Chekhov, who died at forty-four, would have been a hundred years old this year, and there have been suitable tributes to him from short story writers, people in the theater, and scholars in the field of Russian literature. I am none of these things, and my feeling about Chekhov, though warm, is backed up by nothing more than what everyone else has read of him in English. And perhaps I would in this instance have had the grace to keep quiet had it not occurred to me that there was one significant but virtually unpraised side of Chekhov’s genius that I could pay tribute to.
Chekhov began as a writer for magazines—he wrote jokes, sketches, fables, feuilletons, little articles, spoofs; he literally tossed them off, sometimes from the bathhouses where he happened to sit down and write them. And later, a bit mocking as he always was about the “Chekhovian” virtues, he nevertheless said proudly—“I wrote as a bird sings. I’d sit down and write. Without thinking of how to write or about what. My things wrote themselves. I could write at any time I liked. To write a sketch, a story, a skit cost me no labor. I, like a young calf or a colt let out into the freedom of a green and radiant pasture, leaped, cavorted, kicked up my heels. I felt gay myself—and, from the sidelines, the result must have been funny.”
Do you realize how revolutionary this was and is—a magazine writer who did not think he had to be solemn in order to be serious? a writer of “pieces” who was glad that they were just that—fugitive as anything can be, meant to entertain, nothing more? The trouble with magazines is that they give you just enough space to impersonate wisdom. It is impossible to do full justice to your subject; but there is room to lecture, to sermonize, to create effects. Even in the 19th century, when an article was not yet called a “story” (a story was supposed to entertain, to distract, to enthral, not to give information), Edgar Allan Poe took his own role as a contributor to magazines so seriously that he grimly conceived of every offering as a demonstration of intellectual genius. Poe, who virtually invented the detective story, created in the figure of Dupin, the intellectual maudit who figures as his detective, a figure who actually represents the modern writer far more than he does any detective. Dupin is a man who discovers what no one else can see, who has a special slant on the truth in all fields. For Poe, every tale, every essay, every review, represented not only the romantic virtue of originality, but Poe’s particular need to unhinge the existing world of intellectuals and littérateurs, to sign himself Q.E.D. at the end of each demonstration by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was a literary genius who thought that he was virtually the only first-rate mind in this country, and in having to make a living from magazines, he converted necessity into the virtue of omnipresent wisdom. Everything was turned not merely into a demonstration of his rightness but into a syllogism which readers could grasp. No wonder that in planting horror and suspense as deliberately as a movie director, Poe was able to impress his name sufficiently to keep attention to his ideas. He knew his public, and what he did not get in cash he made up in living power. For in writing for a public, which then as now wanted to get information slanted to give the appearance of “the inside story,” a public impatient for wisdom as well as for news, Poe turned himself into his favorite figure—the wizard, the intellectual giant, the man who from the podium of the American magazine was able to enlighten the American folk, open-mouthed and grateful for the facts.
Poe, whatever his personal anguish, did not lack a good opinion of himself, for as a writer for magazines, he was always immediately in touch with his public, always in sight of their rapture or terror or humility when he made a point. In the same way, Dickens, through the constant serialization of his novels, was so much in touch with his public that he thought it necessary, in his own magazine, to explain his separation from his wife. Dostoevsky, though he complained bitterly of having to begin serialization of a novel before he had had a chance to think it out, adored playing weekly and monthly on the feelings of the inflammable Russian public. Perhaps because he was considered the most “abnormal” and uncharacteristic of the great Russian writers, he was so eager to keep a column and to be constantly in touch with the Russian intellectual public.
The trouble with magazine writers just now is that we are put so quickly in touch with a large public, we have so obviously the brief but undeniable power to influence, to arouse, to change the thinking of people (who now as in the 19th century will buy dozens of magazines but grudge themselves the purchase of one book), that often against our better selves, we become pompous, see ourselves as having to dislodge something with each article, to make a point or to contradict one. Magazine writers should be able to embody wittily the inconsequence which naturally belongs to many magazine pieces. Instead of admitting that an article may be only a small step forward in our thinking, like an entry in a notebook, or a sketch frankly meant to relieve, to lighten, to distract (even writers, when they get through with a day’s hard work, would like to feel gayer when they pick up a magazine), magazine writers think that they must be pundits on all occasions, pundits in each piece of work. Each offering in a magazine is now so carefully deliberated, weighed, written, and rewritten that we have forgotten the joy behind Chekhov’s life as a magazine writer—the joy of not writing for the ages, of the easy tone, the marginal comment, the social joke, the joy of being as unserious as one is brief, of knowing that one can be light because one is forced to be brief. Perhaps because one is read on Monday and can be forgotten the same day, there is an art in being inconsequent, an art which avoids the crashing and rhetorical final note, the art of appearing as light and easy as in one’s heart one knows a “piece” must often be.
