Estonian literature in the 1920s and 1930s

by Marin Laak

Estonian Literature in the 1920s and 1930s
Marin Laak

At the beginning of the 19th century, at the peak of Romanticism, K.-J. Peterson (1801-1822), one of the first known poets of Estonian origin  in the Baltic provinces of Tsarist Russia, wrote in his poem Ood kuule (Ode to the Moon) : ”Why should not my country’s tongue,/ Soaring through the gale of song,/ Rising to the heights of heaven,/ Find its own eternity?”. Just a century later, at the beginning of the 20th century, Estonian literature could be discussed in the context of European modernism. The spirit of the first years of the new century gave rise to the Young Estonia movement, initiated by Gustav Suits (1883-1956) and Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971), two giants of Estonian literature.

This first literary group Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) grew out of secondary school literary circles, and made its appearance before a wider audience in 1905. The group published five beautifully designed albums entitled Noor-Eesti I-V (1905-1915), that contained original works of fiction, criticism and essays, as well as translations of modernist literature from Russian, German, French and the Scandinavian languages.  They brought the newer trends and movements in European art, French Symbolism and the Neo-Romantic cult of personality and feelings to Estonian literature. The slogan adopted by the Young Estonia movement, ”Let us be Estonians, but let us also become Europeans!”,  remained central to Estonian literati for the entire century.

The events of the First World War, and the unexpected opportunity to fight for an independent Estonian Republic also turned a new page in Estonian literary history. The unprecedented challenge, creation of a new independent state, involved participation by the entire nation.

The War of Independence and the Siuru Group

The first years of the Estonian Republic were characterised by sharp contrasts. It was a time of great political upheaval in Europe. In Estonia even secondary school students volunteered to fight against the Soviets in the War of Independence (1918-1920). At the very same time, six writers, led by Friedebert Tuglas, formed a poetry group Siuru (1917-1919), named after a legendary carefree bird. They stressed the freedom of the human spirit and of creative work in spite of bloody war events, wrote intentionally irritating, joyful and brave love poetry, and raised the slogan Carpe diem! The members of the group wore white chrysanthemums in their lapels and lived the noisy and bantering life of Bohemians. Siuru brought personal passions and impressionist lyrical poetry to Estonian literature, changing the previous paradigm of patriotism and nationalism.


The Tarapita Group and the Rural Novel

Following the end of the War of Independence, the early 1920s became a period of intense cultural activity. Experimentation in search of new forms of expression led to vigorous polemics in Estonian literature. Changes in the structure of society often led to exciting,  intense, but rather nervous ways of life. The cultural creative output increased rapidly. It seemed that the flowers of contemporary civilisation had opened all at once – cinema,  newspapers, the entertainment industry, sports events.
Translations of cheap novels were published in large numbers. In a very few years more new publishing houses were established than ever before, but critics were unified in their lament about the crisis in publishing, the apathy and banal taste of the mass audience. Such is the wider context of literature of the period.

During the formation of the new Republic, questions arose concerning the responsibility of writers and artistic freedom. Influenced by the French group Clarté and by German expressionism, contemporary motifs were introduced to poetry. Joined by a number of newcomers, the former Siuru circle grew into the third powerful group of poets, Tarapita (1921-1922). The early 1920s was the period of excellent literary collections and magazines. The magazines Odamees, Ilo, Murrang, Looming I and Tarapita, drew from an identical circle of authors, and were all published during a very short period (1919-1922). Most were edited either by Fr. Tuglas, or some other member of the former Siuru group. Literary critics have called this period the era of feuilletonism. Criticism was more personal and wittier than ever before. Beside their own creative works, most writers also wrote literary reviews. But younger writers were already emerging   alongside  the Siuru generation, waving the banner, ”Down with lyrical chocolate!”

During the same period, writers were strongly officially admonished to write works with fewer complex characters and with simpler plots, so that they could be more easily understood by a wider public. The second half of the 1920s is characterised by an increasing  trend towards realistic writing – real life breaks into literature.


