Last reviewed: June 2018
Ukrainian novelist, short-story writer, and playwright
March 31, 1809
Sorochintsy, Ukraine, Russian Empire (now in Ukraine)
March 4, 1852
Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (GAW-guhl), the son of a Cossack landowner, attended the provincial grammar school in Nyezhin from 1821 until 1828. Being naturally withdrawn, Gogol made few friends, and at an early age he turned to writing, actually finishing a boyish tragedy titled The Brigands. After leaving school he went to St. Petersburg. Shortly after his arrival he published under the pseudonym of V. Alov an idyllic poem titled Hanz Kuechelgarten; this work was so harshly ridiculed by the critics that Gogol destroyed as many copies as he could. Deciding to go to America, he traveled as far as Lübeck, Germany. There, his funds exhausted, he changed his mind about emigration and returned to St. Petersburg. He found a post in a government office, settled down to writing, and made the acquaintance of Aleksandr Pushkin and other writers and editors in the capital. As a minor figure in St. Petersburg literary circles, he found it relatively easy to have his writings published in periodicals. Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, a two-volume collection of Cossack stories in which he drew upon memories of his childhood, was well received by readers and critics; Aleksandr Borodin used one of the stories as the basis for an opera. In 1835 Gogol published two works. The first, Mirgorod, was a collection of longer tales, among them “Taras Bulba,” a historical romance of fifteenth century Cossack life, which he republished in a considerably expanded version in 1842. Arabesques contained a miscellany of stories and essays. Nikolai Gogol
By 1831 Gogol had left the Russian civil service and become a teacher of history at a school for young women. He began to plan a comprehensive history of the medieval period in Little Russia. The work was never written, but on the strength of his plans and through the influence of friends, Gogol was appointed professor of history at the University of St. Petersburg. Gogol was a failure as a lecturer, however, and he resigned in 1835, after less than one year.
Although he had published several volumes of fiction between 1829 and 1835, Gogol does not at that time seem to have thought of devoting himself to the life of a writer. Only after the appearance of his satirical play The Inspector General did he think seriously of a literary career. The play, a mordant satire on the Russian bureaucracy of the times, was produced only because of the friendly aid of Nicholas I in getting it past the censors. Bureaucrats disliked the play, but intellectuals praised it immensely. Shortly after the comedy was produced Gogol went abroad, staying away from Russia, except for brief visits, between 1836 and 1848. After the death of Pushkin, in 1837, Gogol came to be considered the leader of Russian literature. In 1840 the first part of Dead Souls was finished, and Gogol took it to Moscow, where it was published in 1842. That same year he published the first collected edition of his earlier works, which included his most famous tale, The Overcoat.
The publication of Dead Souls marks the apex of Gogol’s career. Like his great comedy The Inspector General, Gogol’s novel is satirical in its account of an unscrupulous rogue who tries, through a loophole in Russian taxation and registration at the time, to buy the names of dead serfs to mortgage their labor to the government.
At this time of his life Gogol became a spokesman for groups who were eager to reform Russia. He himself, however, was convinced that his role as a leader include the use of literature not to expose flaws in the government but to save souls and guide human beings to the right path. In a sense Gogol’s ability as a creative writer fell victim to his sense of a moral mission. He thought of Dead Souls as an epic and planned a second part that would show the regeneration of rogues, but after a great deal of work he destroyed his manuscripts. In 1847 he produced a highly didactic work, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends, in which he preached a doctrine of conformity. The work aroused resentment, and some of Gogol’s admirers accused him of excessive pride and of falsifying Christianity. In an effort to redeem himself, believing himself damned, Gogol thereupon undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. When the trip was a religious failure for him, he believed himself to be hopelessly lost, all his earlier work sinful. In another attempt to redeem himself he set on to the second part of Dead Souls, but his health, both physical and mental, worsened. His physical health was especially damaged by ascetic practices he inflicted upon himself. In an excess of mortification, or perhaps a bout with madness, he destroyed his manuscripts, including the unfinished second part of his novel. Afterward he claimed that Satan had played a joke on him and made him do it. Within a few months, obviously suffering from mental illness, Gogol died.
Gogol was one of the most influential writers in Russian literature (it was Fyodor Dostoevski who said, “We all came out of The Overcoat”) and his work foreshadowed many trends in twentieth century literature, including realism, Surrealism, and the focus on ordinary, even insignificant, human beings.