Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol was born in the Ukraine in 1809, only two months after the birth of Edgar Allan Poe across the world. He was a natural observer of the Russian and Ukranian people (the Ukraine was then part of the Russian empire), and his first story, ‘Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka’ was published before his twentieth birthday.
Wandering the countryside in the early 1830’s while making a living as a civil servant, he began contributing stories to periodicals. In his travels are work he would encounter virtually every Russian caricature. His comical stories about his countrymen were eventually accepted in the journal “Sovermemnik”, published by a writer Gogol respected greatly, Aleksandr Pushkin, with whom he would soon form a personal bond.
‘Mirgorod’ was published in 1835, and his collected works were published to great acclaim in 1842. But his satirical play about the Russian bureaucracy, ‘The Inspector General’, although now a classic, did not meet with success.
One of his greatest works was ‘Dead Souls’, the tale of a traveling con man. Each character in this book is a poetic world unto his or her self. Their trials and tribulations are revealed through Gogol’s startling, immediate depictions of their appearance and manner. Taras Bulba, another classic, speaks of Russia’s proud Cossack past. ‘The Nose’ is a psychological fantasy about a pathetic loser whose nose suddenly disappears, and is easily the most Kafkaesque story written before the birth of Kafka. ‘The Overcoat’, a savage story of peasant life, focuses on the plight of a poor and freezing clerk who needs to replace his winter coat.
Gogol became increasingly obsessed with religious concerns as his literary fame grew. Like William Blake, Gogol was visited by mystical apparitions that filled him with a need to preach to and convert his fellow Russians. Like two later writers he would influence, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Jack Kerouac, he became a political reactionary, turning against his liberal past to espouse harsh conservative viewpoints. Gogol also began behaving bizarrely, burned his own unpublished writings including sequels to ‘Dead Souls’, and is considered by some to have gone tragically insane. By 1852, at the age of 43, Gogol was dead.
Gogol was a powerful satirist and humanist who stood at a new age dawning, stared into chasms, dug out jewels, and inspired a nation. That inspiration is now world-wide.