary material of the black folk. As my opening summary of the case for comparative Russian/American work might suggest, it would seem more obvious to juxtapose the Russian with the “unhyphenated” American writer whose authorial missions, assessments of the state of the national literature, and experience of European cultural colonization bear striking similarities. And yet, as Peterson demonstrates, this analogy can (and therefore should) be refined to redress the too featureless profile of “the American writer.” For one thing, the identity of the American “folk” or “people” whom the generically American writer would feel obliged to represent can be bafflingly vague. It may refer, depending on the writer and historical moment, to a range of sub-populations, including farmers, pioneers, the working poor, immigrants, minority populations generally, and the slaves.5 The African-American refinement works because one sees indubitably how they and their Russian counterparts did in fact feel “obligated by racial ties” to identify with “illiterate and enslaved bondsmen” and through their writing to “redeem in full the debased value of the racial stock”: the unlettered were their “brethren”; they were the “deracinated or socially advantaged brothers and sisters of the folk” (9). It is the racial or ethnic identity of elite and folk that underwrites the comparison of Russian and African-American authorships, a provocative and astoundingly rich new paradigm.

     And yet I had reservations about what seem crucial differences within this similarity, the sense of which intrudes on one’s willingness to accept a description of Russians and African-Americans as having been “the bound servants of the master’s civilization” or of Russians suffering with African-Americans “the injury of racial denigration.” To a significant degree, these are accurate accounts; Peterson provides fascinating details of the historical proclivity of the Western cultural elite to deny intelligence and cultural agency to what it perceives as other, a proclivity inscribed in the etymological relation of “Slav” to “slave” (4. 7). Nevertheless, the racial affinity of Slavic elites with their equally Slavic folk is one common to the entire nation: there is no racial “other” within Russia’s borders of the magnitude of the African-American population in the United States. As the historian Peter Kolchin put it, in a discussion of the exceptional Russian practice of enslaving those who were not (initially) outsiders to the culture: “Many Americans advocated a United States without blacks, but to imagine a Russia without the peasants was inconceivable; they were the essence of itand 90 percent of its population. When Russians spoke of ‘the people,’ they meant precisely the peasants” (44). This is not to deny the alienation of that 90 percent from the governing remainder. Kolchin speaks of the “social distance” between noble and peasant that by the eighteenth century made them “see[m] as different from each other as white and black, European and African” (45). But there was no comparable social distance between those of the Russian elite invested in bringing the folk into literary representation and the Russian elite as a whole, as was certainly felt by the African-American elite in relation to their “unhyphenated” American counterpart. The American elite splits racially; the Russian elite does not. This is why the double-consciousness Du Bois describes in The Souls of Black Folk can apply only in a very limited way to the Russian elite who experienced no corollary to Du Bois’s “an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one . . . body.”6 The contemptuous gaze directed at Russians as a distinct ethnic or “racial” group (as opposed to the folk subset of that group) comes from outside the culture, not within it (even accounting for the elites’ internalization of that alienating gaze). This basic difference must from the start affect the authorial enterprise of launching a literature of “soul.”

     For example, in his “Forethought” to The Souls of Black Folk (in which he famously announces that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line”), Du Bois describes not just the project of studying the struggles of “the black peasantry,” but its method: “Leaving . . . the world of the white man, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses . . . .” (5). The epistemological impasse is spatially resolved: Du Bois will enter a distant world, far from that of the white man, and allow the latter a glimpse into its hidden, inward life. Du Bois, by virtue of his racial identity with the black peasantry, can “pass” in that world and thereby reveal the latter’s passion, religion, and struggle to a white world unable to see it. Here, in contrast, is Dostoevsky in 1861 warning his educated reader about the insurmountable obstacles to penetrating the world of the peasant, an impossibility even for “our best ‘scholars’ of the life of the people”:

They have really studied the life of the people, even lived with the peoplethat is, lived with them not in some manorhouse on a country estate, but alongside of them, lived in their huts; they have looked upon their poverty, seen the peculiarities of their life, experienced their desires, learned their opinions, even the cast of their ideas, and so forth and so on. They have eaten together with the people, their food even; others have even drunk with them. Finally, there are those who have even worked together with them, that is, done peasant work. Although not many, it’s true. And what of it?

