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IT will take a world-culture, the flower of a system of world-states, in order to ensure the appreciation by all of us of all the great men of all countries. Nationalism, with its warping provincialism, induces an illiberal and lazy habit of mind which exalts one's tribal gods at the expense of all other deities. Men ask, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" and like Pontius Pilate they do not stay for an answer to their question. The reputation of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) has suffered as a result of this cultural parochialism. Pushkin occupies a place in Russian literature similar to that of Shakspere in English, yet not even the brightest English-speaking schoolboys know anything about him. Difficulties of language are an obvious barrier to the understanding of Pushkin, but those barriers will certainly have to be surmounted, now that the Soviet Union is a world-power of pivotal importance, with cultural achievements within the short period of twenty years which exalt the Union to a position in the vanguard of nations.
Dr. Simmons has selected to write the first complete biography of Pushkin in English. This biography supplants the work of Prince O. S. Mirsky, as indeed the prince would be the first to admit. The style of Dr. Simmons has improved since he wrote "English Literature and Culture in Russia", another pioneer work, but the improvement has been in tenacity, not in clarity, for it has always been the especial good fortune of Dr. Simmons to possess a crystal-clear style. This book really imparts to the reader a feeling of the excitement with which Pushkin's life was led. It was a life spent in the midst of the "madding crowd's ignoble strife", for Pushkin early became involved by association with revolutionaries, and his personal life--his love affairs--was multifarious and absorbing.
Much study and research in Russia have given Dr. Simmons access to documents not available before the October Revolution of 1917, and he has made the most of his opportunities. His thorough scholarship has examined and probed the reports of the Czarist police, therefore, his opinions of Pushkin's relations with the Decembrista may be regarded as based upon unassailable facts. Pushkin, in his estimate, emerges as a Liberal and thus both the Red and White Russians can claim him for their own, since the classic definition of a Liberal, according to Mr. Eugene Gordon, is one who weeps with the workers and wails with the boss. On the whole, however, it seems that Pushkin tended more towards the opponents of Czarism but, after all, he wrote eulogies of Peter the Great and Nicholas I.
Parts of Dr. Simmon's biography are very dramatic. His account of the duel between Pushkin and Baron d' Anthes, as a result of which the poet died, take on the attributes of a tragic drama. One can almost visualize a Hollywood movie version of Pushkin's life. For the life, in general, partook of melodrama: the protagonist was descended of an aristocratic family on his father's side while his mother was the lineal descendant of an Ethiopian prince, whom Peter the Great had acquired from the Sultan of Turkey. It was a far cry from the Sublime Porte to the icy Russian steppes, but Pushkin bridged the distance, uniting in himself these diverse strains, for as an American critic has said, "the poet was proud of his mixed blood and flaunted with equal ostentation his aristocratic and his Negro origins."
One regrets that Dr. Simmons has paid so much attention to the facts of Pushkin's life that he has devoted little space to detailed criticism of the poet's works, but emphasis had to fall somewhere, and since ignorance of the man Pushkin is so great in England and America, it is high time that we learn about him. Dr. Simmons teaches us gracefully in this centenary year of Pushkin's death.
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