Noor-Eesti rollist eesti kirjandus- ja kultuuriloos. The Role of Young Estonia in Estonian Literary and Cultural History

Sirje Olesk, Marin Laak

Abstract


From the beginning of the 20th century on, the activities of the Young Estonia literary movement have had a significant influence on the development of Estonian culture. The group published five Young Estonia albums (1905–1915), the magazine Young Estonia, devoted to science, literature, and the arts (1910– 1911), and the newspaper Vaba Sõna (1914–1916, Free Word). The core of the group was composed of five or six active writers who maintained lively interactions with art and theatre circles. The publications of the Young Estonia Press brought about a revolutionary turn in the design and printing styles of the Estonian-language book. The questions of Young Estonia’s role and meaning have intrigued the Estonian cultural public at different times and in different ways. Young Estonia brought to cultural consciousness liberal views on the interpretation of art as well as an elitist aesthetics. At different times their openness to Europe irritated both the nationalist-minded and internationalists; thus the reception of the Young Estonia movement has been polemical throughout Estonian cultural history. Elapsed time has both opened the way for broader generalizations and, conversely, created a need to reconstruct the cultural context of the beginning of the 20th century. Polemic around Young Estonia was certainly caused by the group as a whole; however, in this article the role of individual members is also highlighted. It is emphasized that the political and aesthetic ideas of the Young Estonians changed synchronously with social conditions, from the 1905 Russian revolution to the world war that ravaged Europe. If the early part of this period saw a more social and nationalist bent to their thinking, then in the years of reaction, positions were taken that were more in keeping with l’art pour l’art. Young Estonia was not a hierarchical organization; rather, its small core group was composed of a narrow circle of friends with various political and aesthetic views: linguist Johannes Aavik, poets Villem Grünthal and Gustav Suits, prose writer and critic Friedebert Tuglas, and critic and translator Bernhard Linde; Finnish-Estonian writer Aino Kallas also belonged to the inner circle. As shown by private correspondences, personal relationships played a major role in the group’s activities; statements on behalf of the group as a whole were only made in the context of parrying the attacks of conservative critics. The main force unifying the members of the Young Estonia group was dissatisfaction with the state of Estonian language, literature, and mentality at the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to their call for a new aesthetic, members of the group wished to hold up their own original work as models. Writers of the Young Estonia group produced little in the way of original literature: their main strength was as critics and essayists, theoretical articulators of a new direction. First and foremost among their contributions – particularly in the case of Johannes Aavik, was a steady, principled struggle for the cultivation of the Estonian language: on this topic they published manifestoes, explanatory articles, and writings of a linguistic-theoretical nature. Along with supplementing the language, there was a joint commitment to the style and form of the work of art. Thus, the second major contribution of Young Estonia was giving a new meaning to the concepts of ”author” and ”writer”. Following the example of Georg Brandes, they began writing a new type of biography of Estonian writers, and oriented themselves to the concept of national literature. For example, Gustav Suits glorified Kristian Jaak Peterson (1801-1822) as the ”first Estonian poet”. The Young Estonian slogan, ”Let us be Estonians, but let us also become Europeans!” lost its meaning during the First World War, when the ideal of Europe collapsed. Those who had been rebels up to that point now became the leaders of Estonian literary life; Gustav Suits became the first university professor of Estonian literature. The Young Estonians had shown their force and established a place for themselves. In Estonian criticism today, approaches drawn from postcolonialism (such as self-colonization) have often been used. In this article, analysis is based rather, and alternatively, on cultural influence and culture transfer. In a time of great cultural ruptures, searching for external models from European modernist culture was the only way imaginable for Young Estonia. One of the most important questions in this regard is the role of German and Russian culture, and this topic is elaborated upon in the current collection of articles. In order to provide a context for the articles in this collection, the co-editors initially provide a panoramic overview of the reception of Young Estonia in the different periods of Estonian history (Young Estonia’s contemporaries, 1905–1915; the Estonian republic, 1918–1940; Soviet Estonia and the literature of the exile 1944–1991). For example, in the Stalinist period in the 1950s, Young Estonia was condemned along with other decadent-bourgeois movements; at the same time, Estonian literary scholars in exile focused their research on the major figures of Young Estonia, particularly Gustav Suits. In the 1960s through the 1980s, the Young Estonians became widely anthologized authors – Young Estonia was canonized, though its political and social context could only be broached with caution. On the 100th anniversary of Young Estonia (2005), it once again became a focus of interest for Estonian literary studies; topics formerly difficult to discuss due to censorship or the lack of sources came to the fore. Based on Young Estonia’s clarion call, ”More European culture!” researchers began systematically to search for a European context for the Estonian intellectual world at the beginning of the 21st century. Literary scholars were joined in this search by historians, semioticians, gender studies scholars, art historians, and new, exciting points of view have emerged for the understanding of Young Estonia. Two international conferences were held at the Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Young Estonia: ”Ten Years of Young Estonia: Time and Literature”, 2005; and ”Ten Years of Young Estonia II: Ideals, Aesthetics, Meaning”, 2007. The current collection gathers 20 articles on Young Estonia which have not been previously published. Together with articles published elsewhere by Epp Annus, Lea Pild, Sirje Olesk, and Katre Talviste, based on their presentations at the same conferences, the contributions in this volume are shaping a new 21st century discourse of Young Estonia. The main message of the collection is valorizing the cultural openness of Young Estonia, and the opportunity to consider the movement as a whole in the context of the collision and adaptation of different ideologies.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7592/methis.v1i1-2.479

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