Estonian Writers’ Union and the Literary Journal Looming

Major literary institutions were established in the mid-1920s. The era of literary splinter groups came to an end in 1922 with the foundation of the Estonian Writers’ Union, to which all writers could belong, and which in April 1923 created its own monthly, Looming. The first editor of Looming, Fr. Tuglas, established the open editorial policy  of the journal that has, with interruptions, persisted to this day.


Quality Poetry and the Rise of the Epic genre

The literary paradigm slowly started turning towards realistic descriptions and epic style in both prose and poetry. Major authors of the Siuru generation,  August Gailit (1891-1960), Henrik Visnapuu (1890-1951), and Johannes Barbarus (1890-1946) reached their creative peak and wrote their best works in the late 1920s. Marie Under (1883-1980), one of the greatest and the most translated of Estonian poets, published her masterpieces – the collections Hääl varjust (A Voice from the Shadows, 1927), Rõõm ühest ilusast päevast (Delight in a Beautiful Day, 1928), and Lageda taeva all (Under the Open Sky, 1930) and a collection of ballads Õnnevarjutus (Eclipse of Happiness, 1929), which have all become  classics of Estonian poetry. Henrik Visnapuu published collections of poetry Ränikivi (Flintstone, 1925) and Maarjamaa laulud (Song about Maarjamaa, 1927), which are also among  the treasures of Estonian poetry. Compared to the beginning of the decade, both authors had passed a turning point, had started addressing their people's everyday worries and ethical questions, treating these with the existential sensitivity that characterises high poetry. Barbarus in his poetry, such as in the collections Geomeetriline inimene (Geometric Man, 1924) and Multiplitseerit inimene (Multiplied Man, 1927), celebrated the achievements of urban culture, very skilfully using cubist writing techniques,  but remaining detached from the main trends.


A.H. Tammsaare, Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice) , and Other Great Novels

The prose of the early 1920s was dominated by short stories, but some great novels, often multi-volumed, and frequently depicting rural life, also appeared. This is  when Anton Hansen Tammsaare (1878-1940), one of the most outstanding Estonian novelists, wrote his masterpiece, Tõde ja õigus (Truth and Justice) I-V (1926-1933). Tõde ja õigus  can be compared with the great rural novels written in Northern Europe at the time. This developmental novel, replete with philosophical and religious allusions, describes the complicated internal struggles of several generations of a family in search of truth and justice, beginning  in a rural setting in the late 19th century and progressing to the urban milieu of the 1930s. Truth and Justice as an epochal work  remains  a classic of Estonian prose.

Some other novels of the late 1920s displayed a strong leftist bent. The most important representative of this trend is Mait Metsanurk (1879-1957) with his novel Jäljetu haud (The Unmarked Grave, 1926), written as a revolutionary’s diary, and a dilogy Valge pilv (The White Cloud, 1925) and Punane tuul (The Red Wind, 1928).

August Gailit had a unique position, because despite the realistic spirit of the era, his writing continued to be romantic, fantastic and grotesque, preserving the lyricism and bohemian tonality characteristic of Siuru times. In his novel Purpurne surm (The Purple Death, 1924), Gailit depicts the perishing of mankind in a style comparable to O. Spengler’s The Decline of the West, predicting the end of European civilisation. A picturesque novel Toomas Nipernaadi (1928) brought Gailit international fame and acknowledgement, when German, Dutch, Lithuanian and Polish translations appeared in the 1930s. This work was written in the tradition of a vagabond novel. The hero's wanderings on Estonian country roads from early spring until late autumn are depicted with playful humour.


Young Writers

In the mid 1920s a new generation of authors, born at the turn of the century, who had fought in the War of Independence as schoolboys, brought new trends to literature and an uproar to criticism. Albert Kivikas’s (1898-1978) novels about rural settlers,  (Jüripäev/ St. George’s Day, Jaanipäev/ Midsummer Day and Mihklipäev/ Michaelmas Day, 1921-1924) initiated much debate and inspired several epigons. These novels presented, in a neo-objective style, the lives of farmers' families, whom the state had rewarded with parcels of land for their brave fighting in the War of Independence. Another new trend by young authors was the introduction of dialects and nature mysticism into literature. The most remarkable among these was Juhan Jaik’s (1899-1948) Võru dialect poetry and short stories based on local tradition.  Peet Vallak  (1893-1959) also warrants mention. Trained as an artist, he became an outstanding author of short stories, written in a very unique style and full of colourful characters. 


