Poor Folk was the title Fyodor Dostoyevsky gave to his first book, which he pulled together from the portraits of his neighbors in the poorest quarter of St. Petersburg, Russia, that he had written to hone his craft. In his early twenties, and this his first work published, he became a literary sensation overnight.
His masterful Crime and Punishment, written twenty years later, is set in the same quarter, and many of its characters would qualify for the first book’s title. This spring I re-read it because our Well-read Women graciously invited me to join them in discussing the book. I also read a biography of Dostoevsky, which helped me to understand why the book had struck me so strongly when I had first read it in high school. One of its observations was that he always wrote about people, lives, personalities, and gave no time to such distractions as scenery.
Dostoevsky was animated by a concern for the poor, of which there was no shortage in his beloved Russia. He also had an eye for their humanity, which made it possible for him to present them in the fullness of their characters, not just as poster-children for their plight. The situations he described were breathtaking in their desperation, yet his characters were still people with personalities, actors in their drama, capable of love, however unlikely that was; and worthy of love, however undetectable that was.
Once I had put that massive reading project behind me, I took up a book of short stories by modern, U.S. Southern authors that I had put down a few years ago and then lent to someone. It had been a little too grim for me, too often wallowing for the seeming pleasure of it in the theatrically rough and gruesome situations and actions of the characters it depicted. My familiarity with the South helped me discern an exaggeration that turned me away from enjoying the authenticity that I admired. But when the book came back, I took it up for another try, and the first story I randomly chose had in its introduction these lines:
“I think you see people writing now from a class of people that hasn’t spoken at all. … The attitude … has been that poor people are like everybody else, only with fewer things. Nobody dealt with just how animalistic your life can be when you don’t have anything.”
Which struck me, even once I had got past the modern American assumption of having invented everything from scratch. So much of our entertainment for the past century has depicted the rich, even the effortlessly well-to-do: the beautiful, the talented, the well-dressed folk in their gorgeous homes, with no visible means of support. The steady diet of the plight of the comfortable, whether played for laughs or tears, has led to the above assumption that savage behavior is the result of poverty. It also implies that comfortable people are savages who need not act as such. The conclusion waiting to be drawn is that if the poverty were eliminated, the savagery would disappear. Which explains why so many modern Americans are convinced that they would be happier – and better – if only they had more.
But Dostoevsky recognized that the fullness of human nature resides in the poor as well as the rich. A proud man who has given himself to savagery can be raised to the full glory of human life when he accepts the humiliation of unmerited love. From those who choose to sacrifice even in their destitution we can all learn the real nature of the drama that our comforts disguise.
The politicians promise to eliminate poverty, while the Truth Himself promises, the poor you will always have with you. (Mt 26:11) No wealth or comfort can disguise our tendency toward savagery, nor our capacity for nobility. As Dostoevsky might have explained had he been from Alabama, the Poor Folks’s us.