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Rewriting Capitalism: Literature and the Market in Late Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland

Author(s):Holmgren, Beth
Reviewer(s):Blobaum, Robert E.

Published by EH.NET (June, 1999)

Beth Holmgren. Rewriting Capitalism: Literature and the Market in Late

Tsarist Russia and the Kingdom of Poland. Pitt Series in Russian and East

European Studies. Pittsburgh, Pa: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998. xv

+ 240 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. $45.00 (cloth),

ISBN 0-8229-4075-2; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8229-5679-9.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Robert E. Blobaum, Department of History,

West Virginia University.

Reconciling Art and the Market in Russia and Poland

In this ambitious examination of the impact of capitalism on Russian and Polish

literature at turn-of-the century, Beth Holmgren has produced a timely,

original, insightful and accessible book. An associate professor of Russian

and Polish literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill,

Holmgren exploits not only the tools of her own trade in appraising the

relationship between literature and the market, but those of the intellectual

and cultural historian as well. Moreover, Holmgren’s history is usable as it

affords relevant comparisons with the recently restored market-driven

literature of the 1990s. A wide range of readers will derive any number of

insights from this concise, sophisticated and engaging work.

Industrial capitalism’s first wave had indeed come to Imperial Russia and its

subjected territory of the Kingdom of Poland by the last decades of the

nineteenth century, resulting in a rapid and painful transformation of

traditional agrarian societies. Adjustment to new sets of social and economic

relations defined by the market proved difficult in most, if not all instances.

As caste-like social structures eroded due to greater mobility demanded by the

market and as literacy ceased to be the preserve of elites, an emerging

mass-circulation press both represented and shaped a new consumer culture.

Within a comparative framework, Holmgren attempts to discern how the “serious,”

highbrow and elitist Russian and Polish literary traditions adapted to a

developing modern mass culture, whether the new literary marketplace produced

an approximation of the Western “middlebrow,”

and how in the new circumstances literary products were marketed by Russian and

Polish publishing industries..

This is a tall order indeed, but Holmgren succeeds admirably in filling most of

it. On the Russian side, she concedes that her task has been made easier by

Western historians of Russian popular culture while chiding fellow

literary scholars who “remain in thrall to high culture’s legislation of

literary value” (p. xiv). Major works by Jeffrey Brooks on literacy and popular

literature,[1] Louise McReynolds on the mass-circulation press,[2] and Laura

Engelstein on the contest ed terrain of sexuality in fin-de-siecle Russian

culture[3] are used by Holmgren to map out her territory. She is less certain

of her Polish ground. While studies of Polish popular literature are as limited

in scale as Holmgren claims,

she would have done

well to consult Jerzy Jedlicki’s work on the nineteenth-century Polish

intelligentsia’s discourse over “civilization”

[4], where she would have discovered an excellent discussion of elite cultural

responses to the prospect of capitalism before it became

an actual part of Polish landscape. Stephen D. Corrsin’s work on

turn-of-the-century Warsaw,[5] which contains a good deal of information on

literacy and the mass-circulation press in Poland’s publishing capital, would

have been useful as well. In the absence of these and other sources, Holmgen

makes some avoidable errors. For instance, she grossly inflates Polish literacy

rates, when in reality at approximately 30 percent they were lower than those

prevailing in European Russia, due mainly to a “colonial

” and finacially-starved system of primary education. Nevertheless, such gaps

affect the backdrop of Holmgren’s analysis rather than her arguments as such,

which are based on well-chosen examples.

“Serious” literature was the domain of the Russian and Polish intelligentsia

whose writers enjoyed tremendous authority as self-styled social and national

missionaries. Especially in the Russian tradition, the intelligentsia’s

literary heroes came from its own ranks and were characterized by altruism and

intellectuality. Merchants, as purveyors of material goods, had a

“marginalized and frequently ambiguous image” (p.18)

in the bulk of “serious” nineteenth-century Russian literature. If the merchant

was allowed to become a hero, according to Holmgren, it was only

“by stepping directly into the shoes of the affluent intelligentsia”

(p.33). In the Kingdom of Poland, on the other hand, the image of the merchant

was tarnished by hybrid ethnicity as Germans and Jews traditionally competed

with and actually outnumber ed Poles as dealers of merchandise. The movement of

part of the traditional merchantry into the ranks of industrial entrepreneurs

and patrons of the arts, as well as the emergence of a new generation of

“serious” writers, modified but did not supplant these established images. In

examining the fin-de-siecle works of Russians Maxim Gorky and Anton Chekhov,

themselves the “articulate sons” of tradesmen, and of the Pole Boleslaw Prus,

Holmgren argues that these

“serious” writers “seemed to sense the cultural

impossibility of the capitalist hero” (p. 180). Prus’s capitalist characters in

The Doll are as intent on maintaining their nobility of spirit, defined

as a Polish national trait, as they are on amassing fortunes in a “misalliance

of idealism and materialism” (p.61). While both Gorky and Chekhov rejected

traditional stereotypes based on estate or class distinctions, including the

intelligentsia’s own heroic self-image, they also refused to embrace Russia’s

embryonic middle. Consequently, in Holmgren’s view, “serious”

literature displayed a remarkable resiliency, mounting a powerful and complex

self-defense against capitalist revaluation.

