The Great Amateur

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Alexander Herzen
Alexander Herzen; drawing by David Levine

Alexander Herzen, like Diderot, was an amateur of genius whose opinions and activities changed the direction of social thought in his country. Like Diderot too, he was a brilliant and irrepressible talker. He talked equally well in Russian and French to his intimate friends and in the Moscow salons, and later in his life in Russian, German, French, in Paris, Nice, London, Geneva—always in an overwhelming flow of ideas and images; the loss to posterity (as with Diderot) is probably immense; he had no Boswell, no Eckermann, to record his conversation, nor would he have suffered such a relationship. His prose is essentially a form of talk, with the vices and virtues of talk: eloquent, spontaneous, liable to the heightened tones and exaggerations of the born storyteller unable to resist long digressions which themselves carry him into a network of intersecting tributaries of memory or speculation, but always returning to the main stream of the story or the argument. Above all, his prose has the vitality of spoken words—it appears to owe nothing to the carefully composed formal sentences of the French philosophes whom he admired or to the terrible philosophical style of the Germans from whom he learned. We hear his voice—almost too much—in the essays, the pamphlets, the autobiography, as much as in the letters and scraps of notes to his friends.

Civilized, imaginative, self-critical, Herzen was a marvelously gifted social observer; the record of what he saw is unique, even in the articulate nineteenth century. He had an acute, easily stirred, and ironical mind, a fiery and poetical temperament, and a capacity for vivid, often lyrical, writing—qualities that combined and reinforced one another in the succession of sharp vignettes of men, events, ideas, personal relationships, political situations, and descriptions of entire forms of life in which his writings abound. He was a man of extreme refinement and sensibility, great intellectual energy and biting wit, easily irritated amour propre, and a taste for polemical writing; he was addicted to analysis, investigation, exposure; he saw himself as an expert “unmasker” of appearances and conventions, and dramatized himself as a devastating discoverer of their social and moral core. Tolstoy, who had little sympathy with Herzen’s opinions, and was not given to excessive praise of his contemporaries among men of letters, especially among his countrymen, said toward the end of his life that he had never met anyone with “so rare a combination of scintillating brilliance and depth.” These gifts make a good many of Herzen’s essays, political articles, day-to-day journalism, causal notes and reviews, and especially letters written to intimates or to political correspondents, irresistibly readable even today, when the issues with which they were concerned are for the most part dead and of interest mainly to historians.

Although much has been written about Herzen, and not only in Russian, the task of his biographers has not been made easier by the…

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