Jessica Hooten Wilson is co-editor, with David P. Deavel, of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West (October 2020). She talked to us recently about their new book. This anthology presents essays from the foremost scholars and thinkers of comparative studies who have been tracking what Americans have borrowed and learned from Solzhenitsyn as well as his fellow Russians. This book is included in The Center for Ethics and Culture Solzhenitsyn Series.
The contributors to this volume reconsider Solzhenitsyn’s work from a variety of perspectives—his faith, his politics, and the influences and context of his literature. Why is this investigation of Solzhenitsyn’s work important to contemporary readers?
If Solzhenitsyn gets much attention in 21st century American conversations, it is usually in political theory circles; but Solzhenitsyn considered his work literary and historical as well. His writing on human nature helps us understand the dynamics of civil engagement, of course, but Solzhenitsyn accomplishes this through story, with an eye towards truth and beauty, in addition to his attention to goodness. Whereas politics sometimes consigns a writer to a particular time and place, Solzhenitsyn’s stories, poetry, and speeches are timeless.
Could you talk about the late Edward E. Ericson, Jr., and why this book is dedicated to him?
For both David and I, Dr. Ericson was a mentor, even though I never had him as a teacher. He saw in the writings of the Soviet dissidents, especially Solzhenitsyn, the practices of thought and action that could keep us from becoming slaves of our government and culture when they go awry. Ed worked alongside Solzhenitsyn on the abridgement of The Gulag Archipelago and continued to promote his thought after his death. This book is an example of tradition in action, of passing on those truths which should never be forgotten.
What are some of the themes that emerge from this book? What essays are particularly important?
Solzhenitsyn said, “Live not by lies.” And, of course, Christ said, “The truth shall set you free.” When we neglect reading the stories and philosophy of those who came before us—particularly those who were brave enough to suffer imprisonment and exile—we will live myopic, false, and futile lives. Reading Solzhenitsyn as well as those who influenced or were influenced by his thought thickens our souls, so we can stand against deception and overcome it with truth. While all the essays are significant (which is why we chose these contributions), I’m grateful for the inclusion of Eugene Vodolazkin who is picking up the mantle, so to speak, in Russia. Ralph Wood’s essay on “Matryona’s Home” is insightful; the Solzhenitsyn family is grateful when his work is read literarily as it deserves. And Micah Mattix considers Solzhenitsyn’s poetry, which rarely receives criticism. We’re in awe that writers such as Gary Saul Morson, Dan Mahoney, and others contributed—the collection really is a hall of fame of writers on Solzhenitsyn and the Russians.
Who would you like to read “Solzhenitsyn and American Culture” and why?
While I know that scholars and teachers are going to run to grab a copy of this book, I hope that for every copy bought for their shelves, they donate one to someone under 30 years old. It would be my aspiration that undergraduates and graduates are exposed to Solzhenitsyn while their worldviews are still being solidified. We need more Americans who know what it means to think freely and speak boldly, which is what this book aims to promote.
How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?
When we began compiling the collection, a magazine published the headline “Books on Russia are So Hot Right Now.” Perhaps people are looking to Russia because of our president’s implied connections, their intrusion into our political process, the vague sense that soft totalitarianism is infiltrating America, or maybe just the popularity of A Gentleman in Moscow. The Kennan Institute has launched the Solzhenitsyn initiative to translate more of Solzhenitsyn’s work into English. The National Book Award Winner in 2017 was a book on totalitarianism in Russia. And, Rod Dreher is publishing a book with a Solzhenitsyn title Live Not By Lies, about the concern of totalitarianism. As much as the word is thrown around and the connection to Russia is hinted at, perhaps people would do well to become more informed by experts in this field—by reading this collection.
This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.