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The Origins of Russian Literary Theory: Folklore, Philology, Form
by Jessica Merrill
Russian Formalism is widely considered the foundation of modern literary theory. This book reevaluates the movement in light of the current commitment to rethink the concept of literary form in cultural-historical terms. Jessica Merrill provides a novel reconstruction of the intellectual historical context that enabled the emergence of Formalism in the 1910s. Formalists adopted a mode of thought Merrill calls the philological paradigm, a framework for thinking about language, literature, and folklore that lumped them together as verbal tradition. For those who thought in these terms, verbal tradition was understood to be inseparable from cultural history. Merrill situates early literary theories within this paradigm to reveal abandoned paths in the history of the discipline—ideas that were discounted by the structuralist and post-structuralist accounts that would emerge after World War II.
The Origins of Russian Literary Theory reconstructs lost Formalist theories of authorship, of the psychology of narrative structure, and of the social spread of poetic innovations. According to these theories, literary form is always a product of human psychology and cultural history. By recontextualizing Russian Formalism within this philological paradigm, the book highlights the aspects of Formalism’s legacy that speak to the priorities of twenty-first-century literary studies.
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About the Author:
Jessica Merrill is an assistant professor of Slavic languages at Columbia University. She is a scholar of twentieth-century Russian literature and a specialist in the fields of Russian and Czech literary theory, folklore theory, and Russian and Czech modernisms. Her most recent book, The Origins of Russian Literary Theory: Folklore, Philology, Form (Northwestern University Press, July 2022), is an intellectual history that reconstructs contexts for thinking about literary form from the 1840s to 1950s. This contextualization enables a reinterpretation of central Russian Formalist concepts and reveals lost paths in the history of literary theory.
About the Speakers:
Ilya Kliger is an Associate Professor in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies at NYU. He specializes in 19th-century Russian novel, theory of the novel, literary theory, and the relationship between philosophy and literature. He is author of The Narrative Shape of Truth: Veridiction in Modern European Literature (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) and co-editor, with Boris Maslov, of Persistent Forms: Practicing Historical Poetics (Fordham University Press, 2016).
Dennis Tenen is an Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He is the author of Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation (Stanford University Press, 2017) and a co-founder of Columbia's Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities. His work also appears on the pages of Amodern, boundary 2, Computational Culture, Modernism/modernity, New Literary History, Public Books, and LA Review of Books on topics that range from book piracy to algorithmic composition, unintelligent design, and the history of data visualization.
Mark Lipovetsky is a Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages at Columbia University. His research interests include such subjects as post-Soviet culture, Russian postmodernism, post-Soviet drama, late Soviet nonconformist culture, and tricksters in Soviet culture. Lipovetsky edited 5-volumes of Dmitry Prigov’s collected works and is currently working on his critical biography. Lipovetsky’s works were nominated for Russian Little Booker Prize (1997) and short-listed for the Andrey Bely Prize (2008).
Liza Knapp teaches in the Department of Slavic Languages of Columbia University and taught in the Slavic Department of the University of California at Berkeley. She is the author of Leo Tolstoy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2019) and other works on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. She is also the Cahir of the Department of Slavic Languages.
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