But what of the Russian and Polish “middlebrow” literature? While a coherent

middle class had yet to emerge in Russia

and Poland, an array of diverse and fragmented groups held sufficient numbers

to comprise an eager audience for a writers of hybrid works that bridged

“serious” and popular literature and were connected to the market, both in

terms of sales and themes of

consumption. Moreover, a market-proven formula was ready at hand,

the popular romance, which had done much to define the “middlebrow” in the

West. Holmgren’s comparative analysis of Anastasia Verbitskaia’s The Keys to

Happiness (featured also in the aforementioned scholarly works of Brooks

and Engelstein) and Helena Mniszek’s The Leper reveals some interesting

variations on the classical romance theme. Both were widely popular, both were

dismissed by “serious” critics (despite the homage paid to big

ideas and issues characteristic of Aserious literature), both sanctioned the

new commodity culture and a “cult of personality” (p. 98)

that dovetailed into unprecedented assertions of individualism, especially

female. Yet just as their “serious” counterparts, Gorky, Chekhov and Prus,

stopped short of endowing men and women of the middle with a positive image, so

too Verbitskaia and Mniszek rewrote the classical popular romance to suit the

cultural context of their audiences. Their heroines do not find bourgeois

happy endings, but instead become martyrs to an unsatisfactory status quo,

though differently perceived, in Russia and Poland. According to Holmgren,

“middlebrow” literatures which took themselves seriously, like

“serious” literature itself, rewrote capitalist role models and values in

order to retain the distinctive cultural worth of their products.

In the second part of her book, Holmgren takes a closer look at the

mass-circulation press which “blatantly transubstantiated the printed word from

semi-sacred text into a made and paid-for product accessible to everyone”

(118). For her case studies, Holmgren focuses on the Vol’f Bookstore

News, essentially a catalogue which trailblazed innovative modes of

marketing Russian literature, and The Illustrated Weekly,considered the

standard-bearer of the period’s Polish illustrated journals. From Holmgren’s

comparison of the two publications, the similarities appear more striking than

the differences. Vol’f Bookstore Newsadvertised books as if they we re

icons, replete with detailed instructions regarding their care and maintenance.

The Illustrated Weeklyconferred secular sainthood on contemporary Polish

literary “greats” such as Henryk Sienkiewicz and Eliza Orzeszkowa, enjoining

the reader/consumer

to patronize their art as a patriotic duty. Both anticipated “the consumption

of celebrity” (p.131).

And both catered to their readers’ cultural sensitivities, Vol’f by promoting

material book culture “as a mean to imperial greatness and a sign of imperial

prowess” (149), The Illustrated Weeklyby offering its mass readership a

“surrogate nation-space” (p. 151).

For Holmgren then, the reconciliation of art and the market in Russia and

Poland involved rewriting market influence “so as to broaden deeply roo ted

cultural patterns” (p. 180). She concludes by comparing the commercialization

of literature in the 1890s with that of a century later following the collapse

of communism. In the early 1990s, it appeared that

“serious” literature had lost its reason for existence in both countries as

consumers, once again made sovereign, abjured the politicized literary

traditions, whether official or unofficial, of the recent past. However, as the

decade continued, “serious” literature began to make something of a comeback,

occupying a more specialized market niche. Holmgren suspects that this smaller

self-selecting scale will nevertheless exceed Western proportions as writers

and publishers take greater pains to assert national cultural models.

This reviewer sees no

reason to challenge such a conclusion. In February,

1999, I bore witness to a Polish national spectacle, the release of Jerzy

Hoffman’s film version of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Of Fire and Sword.

Corporate sponsorship, slick advertising and considerable media hype

transformed the film’s premiere into a patriotic event as enterprising

ticket-scalpers greeted the faithful at the box office. I was reminded of

Holmgren’s analysis of the Sienkiewicz jubilee of 1900 as it appeared in the

pages of The Illustrated Weekly, in particular, its “commodification of

the artist’s person, life style and work” (pp. 163-164). Soon Adam Mickiewicz’s

classic, Pan Tadeusz, will be rendered unto film by Andrzej Wajda, and

is already being neatly packaged for mass consumption.

Ultimately, the questionable artistic quality of these “blockbusters”

matters less than their reaffirmation of Holmgren’s main argument about the

market’s skillful accommodation of high culture notions of the writer and his

or her message.

[1]. Jeffrey Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular

Literature, 1861-1917 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press 1985).

[2]. Louise McReynolds, The News Under Russia’s Old Regime: The Development

of a Mass-Circulation Press (Princeton,

N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991).

[3]. Laura Engelstein, The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for

Modernity in Fin-de-Siecle Russia(Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press,


[4]. Jerzy Jedlicki, Jakiej cywilizacji Polacy potrzebuja(


Panstwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, 1988). Jedlicki’s book has recently been

translated by the author into English as A Suburb of Europe:

Nineteenth-Century Polish Approaches to Western Civilization(Budapest:

Central European University Press, 1999).

[5]. Stephen D. Corrsin, Warsaw Before the First World War: Poles and Jews

in the Third City of the Russian Empire, 1880-1914(Boulder, Colo: East

European Monographs. 1989).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century