The Life of Tolstoy/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI

POPULAR LITERATURE

When in Moscow, Tolstoy frequently visited the Nikolsky Market and the Ilinsky Gate, where, during the 'eighties, the pedlars used to buy their stock of popular literature. Tolstoy had long since wished to bring new blood into this literature, which at that period was a strange mixture of booklets on saints' lives, patriotic military tales, and strange romantic adventures, mostly written by illiterate people in a coarse style, often without beginning or end, and, generally, indigestible as intellectual food. Strange to say, Russian literature of that period was illustrious with great names, but not a single one—poets, novelists, or scientists—was ever brought before the mass of the people. This injustice Tolstoy was disposed, if not to remedy entirely, at least to reduce as much as possible.

As a beginning, he wrote a series of highly artistic tales to be published in the form of popular literature, but in good style, with attractive illustrations and such moral tendencies as Tolstoy alone was capable of imparting. The form of these tales, the language and style, were so simple and perfect that it was impossible to add or to omit a single word; they were comprehensible and pleasing to young and old alike.

To the realisation of this splendid project, Tolstoy's friend, V. G. Tchertkoff, gave a great deal of moral and material assistance, and the business side of the plan was carried out with great success by T. D. Sitin, at that time a small Moscow publisher of popular literature, and now the head of the big publishing firm of T. D. Sitin and Co. The success of the Posrednik is due in great part to his energy, business knowledge, and sincere devotion to the cause. The author of this book took also a modest part in the initiation of the business. To give an idea how successful our enterprise proved to be, I here quote a few figures of our editions. Each of Tolstoy's booklets was seldom printed in less than 24,000 copies, and yearly we had five of such editions. The number of our publications began to grow so fast that we soon had to count copies by the million. Towards the end of the fourth year we saw that the approximate number of copies sold was 12,000,000, which meant 3,000,000 annually. As the authors did not copyright any of their writings for the Posrednik, many other publishers brought out reprints of our books. The number of these reprints is not known, but is, without doubt, immense. Our publications grew so in quantity that it was impossible even for the Government inspectors to keep full control, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of copies eluded their vigilant eyes. Three to four millions yearly were kept up a fairly long time. The Report of the Moscow Committee of the Society for the Promotion of Popular Instruction, in the middle of the 'nineties, also states the number of copies sold of the publications of the Posrednik as 3,500,000 yearly.

The soul of this great enterprise was Tolstoy, who gave much of his energy to it. The first publications were tales from his reading-book—"The Prisoner of the Caucasus," "God Sees the Truth." Later were published "What People are Living By," "A Fire Neglected Consumes the House," "Where Love is there is God," "Two Old Men," "The Candle," and "Ivan the Fool." Soon many of the best Russian authors followed Tolstoy's example, and Posrednik published popular editions of Leskoff, Garshin, Ertel, Potekhin, Ostrovsky, Savikhin, Obolensky, Wagner, Nemirovitch-Danchenko

The life of Tolstoy 145.jpg

The Last Illness. Tolstoy in his Bedroom, talking to
Dr. Makovitski.

noinclude>vitch </noinclude>, Mamin-Sibiriak, etc. Besides books, popular pictures were issued by artists like Rèpin, Kivshenko, Savitsky, and Sologub, and also reproductions from foreign masterpieces; the text for these pictures was always written or edited by Tolstoy himself.

While serving the people as an author, Tolstoy never neglected his physical labours. When living in Moscow he was frequently cutting and splitting wood, drawing water, working as a cobbler; and he wore boots made by himself.

In early spring he was in the habit of returning to Yasnaya Polyana, often on foot with a knapsack on his back. There he shared in the peasants' work: ploughing, manuring, sowing, haymaking, harvesting. When at home in autumn and winter, he might often be seen with a hatchet and saw, cutting wood, which he distributed among the peasants for building purposes, or to orphans and other needy ones for firewood. Tolstoy's life was, indeed, full of many and varied activities.

Sometimes he had to pay dearly for his zeal, and his want of care for himself whilst at work with the peasants. In 1866, for instance, during hay-making, he hurt his knee when climbing into a cart. When the worst pain had subsided he paid no further attention to the hurt. After a few days, inflammation set in and, later, a wound appeared which began to involve the bone. Tolstoy was obliged to keep his bed for a whole month, after undergoing a serious surgical operation which had become necessary in order to prevent blood-poisoning.

He bore his illness patiently, though before the danger was over he told his visitors, simply and seriously, that he might die from his wound, and rejoiced that his illness allowed him a few leisure hours for thoughts of life and death. During his convalescence—and for a very long time Tolstoy could not go out—he conceived the idea of writing a popular drama, and the same autumn he wrote The Power of Darkness, What befell the piece could only happen in Russia. Authorised by the censor for publication, with a few omissions, the drama was staged at the Imperial Theatre. When everything was prepared, the rehearsals concluded, the costumes and scenery ready, the Government prohibited the play in all theatres. Only after many years was the authorisation given for representation.