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NIKOLAI GOGOL (1809-1852)

The following article was originally published in Revizor, A Comedy. Ed. William Lyon Phelps. New York: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Co., 1908.

NIKOLAI VASILEVICH GOGOL was born at Sorotchinetz, in Little Russia, in March, 1809, the exact day being impossible to discover. The year in which he appeared on the planet proved to be the literary annus mirabilis of the century; for in this same twelvemonth were born Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson, Abraham Lincoln, Poe, Gladstone, Holmes, Chopin, and Mendelssohn. His father was a literary amateur, who wrote dramatic pieces for his own amusement, and who spent his time on the old family estate, not in managing the farms, but in wandering about the gardens and beholding the fowls of the air. The boy inherited much from his father; but he had the best of all private tutors, a good mother, of whom his biographer says, Elle demeure toujours sa plus intime amie.

At the age of twelve, Nikolai was sent away to the high school at Nyezhin, a town near Kiev. There he remained from 1821 to 1828. He was a poor student, having no enthusiasm for his lessons, and showing no distinction either in scholarship or deportment. Fortunately, however, the school had a theatre of its own, and Gogol, who hated mathematics, and cared little for the study of modern languages, here found an outlet for all his mental energy. He soon became the acknowledged leader of the school in matters dramatic, and unconsciously prepared himself for his future career. Like Schiller, he wrote a tragedy, called The Robbers.

In December, 1828, Gogol took up his residence in St. Petersburg, bringing with him some manuscripts that he had written while at school. He had the temerity to publish one, which was so brutally ridiculed by the critics that the young genius, in despair, burned all the unsold copies. Then he vainly tried various means of subsistence. Suddenly he decided to seek his fortune in America, but he was both homesick and seasick before the ship emerged from the Baltic, and from Lübeck he fled incontinently back to St. Petersburg. Then he tried to become an actor, but his voice was not sufficiently strong. For a short time he held a minor official position, and a little later was professor of history, an occupation he did not enjoy, saying after his resignation, "I am now a free Cossack again." Meanwhile his pen was steadily busy, and his sketches of farm life in the Ukraine attracted considerable attention among literary circles in the capital.

In 1831, he had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of the great poet Pushkin, father of modern Russian literature, and a few months later in the same year he was presented to Madame Smirnova; these friends gave him the entrée to the St. Petersburg salons, and the young writer found himself in a wholly congenial environment. It was Pushkin who suggested to him the subjects for two of his most famous works, Revizor (The Inspector General) and Dead Souls. Another friend, Joukovsky, exercised a powerful influence and gave invaluable aid at several crises of his career. Joukovsky had translated the Iliad and the Odyssey; his enthusiasm for Hellenic poetry was contagious; and under this inspiration Gogol proceeded to write the most Homeric romance in Russian literature, Taras Bulba (1834). This story gave the first indubitable proof of its author's genius, and today in the world's fiction, it holds an unassailable place in the front rank. The book is so short that it may be read through in less than two hours; but it gives the same impression of vastness and immensity as the huge volumes of Sienkiewicz.

Gogol followed this amazingly powerful romance by two other works, which seem to have all the marks of immortality--the comedy Revizor (The Inspector General) (1836), and a long, unfinished novel, which its author called a poem, Dead Souls (1842). This latter book is the first of the great realistic novels of Russia, of which Fathers and Sons, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina are such splendid examples.

From 1836 to his death in 1852, Gogol lived mainly abroad, and spent much time in travel. His favorite place of residence was Rome, to which city he repeatedly returned with increasing affection. In 1848 he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for Gogol never departed from the pious Christian faith taught him by his mother; in fact, toward the end of his life, he became a mystic. The last years were marred by illness, and--a common thing among Russian literary geniuses--by intense nervous depression. He died at Moscow, the 21st February, 1852. His last words were the old saying, "And I shall laugh with a bitter laugh." These words were placed on his tomb.