Nooreestlased arvustuses ja arvustajatena: lugejakontseptsioonist 20. sajandi alguse kriitikas. The Young Estonians as Critics and in the Eyes of Critics: On the Concept of the Reader in Early 20th Century Estonia

Marju Mikkel


Until recently, the treatment of Estonian literature from the beginning of the 20th century has been influenced by the literary and cultural activities and programmatic articles of the Young Estonia movement. Current research on Young Estonia has addressed their more everyday realm of activity, which has heretofore received less attention: the Young Estonians as readers of the new works of their literary contemporaries and their practical criticism in reviews, particularly in daily newspapers. This article uses a receptionhistorical approach to analyze a large body of source material: the Young Estonians voluminous critical oeuvre in the period 1905–1915. The Young Estonians to be examined are all members of the core group of the movement: Gustav Suits, Bernhard Linde, Aino Kallas, Johannes Aavik, Villem Grünthal-Ridala, Jaan Oks, August Alle, and Johannes Semper. Within the larger framework of collective horizons of expectation, the focus of the study is the critics` concept of the reader. In addition, I will briefly discuss the dynamics of how such conceptions change. Research results indicate that in critical reviews from the time of Young Estonia, the topic of the reader was addressed from different standpoints depending on the addressee. Texts directed rhetorically toward a broad readership are characterized by the pursuit of objectivity and generalizations. When the concept of the reader is critic-centered, the text emphasizes subjective judgments, experience, and emotion. When focusing on the author and the text, the reviewer describes the influence on the reader, the cause of which is either the literary work directly or the author’s genius. In the case of polemic on the subject of reading, found mainly in responses written to reviews, the writer interprets another reader (or other readers`) reading, opposing it to his or her own. When we follow the way the readers of Young Estonia and the Young Estonians themselves handle the characteristics and functions of the reader, it becomes apparent that the reader is defined primarily according to relations – whether these are with the author, the text, the content, the critic, the reader himself/ herself, or with literature in general. The reader is regarded as a passive subject in the literary process who needs to be influenced by the author and directed by the critic. At the beginning of the era of Young Estonia, the reader’s primary role is seen as supporting original literary works. Those critics who did not belong to Young Estonia’s core group orient themselves to the common reader, and to a heterogenous content familiar from everyday life. The Young Estonians` longing for „better” literature, and expectations connected with the literary representation of educated people are aimed at authors; there is also the expectation that educated people will form a readership. In the middle of the Young Estonia period, topics of ongoing discussion include the question of rereading, or repeated reading of books, and prejudices formed based on an author’s prior works and the broader literary context. In mid-period, a clearer separation comes into focus between reviewer and reader, and the judgments of readers and reviewers can be seen to diverge. Toward the end of the period, the evaluation of literary texts takes a further step from the search for objective values toward recognizing the individuality of the reader. In conclusion, during the decade 1905–1915, the definition of the reader in the eyes of the critic underwent an expansion, merging with the Young Estonians’ specific expectations. Though the Young Estonians’ own principles – quite resolute at first – later became somewhat tempered, they still maintained their elitist positions and uncompromising stance toward their opposition. The result is an enrichment in the criteria for judging literature rather than a replacement of one set of criteria by another. Horizons of interpretation continue to approach one another, until the horizon of expectation of Young Estonia’s readers, their reviewers and critics incorporate the Young Estonians’ own positions with respect to readers and reading. In the process, the Young Estonians themselves are but donors, growing a readership, and through their efforts toward differentiation, also extending the reach of expectations directed at readers.

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