The ”Closer to life” Movement And the Magazine Kirjanduslik orbiit

At the end of the 1920s, literary life was much influenced by novel-writing competitions, which had been initiated by the publishing house Loodus in 1927. These brought a number of new authors into Estonian literature. In the first year the Main Prize was awarded to the previously unknown August Jakobson’s (1904-1963) for his novel Vaeste-Patuste alev (A Borough of  Poor Sinners, 1927), which painted a grotesque pictures of slum life. The working class started appearing as subjects of poetry, Juhan Sütiste (1899-1945) being one of the most talented young poets to follow this trend.

The second half of the 1920s has gone into literary history as the period of quarrelling  between generations. Younger writers and critics opposed the previous generation which had participated in the earlier literary groups (Noor-Eesti, Siuru, Tarapita). Those groups, led by Fr. Tuglas, had been active in organising  literary life,  as well as the professional lives of writers. Gustav Suits had by then been appointed the first professor to hold a chair in Estonian literature at Tartu University, and was the uncontested authority whose seminars had schooled the majority of younger authors.

To counterbalance the older generation, young Socialist inspired writers, tried to organise their own groups and to publish collective volumes (e.g. ”Aktsioon” I and II, Tulirynd, 1926-1927). At the end of the 1920s more than ten well known young writers and literary scholars joined to publish the newspaper Kirjanduslik orbiit (E. Hiir, A. Kivikas, O. Loorits, J. Mägiste, J. Sütiste, A. Jakobson, P. Vallak, N. Andresen, A. Aspel and others.) Although only seven issues appeared in 1929-1930, these had a considerable impact on the Estonian literary scene.

This period is also known as the Anti-Romantic ”closer to life” movement, which drew its ideological  inspiration from the contemporary French philosopher and writer Julien Benda. Estonian members of the movement strove to move literature away from the aestheticism and individualism of Noor-Eesti, and to take it ”closer to life.” In their polemical articles and theoretisations they promoted the bringing of literature to the working class, and demanded that writers be conscientious and active servants of workers by depicting their life in a truthful manner. Critics who belonged to this movement welcomed Neo-realism and Naturalism in prose.


Cultural Endowment

In addition to the founding of the Writers’ Union, another central event in Estonian literary life was the establishment in 1925, of the Estonian Cultural Endowment, a system of state funded financial support for the arts. The Cultural Endowment supported all the arts, but writers were the ones to initiate the idea of ”state salaries”. Serious discussions had started already in 1919, about who should be supported, and on what basis, and heated arguments continued for the next six years, and even later. Financial support from the Endowment had a very favourable effect on literary output, writers were able to write longer works, and up to the end of the 1930s, the novel became the dominant genre  in Estonian literature.


Literary Criticism

Without a doubt, the Cultural Endowment stimulated development of critical thought. Writers’ "salaries”, distributed by the Endowment, were often based on the judgement of critics.. Writers started demanding that instead of feuilletonist sharpness, critics display objective criteria of judgement. As a result, the level of Estonian criticism gradually started improving. By the end of the 1920s, authors who doubled as critics,  were gradually replaced by professionals with university degrees  in literature. The predominant technique for criticism was structural analysis of the work.

At the turn of the decade critics heatedly debated European trends and Estonian national characteristics, and tried to find foreign, especially Russian and French influences  in Estonian literary works.

By the end of the 1930s, Estonian reviewers and critics wrote remarkable critical essays. Among the most brilliant was the professor of English literature at Tartu University, Ants Oras (1900-1982), whose MLitt thesis from Oxford was entitled, The Critical Ideas of T.S. Eliot (1932). Oras raised Estonian critical thought to an international level and introduced the school of New-Criticism. Another important critic of the decade was Aleksander Aspel (1908-1975), who had studied Romance philology at  the Sorbonne, and who, together with the editor of the literary monthly Looming, J. Semper, regularly mediated trends in contemporary French humanist thought (J. Benda, P. Valéry, G. Duchamel and others) to Estonian readers. A. Aspel was the first to discuss the formal problems of the essay.


