Two million filing cards: The empirical-biographical method of Semen Vengerov

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Abstract

At the approach of the 160th anniversary of the birth of Semen A. Vengerov (1855– 1920), one wondered who would wish to mark the event. Born Jewish but a convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Vengerov taught Russian literature at the University of St. Petersburg, becoming best known as a bibliographer. In the 1880s he launched a gigantic project to document the past and present of Russian letters. However, what should have become a comprehensive Critical-Biographical Dictionary of Russian Writers and Scholars remained unfinished at his death, which was hastened by the Revolution. Having published prolifically, Vengerov nonetheless did not complete his life’s work. He did leave an archive containing about two million filing cards next to quantities of material he had collected, such as autobiographical essays by Russian writers. The judgment of posterity regarding the value of this dedicated compiling has been contradictory. For some of his critics, Vengerov’s colossal undertaking ended in deserved failure. In this view, his story is at best a cautionary tale about a scholar overwhelmed by his material; at worst, it is one about a wrong choice of profession. Defenders would call Vengerov a pioneer and a visionary and point out that his seminar on Pushkin became the cradle of the most influential literary scholars of the 1920s: the founders of the famous Formalist school had been Vengerov’s students. This article analyzes Vengerov’s method, as well as his legacy in Russian philology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)129-153
Number of pages25
JournalHistory of Humanities
Volume1
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2016

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