Post-Revolutionary Disillusionment


ON 13 August 1849, the Commander-in-Chief of the Hungarian Honvéd Army, General Arthur Görgey, ordered his troops to surrender to the Russians at Világos. This final act in the War of Independence ended a period not only in Hungarian history, but in literature also. The ensuing reign of terror associated with the name of Austrian General Haynau effectively dispersed those Hungarian intellectuals who could be held responsible in any way for the ‘rebellion’. Since most writers fell into this category, Hungarian intellectual life was crushed. Some writers fled abroad, some were imprisoned, but most of them went into hiding in the countryside. Many careers were broken by suicides or by insanity, persecution, continuous police harassment, and the rigorous but erratic application of censorship. Világos, a small village near Arad in the southern part of the Lowlands, became a byword for national disaster, like Mohács, and its tragedy strongly imprinted itself on the national ego for a long time to come.

The reorganization of literary life took place very slowly in the 1850s. It is true that short-lived periodicals mushroomed in occupied Pest, but their standards were low – sometimes very near to a dilettante level – for writers of reputation did not come forward; the vacuum was filled by mediocre authors. Nor did any new writer or poet of significant talent emerge in these years. Literary life showed signs of recovery only when writers with already established reputations broke their silence and began to publish, sometimes under assumed names, like Jókai or Jósika. The next quarter of a century was hallmarked by Jókai’s novels and the poetry of Arany and, to a lesser degree, by the novels and political writings of Kemény. The products of the relatively long creative life of Arany and Jókai, both of whom appeared on the literary scene before the War of Independence, characterized the dominant trend, which was often termed ‘national classicism’, or the népnemzeti trend. It was called népnemzeti because it was thought that slowly and gradually the best features of népies literature were coming to assume wider implications: their validity was extended to national traditions (hence: nemzeti) – or rather, to use political terminology, ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’ were successfully amalgamated in a unity of national literature which was supposed to express the cultural aspirations of all Hungarians. Of course, the népnemzeti trend inevitably led to academicism, the essential feature of which was a rigorous conservatism. Hungarian literature regained the vitality which characterized it in the Age of Reform only around the turn of the century. In addition, the second half of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of a middle class; and the gradual modernization of Hungarian society, which had been essentially a feudal society prior to the social revolution of 1848, also made an impact on literature.