The Novel of the 1930s

Traditionally, Estonian literature of the 1930s has been divided into two periods: 1929-1934 and 1935-1940. The basis of such division is the authoritarian coup in Estonia in March 1934, which marked the beginning of the ”silent era”. The effervescent literary life of the 1920s became stable, the genre of the novel was developed in several directions.


Psychological Novel

Carried by undercurrents of the ”closer to life” movement, an unmerciful realism also penetrated the psychological. One by one, writers, especially younger ones, started publishing novels about characters who couldn’t cope with life and who ended their lives tragically. The large  number of such novels has occasioned talk about the suicide motif in Estonian literature. The development of the psychological novel was furthered by the popularity of ideas influenced  by Freudian psychoanalysis. The best novel of the genre is Armukadedus (Jealousy) (1934) by Johannes Semper (1892-1970), in which critics found parallels with M. Proust’s Swann’s Way. A.H. Tammsaare’s Elu ja armastus (Life and Love, 1934) and Ma armastasin sakslast (I Loved a German Girl, 1935) are also noteworthy examples of how an author focuses on the relations between a man and a woman, an individual and society, against the background of contemporary urban culture.


The Historical Novel and the Novel about Fishermen living by the Sea

Simultaneously with psychological realism, the historical novel also became a leading genre. Authors turned to the recent past, e.g. to the War of Independence (Nimed marmortahvlil, 1936/Names engraved in Marble by Albert Kivikas), but also to the romantic history of ancient Estonians. One of the best works of this genre is Mait Metsanurk’s Ümera jõel (On the Ümera River, 1934), depicting the battle of 1210, where Estonians fought and defeated the invading Teutonic knights.

New themes were introduced by August Mälk (1900-1987), who wrote about the struggle and hard life of Estonian coastal villagers with the sea. The novel Õitsev meri (Flowering Sea, 1935) was awarded the Main Prize of the Year of  the Estonian Book. Such recognition made Mälk a leading novelist in Estonia,  next to A.H. Tammsaare.


Year of the Estonian Book

An important literary event of the period was the Year of the Estonian Book in 1935 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of  the first book to be printed in Estonian,. The result of this impressive and well-organised literary promotion, was a record-setting number of 1700 new titles published in 1935. In addition to the financial support from the Cultural Endowment, several new literary prizes, including the Republic of Estonia President's Prize were established to honour authors.

Arbujad and the Journal Akadeemia

Toward the end of the 1930s, a tradition of high-level essay-writing reflected the maturing of Estonian culture. In poetry, the anthology, Arbujad (1938), compiled by Ants Oras, presented a high  point in cultural achievement. Heated debates among the so-called working Estonians had demanded that literature promote a primitive form of nationalism, but in this anthology Oras presented a Pleiad of poets of the new generation (Heiti Talvik, Betti Alver, Uku Masing, August Sang, Kersti Merilaas, Bernard Kangro, Paul Viiding, Paul Rummo) whose aesthetic sensitivity turned a new page in Estonian literature. In 1937 two new journals, Varamu, dealing with literature and art, and Akadeemia,  dealing with the humanities , started  appearing alongside Looming.


Estonian PEN-Club, Translation Activities

The 1930s were also remarkable for amount of translating from other languages. By the end of the decade, the number of published translations of high-quality literary works surpassed even that of original Estonian works of fiction. The Estonian PEN-Club was founded in 1927. Johannes Semper edited 7 issues of a bulletin ”L’Estonie Littéraire” (1930-1939), which gave regular surveys of the development of Estonian language, literature and theatre in English, French and German. Several European literary magazines regularly published articles about, and translations from, Estonian literature.

By the year of 1940, the dream of the Young Estonians of the beginning of the century – ”Let us be Estonians, but let us also become Europeans!” – had become a reality. Estonia was prospering and its culture was flourishing. But the Soviet occupation and WW II thwarted this for more than 50 years.