Nikolai Gogol is one of Russia’s most famous writers, renowned for his short stories, novels, and drama. Vladimir Nabokov called him “the strangest prose-poet Russia ever produced.” Scholars Dmytro Chyzhevsky and Danylo Husar Struk say of his writing, “Gogol's works display different variations of the Romantic style and a masterly use of metaphor, hyperbole, and ironic grotesque. His language is exceptionally rhythmic and euphonic. He was the first writer of the so-called Ukrainian school in Russian literature to employ a host of lexical and syntactic Ukrainianisms, primarily to play with various stylistic levels from the vulgar to the pathetic.”
Gogol was born on March 31, 1809 in the Poltava province in Ukraine. While his family name was Ianovskii, his grandfather took “Gogol” to connect him to his Cossack ancestry. His father was a minor Ukrainian noble who also wrote, and his mother was a religious woman who passed such spiritual concerns down to her son.
An unpopular child who was nicknamed “the mysterious dwarf,” Nikolai attended a boarding school and Nezhin secondary school. After he graduated, he went to St. Petersburg hoping to make it as a writer and actor. He took a few low-level government jobs to support himself and eventually realized he would not be able to make acting his career. His first poem, "Hans Kuechelgarten," was eviscerated by critics. During this time, he also wrote for a few periodicals about his memories of Ukraine, but he did not achieve fame.
In 1831, Gogol met Aleksandr Pushkin, perhaps Russia’s most famous novelist. Pushkin later helped get him a position teaching at the Patriotic Institute and then the University of St. Petersburg. Pushkin also urged Gogol to look to Ukrainian folktales for inspiration for his short stories, which led to the successful Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831).
By 1835, Gogol had published two more collections of stories and essays, including the famous “Diary of a Madman.” The following year, he published “The Carriage” and “The Nose." Gogol published his only play, The Inspector General (or The Government Inspector) in 1835, but he was so distressed by its staging and the way the audience and critics received it that he left Russia. He traveled around Europe for twelve years, spending most of it in Rome.
While he was in Rome, he wrote Dead Souls, or what he intended to be its first part. Published in 1842, it was received well by critics and the public. Unfortunately, Gogol struggled with the second part of the novel and did not receive approbation for his nonfiction work, Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends (1847), which was deemed to be too reactionary.
Gogol most likely suffered from depression, which he tried to alleviate by embarking on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Ivan Turgenev thought Gogol was suffering from “some secret sorrow, preoccupation, or morbid anxiety.” When Gogol returned to Moscow, he fell under the sway of a fanatical priest, Father Konstantinovski. Because of the priest's view that all fiction was a lie, Gogol burned what he had of the second part of Dead Souls. He also apparently starved himself and may have gone insane. Doctors tried numerous awful remedies to help him, but none worked. Gogol died on March 4, 1852, at the age of 42. He left no family and no estate.
The tsarist government forbade the mention of Gogol’s death in national publications. In 1931, his body was exhumed, and since the corpse was facedown, rumors abounded that he was buried alive.