The Atlantic Profile That Foreshadowed Tolstoy's Death


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One of the surprises of working at a 153-year-old magazine is opening our archives and stumbling across a piece like this profile of Leo Tolstoy. The Russian author died 100 years ago, on November 7, 1910. In the later years of his life, an American writer named Isabel Hapgood visited him at his country estate. In her Atlantic profile, she describes him as a rugged man coming home to greet his guests after a day in the fields:

The count, who had been mowing, appeared at dinner in a grayish blouse and trousers and a soft white linen cap. He looked even more weather-beaten in complexion than he had in Moscow during the winter, if that were possible. His broad shoulders seemed to preserve in their enhanced stoop a memory of recent toil. His manner, a combination of gentle simplicity, awkward half-conquered consciousness, and half-discarded polish, was as cordial as ever. His piercing gray-green-blue eyes had lost none of their almost saturnine and withal melancholy expression.

These words bring to mind scenes from Anna Karenina—not of the doomed heroine and her lover, but of the character called Levin. It's never been a secret that Levin is a stand-in for Tolstoy himself—like Tolstoy, Levin is ambivalent about his noble birth, and a secondary plot follows Levin's efforts to manage his estate and marriage in ways that are both principled and human.

According to Hapgood, Tolstoy was still facing these struggles at the age of 63. We see him devoting his later years to an enlightened sort of nobility—opening schools and hospitals, giving away his family's wealth, and toiling alongside his workers in the hayfields on blazing summer days. When he's not engaged in manual labor, Tolstoy sits in his library reading about the latest ideologies. "I imagine that the first copies of every book, pamphlet, and journal on any hobby or 'ism,' especially from America, find their way to the address of Count Tolstóy," Hapgood writes. "He showed me some very wild products of the human brain."

Hapgood isn't afraid to argue with the great writer; in an era when American women are not yet allowed to vote, she boldly challenges Tolstoy's views on everything from socialism to marriage. Throughout the piece, she looks upon him with a mixture of admiration and disapproval. She's outraged to see one of Tolstoy's daughters slaving away in the hot fields while the peasant women run off to raid the fruit trees. She's wryly unsurprised when a local cabdriver praises the count's generosity and then charges her twice the standard fare. And she sympathizes with Tolstoy's wife, Sofya, a levelheaded woman who must fight constantly to keep her husband from giving away their children's inheritance.

As it turns out, Hapgood's profile foreshadowed the strange end of Tolstoy's life. In late 1910, the 83-year-old count gave up all of his worldly possessions. He signed his literary works into the public domain and left his family to live out his final days as a hermit. He got as far as the local train station before he collapsed, and a few days later, he died at the stationmaster's home. The night before Tolstoy's death, his secretary and disciple Vladimir Chertkov sat by his bedside and heard the count taking one last stand against materialism. "We all reveal our manifestations," Tolstoy said aloud to himself. "This manifestation is over. That's all."

Read Isabel P. Hapgood's profile "Count Tolstoy at Home," which first appeared in the November 1891 issue of The Atlantic, here.