In my previous post, I mentioned that I was making my way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel of intense psychological depth, gripping suspense, and captivating revelations of the dirt and poverty of man’s depraved being. Truly, apart from Christ we can do nothing, and Crime unflinchingly exposes this theme in the barren alleys of 19th century St. Petersburg.
Simultaneously, I have been watching the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables with my daughters. We happened to listen one day to “Look Down” – the opening number with Javert and the chain gang – and my girls loved it, asking to hear it over and over. Soon enough, we watched the concert together, and my girls were asking for Jean Valjean and Fantine; just yesterday, I caught my eldest singing, “24601!” Needless to say, we have all been entranced.
So as my reading has been tunneling the streets of St. Petersburg with Raskolnikov and my listening has been building barricades with Enjolras and Marius, I’ve felt my mind begin to consider similarities in theme, tone, and pathos between the two works. I am hoping to dedicate a future post to investigating such a comparison.
For now, I was further struck by the fact that both works were published within about five years of each other. Looking further, I began to notice that the decade of the 1860s was an extraordinary era of literary flourishing as grand masterpieces erupted from America, England, France, Russia, and many other countries. The foundation had already been set in the previous decade with the impressive publications of The Scarlet Letter and David Copperfield (1850), Moby Dick (1851), Walden and Hard Times (1854), Leaves of Grass (1855), Madame Bovary (1856), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Yet, one sees from 1860-1869 a truly magnificent development in literature as groundbreaking works nearly toppled on top of each other, signaling one of the brightest hours in literary history.
This list is unbearably narrow, meaning that the work of contemporaries like Matthew Arnold, Charles Spurgeon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, and Abraham Lincoln are criminally unmentioned.
First, in 1860, we see the serialization of Charles Dickens’ greatest novel Great Expectations beginning, culminating the following year in 1861. This novel, a bildungsroman and the second of his to feature a first-person narrator, would ultimately become his finest triumph, chronicling the tempestuous life of Pip Pirrip as he navigates the artificiality of the upper classes in London and discovers the hollowness of his own ambitions in the process.
Next, in 1861, George Eliot publishes her moral allegory Silas Marner, a short but enchanting account of loss and salvation through the memorable appearance of little Eppie Marner to the hardened home of the title character.
In 1862 across the channel, beloved French author Victor Hugo publishes his sensational goliath Les Misérables, the story of Jean Valjean, “the weeping criminal”, as he struggles to accept and redistribute the grace and mercy of a loving God.
In 1864, Dickens returns to the writing table to pen his penultimate novel (and the last completed one before his death in 1870) Our Mutual Friend. Meanwhile in the cold heart of Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes his brief, yet harrowing account of the underground man in Notes from Underground, a turbulent and strikingly honest account of a “sick and spiteful man” working out his pain and suffering in dreaded isolation.
On a lighter note (…possibly, depending on your interpretation), Lewis Carroll publishes his famous work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, and readers everywhere have been led down the rabbit hole ever since.
On a certainly darker note (…again, possibly, depending on your interpretation and your overall personality), Dostoevsky sees the overnight success of his 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. Who knew an axe murder could be so philosophically intriguing?
Back in America in 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, publishes his first book, a collection of short stories titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Twain would go on to write The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; of the latter, Ernest Hemingway claimed, “All of modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.”
In 1868 another American classic arises: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. While Twain’s writing would bring light and recognition to the American south, Alcott’s did the same for New England, depicting the power of domestic drama and the fierce bonds of sisterly affection and love. Except when Amy tossed Jo’s manuscript in the fire. Gracious.
Lastly, in 1869, and merely three years after the appearance of Crime and Punishment comes Russia’s other hulking giant: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If the 1860s were a lineup, Russia may just be batting cleanup with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky publishing a combined 2,000 pages of literary strength. So much snow.
So there you are; ten impressive contributions to literary history in just ten short years. I’m sure Queen Victoria was thrilled… if she could be bothered enough to actually smile.