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The Invention of Russia in America, 1880-1920

  • Author(s): Dobrushin, Maxim
  • Advisor(s): Gillman, Susan
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License
Abstract

The Invention of Russia in America aims to breaks new ground by exploring an international phenomenon that was well-known in the nineteenth century but has since become an under-studied moment in U.S. literature and culture: the rise of Russian culture and politics at a time when the U.S. was considering new methods of literary representation, art-criticism, and language. My dissertation argues for the multi-directional influence at the turn-of-the-century of Russian realism and Russian revolutionary nihilism and anarchism in the U.S., shaping American literary realism, the popular novel, and translation theory. The project begins with the U.S.’s foremost Russian-to-English translators, Nathan Haskell Dole, Benjamin Tucker, Isabel Hapgood, and Constance Garnett, all of whom work with what I call “flexible translation.” Flexible translation points to U.S. Russian translators’ reliance on bio- genetic pseudoscience, how racialized theories of climate zones and geography represented language as an extension of a nation’s environmental and national development, as well as a stand-in for Russian writers, equating their greatness and universality with Russian literature. Such a theory of language influenced the reception of Russian aesthetic theory in the U.S. by writers across multiple zones, including the canonical (William Dean Howells), the ‘ethnic’ (Abraham Cahan), and Russian emigres (Petr Kropotkin). These writers argued for the sacrality of language through art-criticism, which sought to compensate for U.S. “immaturity” through Russian figurations of the literary critic as a torch-bearer of intellectual progress. I argue that Howells, Cahan, and Kropotkin sought to use the theories of Russian art- criticism to develop democracy and inclusivity by drawing on altruistic forms of evolutionary discourse, derived from Herbert Spencer. Finally, the dissertation concludes by exploring what I call “narratives of failure,” realist novels that rely on nihilist themes and the principles of art-criticism to explore democracy and inclusivity. These novels include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance (1852), Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886), and Cahan’s The White Terror and the Red (1905). By exploring the ideals of art-criticism through novels that depict social change in the making, I seek to show how narratives of failure choose to ignore the fissures of the present by substituting narrative harmony into the future, resulting in the failure of democracy and inclusivity to take hold.

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