Dostoevsky's Democracy

2008
Author(s)
Publisher
Princeton University Press

Dostoevsky's Democracy offers a major reinterpretation of the life and work of the great Russian writer by closely reexamining the crucial transitional period between the early works of the 1840s and the important novels of the 1860s. Sentenced to death in 1849 for utopian socialist political activity, the 28-year-old Dostoevsky was subjected to a mock execution and then exiled to Siberia for a decade, including four years in a forced labor camp, where he experienced a crisis of belief. It has been influentially argued that the result of this crisis was a conversion to Russian Orthodoxy and reactionary politics. But Dostoevsky's Democracy challenges this view through a close investigation of Dostoevsky's Siberian decade and its most important work, the autobiographical novel Notes from the House of the Dead (1861). Nancy Ruttenburg argues that Dostoevsky's crisis was set off by his encounter with common Russians in the labor camp, an experience that led to an intense artistic meditation on what he would call Russian "democratism." By tracing the effects of this crisis, Dostoevsky's Democracy presents a new understanding of Dostoevsky's aesthetic and political development and his role in shaping Russian modernity itself, especially in relation to the preeminent political event of his time, peasant emancipation.

About the Author

Nancy Ruttenburg is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature in the English Department at Stanford. She also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.  She received the PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford (1988) and taught at Harvard, Berkeley, and most recently at NYU, where she was chair of the Department of Comparative Literature from 2002-2008.   Her research interests lie at the intersection of political, religious, and literary expression in colonial through antebellum America and nineteenth-century Russia, with a particular focus on the development of liberal and non-liberal forms of democratic subjectivity.  Related interests include history of the novel, novel theory, and the global novel; philosophy of religion and ethics; and problems of comparative method, especially as they pertain to North American literature and history.

Prof. Ruttenburg is the author of Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship (Stanford UP, 1998) and Dostoevsky's Democracy (Princeton UP, 2008), and she has recently written on the work of J. M. Coetzee and on Melville’s “Bartleby.”  Books in progress include a study of secularization in the postrevolutionary United States arising out of the naturalization of “conscience” as inalienable right, entitled Conscience, Rights, and 'The Delirium of Democracy'; and a comparative work entitled  Dostoevsky And for which the Russian writer serves as a lens on the historical development of a set of intercalated themes in the literature of American modernity.  These encompass self-making and self-loss (beginning with Frederick Douglass's serial autobiographies); sentimentalism and sadism (in abolitionist fiction); crime and masculinity (including Mailer's The Executioner's Song); and the intersection of race, religious fundamentalism, and radical politics (focusing on the works of James Baldwin and Marilynne Robinson).  Her courses will draw from both these projects.  

Prof. Ruttenburg is past president of the Charles Brockden Brown Society and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Humanities Center Fellowship, a University of California President's Research Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the Social Science Research Council for Russian and East European Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council for Learned