Of course Chekhov did not use a typewriter, and so was not tempted to clutter up his life and everyone else’s with many “drafts.” He, who wrote some of the most exquisite short stories ever written, did not have to research facts which he had absorbed as an individual. And after he had written a piece because he had a little something to tell and a little money to earn, his editors did not feel humiliated if, as it turned out, he had been off by two decimal points in reporting the annual rainfall in Minsk. Nowadays a magazine will very rarely quarrel with your opinions; it will check only your “facts.” Yet Chekhov, who like so many great writers seized the immense opportunity that magazine journalism presented him with, was trusted to go out to Sakhalin Island, to write up his own report on the convict colony there, and to influence Russian public opinion.
Many of Chekhov’s most beautiful things were written for magazines, and what I like most about them is the fact that, unlike so much American editorial practice today, Chekhov was allowed to be easy. He did not think of a story or of an article as a demonstration by a pedagogic mind in which, at the end, all themes were wrapped together and the point handed to the reader. “The open form,” as one must call it, the classic style of the European feuilleton, the style of conversation, of intimacy, of pleasure and the cafés, was Chekhov’s delight and his genius. He knew that a magazine writer, working not only against time but in time, with a sharper attention to immediate issues than other writers, should not pretend to iron things out, to settle all difficulties, to ape a logical perfection that his work cannot sustain. For Chekhov everything became what every good writer wants of a story—to make it truly “a slice of life.” The phrase was used by the pseudo-scientific naturalists to make a slice taken out for analysis, as under a microscope. But for Chekhov it meant the moment seized in its actual and seeming insignificance. It was this, as everyone knows, which so influenced James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood Anderson—writers who showed that it is because a story in a magazine must be brief that it can suggest the unexpected depth, the delicate beauty of life caught on the wing. O. Henry, like many a writer today, thought that the ending had to be “right,” to give the reader a bang. The ending of a magazine piece should be a bridge to the next thought, the next issue, not a ceremonious wind-up. For a wind-up has to be planned, and the plan usually takes over the piece as a whole.
Chekhov, by not taking magazines or himself too seriously, by not thinking that he had to liberate the Russian mind every time he sent in a sketch to a journal, liberated the short story as a form from the prosiness of prose. He showed that prose could be as profound and touching and felt an intimation of human existence as poetry. Every writer of fiction who is any good has wanted that for prose: to give it at least something of the truth that is touched by poetry. But poetry is not only the oldest literary art but always the most personal, the one that most closely requires the writer to find that portion of language, of point of view, which is most solidly his own. It is in the art of “verse,” which by its essence is quick and easy, that so many accomplished writers have learned to write prose. Criticism is interesting to me only when the critic is—when he writes easily and well and talks in nobody’s voice but his own. The critics I read are those I read for pleasure. They are very often poets—Dudley Fitts, Conrad Aiken, Randall Jarrell. A poet like Auden, an old hand at writing for magazines, learned the deftness, the ease, the confidential honesty, from writing verse. An unusually effective collection of magazine pieces, Harold Rosenberg’s The Tradition of the New, is distinguished by the independence and wit of a man whose original language was poetry. The poet James Agee was in many respects the most eloquent magazine writer of his time, the only writer whose individual voice could be distinguished from the anonymous smoothness of Time. One of the reasons why so many academic scholars find it impossible to write effectively for general magazines is that they are not used to listening to their own voices, as poets are. They find their happiness in approbation, not in the English language.
Yet time has incorporated the talents of many poets to create a corporate style for which the magazine gets the credit, never the writer himself. Too many magazine editors today see themselves as “creative,” think of a magazine as having the stamp of an individual book. They want writers to make a product, the magazine, rather than to assist writers in finding their own voices. This is where the ever increasing apparatus of rewriting, the many drafts, the copying machine, the proofs and the checkers and the researchers and the corrections, though all made necessary by the lack in this country of the corps of dependable writer-intellectuals who make possible the New Statesman, nevertheless serves the ambitions of the editor rather than of the writer. But only a magazine edited by a dominating writer, like Mencken, could be as much all in one tone as so many magazines now try to be (and The American Mercury displayed Mencken’s passion for style, never exclusively his own opinions). The reason why such magazines succeed in this attempt, however, is that writers are often impressed by the editor’s belief in his magazine, and are glad to lend their talents to his enterprise.
A writer for magazines must above all be interesting, for there is not enough of him in any one issue to justify boring the reader. Similarly, he must extract from the conditions of his work—the hurried deadline, the last-minute change—the liveliness of time itself. It is for his gaiety and ease, above all, that I honor Chekhov the magazine writer on this anniversary. A magazine is always a date, “an issue,” a moment; it is created out of an exacting sense of time and it is about time. The spirit of occasion, the tone of conversation, the modesty of the passing moment, are what most belong to it. Let the magazine writer be faithful to this spirit of gaiety—and perhaps, like Chekhov, he may triumph over his own modesty.