Eesti autobiograafilise kirjutuse kujunemisest 18. sajandist Teise maailmasõjani. The Development of Estonian Autobiographical Writing from the 18th Century to the Second World War


  • Rutt Hinrikus Eesti Kirjandusmuuseum



In this article I examine the development of Estonian autobiographical writing from its first manifestations to published memoirs, and the development of life writing and its diversification. The beginnings of life writing can be traced back to Estonian folk song and Estonian incidental poetry. The Moravian Brethren movement in Estonia in the 18th century promoted the spread of canonical autobiography. The Moravian Brethren offered alternative opportunities for self-realisation for Estonians who were serfs, and were therefore popular with the people. The practice of the Moravian Brethren made use of retelling and writing about the life of the congregation members, which sometimes became suitable biographies in print, especially stories of awakening. Several manuscript biographies have survived from the Brethren times, such as the biographies of Mäletu Jaan and Mihkel Sarapuu. In addition to the history of the Moravian Brethren movement, these biographies give information about the educational situation and living conditions of the people of the time. The Estonian life writing tradition emerged within the reigning Baltic German cultural space thanks to the Estophiles among the Baltic Germans (J. H. Rosenplänter) and the first Estonian men of letters; from the early 19th century we have the diary by Rosenplänter, an estophile pastor from Pärnu, and the diary by the Estonian poet, the then-student Kristjan Jaak Peterson, both in the Estonian language. Johann Voldemar Jannsen, the founder of Estonian-language journalism, kept a diary in the German language for a longer period of time; it was usual that the first Estonian intellectuals (Lilli Suburg, and others) in the late 19th century wrote in German. Admittedly, the first Estonian-language life history was written by a forward-looking 19th century peasant named Märt Mitt (1833-1912), who was conscious of himself as a historical subject and gave his memoirs, begun in the 1880s, a memorable title: “Märt Mitt`s life story, told in a manner connected with history”. Other recollections of Estonian peasants appeared at the very end of the 19th century, including Gustav Malts’ stories about Estonian settlers in the Crimea. Autobiographical writing oriented toward documenting somebody’s life was regarded merely as “material” and distinct from literary or fictional writing. With little persuasion, Gustav Malts handed over the first version of his memoirs to a writer; relying heavily on Malts’ manuscript, Eduard Vilde composed his historical novel Prophet Maltsvet in 1905–1908. Among the recollections of the peasants, the so-called Jaan Kuldkepp Chronicle is one of the most original. Jaan Kuldkepp uses folk history and family heritage, attempting in his Chronicle to combine fictional and documentary material. The first Estonian-language memoirs were published in the early 20th century, mainly at the end of 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s; by that time the generation who had received their education in the 19th century reached an age during which memoirs are traditionally written. Two writers who blazed the path were August Kitzberg (An Old Windhover’s Memories of Youth, 1924-25) and Lilli Suburg (The Suburg Family, 1923-24). They do not limit themselves to local historical events or the family history style of ‘what life was like in the old times’, but instead strive to give an overview of the characteristic socio-cultural processes of the period. The number of printed memoirs increased year by year, and by the end of the 1930s it amounted to ten books per year. The authors were mostly journalists and writers. There were few women writers, but their memoirs attracted attention. Lilli Suburg was one of the first autobiography writers, Marta Lepp was a legendary female revolutionary, and Mari Raamot was the founder of the Defence League’s women’s corps’ “Women’s Home Defence”. In the 1930s many of the prominent Estonian writers began to put down their memories: they were Oskar Luts, Karl August Hindrey, and at the end of the 1930s, Friedebert Tuglas. The precondition for the writing of memoirs is the existence of leaders and a developed society. These conditions were fulfilled in the Republic of Estonia, although it should be added that many prominent social figures postponed the writing of their memoirs, which in the end remained unwritten.


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