Of these scholars, Dostoevsky insists that they “know only the exterior,” and not “the genuine life, the essence of the life, its heart.” The peasant disallows the glimpse:

The common people will talk with you, tell you about themselves, laugh with you; they might even cry before you (but never with you), but they will never regard you as one of them. They will never seriously consider you one of their own, their brother, a real member of the family. And they will never, never put their trust in you . . . because they lost their trustfulness with their sweat and blood.7

One might say that before the nobleman-observer, even if a sympathetic scholar, the peasant “signifies”speaks even as he withholds the fullness of his meaning from his alleged interlocutor. (Peterson shows us how, in The Conjure Woman, the simple tales of Chesnutt’s black narrator, Julius, told to his white “masters,” John and Annie, are similarly opaque.) Turgenev’s Notes of a Hunter bears out the point Dostoevsky so bluntly makes: each sketch features the bafflementsometimes amused, sometimes frustratedof the nobleman who finds himself tantalizingly proximate to the peasant and yet kept at arm’s length, on the margin of the inner circle but unable to penetrate it. Like Chesnutt’s John and Annie, the noble sportsman cannot read the peasant’s text but struggles to make it out. Turgenev’s famous protagonist, Bazarov (Fathers and Sons), the university-educated son of an impoverished country doctor, is only slightly better placed than his noble sportsman to observe the true lives of the peasants, were he inclined to do so. Although he treats them with an unsentimental familiarity the abolitionist nobleman, Nikolai Kirsanov, can’t muster, they treat Bazarov with the diffidence reserved for those of the “other” (educated or landed) class.

     For Dostoevsky, it was a fatal mistakefatal to the integration, the very survival, of the nationto underestimate the extent of the “abyss” separating the elite from the laboring classes. He urges as sole antidote to the consequences of a history of enslavement that the elite undergo a mysterious transfiguration, a conversion or “turning into” the people. Gorianchikov, the nobleman-convict who narrates Dostoevsky’s fictionalized prison memoirs, Notes from the House of the Dead, insists that the nobleman remains “divided from the common people by the profoundest abyss, and this fact is fully seen only when the nobleman is himself suddenly compelled, by the power of external circumstances, actually and in fact to lose his former rights and to become one of [obratit’sia v, also “to convert to,” “to turn into”) the common people” (4:196, 198–99, emphasis in the original). Conversion is here invested with a terrible urgency, that of eradicating the sacrificial impulse that Gorianchikov designates “the executioner who lives in embryo in every contemporary human being” (4:155). Moreover, he claims that conversion, the death of the old man, the executioner within, and the birth of the new, can only occur through the shock of experience, and in particular the experience of conviction. The nobleman-convict is very specific about this: “My convictions were neither bookish nor speculative, but were acquired through reality, and I had plenty of time to verify them.” But the implicit stipulation that for conviction to count, for it to trigger conversion, it must be acquired through reality rather than ideology begs the question of Gorianchikov’s ability to transmit his conviction to “everyone,” and specifically, to his reader, through his book but in a manner “not bookish” and “not speculative.”

     Conviction and conversion are both ideological imperatives, but more to the point in the context of a comparison of Russian with African-American literature, they propose that the only way to bridge the social distance between nobleman and peasant is to overcome the limitations of the flesh. Conviction and conversion propose miraculous contiguities: in the case of conviction, experience brings together the actual and the fictional person and circulates between them; and in the case of conversion, the new man rises up from the lifeless old.

