Anton Chekhov’s Letter to Dmitry V. Grigorovich

by Sarah V. Schweig on April 21, 2010

(The elderly novelist to whom this letter is addressed won his reputation in the middle of the century and was thus a survivor of the Golden Age of Russian literature.  He had written to young Chekhov, with whom he was not acquainted, hailing him as the outstanding writer of his generation and urging him to undertake a serious piece of work that would demand time and thought, even if it meant going hungry.)

Moscow, March 28, 1886

Your letter, my kind, ardently beloved bringer of good tidings, struck me like a thunderbolt.  I nearly cried, I got all excited, and now i feel that your message has left a deep mark on my soul.  As you have been kind to my youth, so may God succor your old age.  For my part, I can find neither words nor deeds with which to thank you.  You know with what eyes ordinary people regard the elect such as you, and so you can imagine how your letter has affected my self-esteem.  It is better than any diploma, and for a fledgeling writer it is a bounty now and in time to come.  I am almost in a daze.  It is now within my power to judge whether I merit this high reward.  I can only repeat that it has overwhelmed me.

If I have a gift that should be respected, I confess before the purity of your heart that hitherto I have not respected it.  I felt that I did have talent, but I had got used to thinking it insignificant.  Purely external causes are enough to make one unjust to oneself, suspicious, and diffident.  And, as I think of it now, there have been plenty of such causes in my case.  Al those who are near to me have always treated my writing with condescension and have never stopped advising me in a friendly manner not to give up real work for scribbling.  I have hundreds of acquaintances in Moscow, among them a score or so of people who write, and I cannot recall a single one who would read me or regard me as an artist.  In Moscow, there is a Literary Circle, so-called: gifted writers and mediocrities of all ages and complexions meet once a week in a restaurant and give their tongues free rein.  If I were to go there and read them even a fragment of your letter, they would laugh in my face.  In the five years that I have been knocking about newspaper offices I have come to accept this general view of my literary insignificance; before long I got used to taking an indulgent view of my labors, and so the fat was in the fire.  That’s the first cause.  The second is that I am a physician and am up to my ears in medical work, so that the saw about chasing two hares has robbed no one of more sleep than me.

I am writing all this for the sole purpose of exonerating myself to at least some degree in your eyes.  Up till now my attitude towards my literary work has been extremely frivolous, casual, thoughtless.  I cannot think of a single story at which I worked on for more than a day, and “The Huntsman,” which you liked, I wrote in a bathing-cabin.  I wrote my stories the way reporters write notices of fires: mechanically, half-consciously, without caring a pin either about the reader or myself…I wrote and tried my best not to use up on a story the images and scenes which are dear to me and which, God knows why, I treasured and carefully concealed.

What first impelled me to self-criticism was a very friendly and, I believe, sincere letter from Suvorin.  I began to plan writing something decent, but I still lacked faith in my ability to produce anything worth while.

And then like a bolt from the blue came your letter.  Excuse the comparison, but it had the effect on me of a Governor’s order to leave town within twenty-four hours:  I suddenly felt the urgent need to hurry and get out of the hole in which I was stuck…

I will stop–but not soon–doing work that has to be delivered on schedule.  It is impossible to get out of the rut I am in all at once.  I don’t object to going hungry, as I went hungry in the past, but it is not a question of myself…To writing I give my leisure: two or three hours during the day and a fraction of the night, that is, an amount of time that is good only for short pieces.  In the summer when I have more spare time and fewer expenses I shall undertake some serious piece of work…

All my hope is pinned to the future.  I am only twenty-six.  Perhaps I shall still succeed in achieving something, though time flies fast.

Forgive this long letter and do not hold it against a man who for the first time in his life has made bold to indulge in the pleasure of writing to Grigorovich.

If possible, send me your photograph.  I am so overcome by your kindness that I feel like writing you not a sheet, but a whole ream.  May God grant you happiness and health, and believe the sincerity of your deeply respectful and grateful

A. CHEKHOV

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