The Strange Teaching Career Of Nikolai Gogol

” I am fated to journey hand in hand with my strange heroes and to survey the surging immensity of life, to survey it through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone.” —Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls

In A Nutshell

Nikolai Gogol, the famed author of Dead Souls, and arguably the most influential writer in Russian history, once tried to teach a class he was not remotely qualified for. He missed most of the lectures, often mumbled incoherently, and showed up at the exam wearing a handkerchief around his head and complaining of a toothache. He had another professor actually administer the testing.

The Whole Bushel

Nikolai Gogol is the literary genius behind Dead Souls, The Overcoat, The Inspector General, and many other stories that defined Russian literature. However, he didn’t have the most auspicious beginnings. From when he first started his career, Gogol was filled with ambition, drive, and creativity. He was always trying to fly to new heights, but he never knew if what he was trying was quite going to work for him, and he would quickly get frustrated if it did not. While his novels and short stories are nothing short of genius, he also tried to produce lengthy poetry once. This poem received only one review, and it was extremely negative. Gogol went completely ballistic and made sure no one would ever see a copy of the poem again. He was a volatile man, with genius ideas, but a quick mind that was unable to linger long on any one project before he started to second-guess himself. This led, of course, to the end of the Dead Souls project before his epic could be completed.

However, before he was a truly famous author, he tried his hand at teaching, and the results were a total nightmare. Gogol’s teaching career began teaching history to children, but he spent most of his time simply telling folktales and skipped class most of the time. Before long, it was time for Gogol to move on to his next big thing, and he managed to get a job teaching medieval history at the University of St. Petersburg. At his first lecture, everyone was quite impressed. Gogol was short on details, but he kept the room in rapt attention at his words and gave a great (albeit very general) lecture. Unfortunately, things only went downhill from there. The main reason for this was probably that Gogol was not even remotely qualified to teach medieval history, or history in general for that matter, but he was quite clever at promoting himself.

Before long it became incredibly clear that not only was Gogol unqualified, but that he knew it full well and was utterly embarrassed by it. According to student accounts, Gogol missed about two-thirds of the lectures, and usually mumbled mostly incoherently to his students when speaking, making him nearly impossible to understand. He would show pictures to them, but with little context since he didn’t speak up enough to be heard. Gogol’s students say that when it finally came time for end-of-term tests, the teacher was present, but he came with a huge handkerchief wrapped around his head, complaining of a toothache. Another teacher actually administered the tests while Gogol just sat there awkwardly—it would be the last time he taught, and the job ended up lasting little more than a year before he quit.

Gogol may have been eccentric, and in many ways just plain kooky, but it was that odd approach of his that made his work so appealing and so unique. His approach to life was to go for anything he wanted to try, whether he was qualified or not. It may not have always worked, but he made his mark on Russian literature (and the world), even if he wasn’t truly given the recognition he deserved until well after his death.

Show Me The Proof

Republic of Noise, by Diana Senechal
A History of Russia, by Walter G. Moss
A Half-century of Greatness, by Frederic Ewen

  • Hillyard

    Interesting bushel. I remember some fairly bad teachers but nothing this bad.