1860 Anton Chekhov Born

I know, I know, Chekhov isn’t early modern, but damn I love his work.

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Chekhov’s family was impoverished bourgeoise – his grandfather was a serf and his father a small shopkeeper.  That is, he was wealthy enough to study to be a medical doctor, but he was poor enough as a young man to be constantly at the mercy of bankers, creditors, and loan agents (like all of my undergrads!). He came from a small town in the deep South (cue banjo music..or Balalaika music, I guess) where “not a single [shop] sign [was] without a spelling mistake.”  That said, it was a cosmopolitan town as it was on the coast of the Sea of Azov.   As such, all around him growing up there were Turks, Greeks, Ukrainians, Georgians, Kurds… you name it.

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Yale Repertory Theatre – Three Sisters

As a child he worked in his father’s shop and went to school, which somewhat hindered his scholastic performance, but he did quite well in Religion and Languages.  In 1876, when Chekhov was 16, his father went bankrupt and took the whole family to Moscow to escape creditors.  Thing is, Anton Chekhov was left behind, making a living as a tutor and sending money to his family.  But the time he was 19, he went to Moscow as well to attend university and become a medical doctor.

While in Moscow, he began to write short stories and it was his short stories for which he was primarily known for the first part of his literary career.  He submitted to journals that were primarily devoted to comic writing, not the literary journals that had restrictions of form and style that would have stifled his talents. So, in the 1880s-90s, he published short story after short story, experimenting with the form and establishing himself as one of the most brilliant short story writers the world has ever known.

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Moscow, Red Square, Late 1800s

Throughout this period, Chekhov and his family lived in poverty (6 adults and children crammed into a single room), but he finally achieved success in 1886-7, when he wrote and published his first major collection of short stories and his first play, Ivanov (which isn’t at all like his other plays).

Over the course of the 1890s, Chekhov’s literary reputation increased and his medical practice grew as he went to the provinces.  It is in this period of literary popularity that he met Valdimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.  Throughout this period, however, he was accused of being a chimera of sorts.  He had no unifying theme to his work, nothing in particular to say.  He had no clear outlook.  Mikahilovsky, a critic of the time, said “Chekhov treats everything equally: a man and his shadow, a bluebell and a suicide… here oxen are being driven and there the post is being delivered … here is a man strangled and there people are drinking champagne.”

Still thought of primarily as a short story writer, people started to rank Chekhov with the best Russian writers of the 19th C – Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol.

Chekhov visited Tolstoy when Tolstoy was convalescing in the Crimea, near Yalta:

He was still confined to bed but talked a great deal about everything and about me, among other things.  When eventually I get to my feet to make my farewells, he pulls me back by the arm, saying: “Kiss me!” and after giving me a kiss, he suddenly bends over swiftly to my ear and says in that energetic quick-fire old man’s voice of his: “But I still can’t stand your plays.  Shakespeare’s are terrible, but yours are even worse!”

Chekhov thought the reason why Tolstoy hated everyone was because everyone was a child to him, so their works were the works of children.  Shakespeare was an adult who didn’t write like Tolstoy, so Tolstoy hated him all the same.)  Tolstoy later claimed:

“I cannot force myself to read this Three Sisters to the end – where does it all lead us to?”

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