W riting in 1948 in his one-man-band magazine Politics, in which he introduced some excerpts of Alexander Herzen's My Past and Thoughts, Dwight Macdonald observed sadly that this author and his writings "have never caught on with American readers." He continued, "Most people to whom I mention Herzen have either never heard of him or confuse him with another nineteenth-century founding father, Herzl, or with the physicist Hertz, he of the waves."
Theodor Herzl produced a utopian novel, Altneuland, about the once and future destiny of European Jews, and is the only such imaginative writer whose efforts have resulted in the founding of an actual state (whether utopian or, for some of its subjects, the reverse). So he stays in our everyday discourse whether readers chance to recognize his name or not. Herzen composed a literary monument, of memoir and philosophy and polemic, that is the nineteenth-century nonfiction equivalent of Leo Tolstoy's. But he is neglected because the work of early Russian cultural revolutionaries is still refracted by the notorious dystopia that ensued. The shroud that has fallen over Herzen was not so much lifted as shaken out by Sir Tom Stoppard earlier this year. In three plays - Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage, collectively titled The Coast of Utopia - he in effect demanded that audiences at the Royal National Theatre, in London, commit about nine hours of their leisure to a reconsideration of the roots of the Russian Revolution. Onstage were Marx and Bakunin, Pushkin and Turgenev, Kossuth and Mazzini. But the commanding figure, emotionally and morally and intellectually, was Alexander Herzen. This - I believe - is because it is impossible to reflect on his life and prose without a piercing sense of a missed opportunity, of the engagement or encounter that might have made all the difference - in history and in legacy. Such fated conjunctures or non-conjunctures have been a Stoppardian motif from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the more modern Travesties. There is every hope that Lincoln Center, in New York, will soon invite Trevor Nunn, the director of the London production, to bring the trilogy to this country - and perhaps prove Dwight Macdonald to have been too pessimistic.