     The need for such miraculous contiguities suggests that in the Russian case, the problem of the abyss separating educated elite from the peasant is so vast that it motivates a shift in Dostoevsky’s writings. Authentic Russianness is no longer bound to folk essence; instead, as Peterson points out in his reading of Notes from the Underground, it locates itself in that peevish and paranoid voice which lashes out against “imported Western theorems” and their material traces, such as the grandiose Italianate architecture of Petersburg (116). Instead of a portrait of the folk, or of a figure combining the strengths of Westernized nobleman and Russian peasantDostoevsky’s hope for Russia’s future expressed often in his journalistic writings of 1861–63he creates a portrait of an underground man, a representative member of an urban, yet educated, underclass. Dostoevsky will obsessively examine the psychology of this type from Raskolnikov to Ivan Karamazov, whose “alienated and ironic self-consciousness [is] analogous to the alienated and mistrustful consciousness of the denigrated Russian peasantry” (113). The only purely peasant characters to appear in “the great novels” are minor figures lacking in the moral complexity one finds in Notes from the House of the Dead: such, for example, is Fedka, a minor villain in The Demons, an unscrupulous peasant and ex-convict. Fedka is simply insidious, a creature of the noblemen-revolutionaries who employ him to do their dirty work (in that regard, a forerunner of Smerdiakov in The Brothers Karamazov). This peasant other is entirely alien.

     James Weldon Johnson’s “ex-colored man,” with whom Peterson pairs Dostoevsky’s underground man as confessional bearers of “an internalized dual identity,” remains embroiled in the question of the value of the folk and the genius of their vernacular, in this case musical (109). As Peterson writes, the ex-colored man betrays a “profound attachment to the genius of his people,” inculcated by his mother’s exposing him in early childhood to “cultural blackness,” which marks him as a cultural insider even as he masters the art of passing (120). While his cynical white benefactor defines and delimits him as “by blood, by appearance, by education and by tastes a white man” who must fail “to make a Negro” out of himmself, the ex-colored man knows he has long been an initiate. Thus he hears without effort in the songs at the Georgia big meeting “that elusive undertone” which “sounded in them,” “the note in the music that is not heard with the ears.” Although Peterson rightly points out that what supports the comparative look at the underground man and ex-colored man is “their shared inability to accept and creatively affirm their internalized biculturalism,” there is no analog for the folk foundation in the underground man’s struggle with hybridity, and so the problem, the option, of the folk simply disappears from that text (123). This is what underlies the crucial distinction to which Peterson points between the ex-colored man’s conscious deception and self-deception, and the underground man’s unconscious self-evasion. For the underground man, there is no external referent or touchstone in an authentic (if denigrated) culture to illuminate the mental steps he takes to elude it.

     Such considerations leave me with the following questions: does one see a comparable sense of the abyss between the writer and his or her folk object in the African-American canon? Or does the abyss lie between the African-American writer and his or her “unhyphenated” or white counterpart? In either case, does one fine an analogy to the Russian desire to discover a form of experience capable of transcending the difference between fictional and actual persons and a form of power capable of eradicating once and for all the internal-internalized-executioner.


     1. Peter Kolchin, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 30, 41–43. Kolchin notes, however, that tradition could limit the Russian master’s power; for example, the custom of allotting small parcels of land to serfs for self-support created some measure of economic indendence. Nevertheless, this measure of freedom “was not absolute and legally it was nonexistent” (45). Statistical analyses of the enslaved populations of both countries between 1795 and 1858 in Russia and 1790 and 1860 in the United States are provided on 51–57. At the time of emancipation, roughly 39% of the Russian population consisted of serfs, and 32% of the American population of slaves. Subsequent page references to this text will be cited in the essay. [return to text]

     2. Dale Peterson, Up from Bondage: The Literature of Russian and African American Soul (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), 1. [return to text]

     3. For an excellent critique of this move, see Dorothy J. Hale, Social Formalism: The Novel in Theory from Henry James to the Present (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), chap. 5, “DoubleVision as Double Voice: The Social Formalism of Identity Studies.” [return to text]

     4. Nancy Ruttenburg, “Silence and Servitude: Bondage and Self-Invention in Russia and America, 1780–1861,” Slavic Review 51, no. 4 (winter 1992). [return to text]

     5. Ruttenburg, “Silence and Servitude,” 739. [return to text]

     6. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Terri Hume Oliver (1903; New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1999), 11. [return to text]

     7. F. M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij v tridtzati tomakh, ed. V.G. Bazanov et al. (Leningrad: Akademiia Nauk, 1972–90), 19:7. [return to text]

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