Tolstoy and the Shaker

AnnasWorldcoversmallThe work Pat and I do together leads us on some fascinating detours. While we were researching the Shakers for our multiple-award-winning novel Anna’s World, we ran across a startling letter from the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy himself …

I received the tracts that you sent me, and read them, not only with interest, but with profit; and cannot criticise them, because I agree with everything that is said in them …

Tolstoy was writing to Frederick W. Evans, a Shaker elder based in New Lebanon, New York. The date was February 15, 1891. By then Tolstoy was a thoroughgoing Christian anarchist-pacifist, cantankerous and iconoclastic enough to look back upon his own masterpieces War and Peace and Anna Karenina with utter disgust. And the communistic, celibate Shakers were right up his alley. He and Evans kept on writing back and forth, exchanging ideas about religion, society, and justice.

shakers-dancingFrederick Evans had been a socialist since his youth. In 1830, when he was about 22 years old and every inch a materialist and secularist, he went out scouting New York state for a place to found his own utopian community. He stopped in New Lebanon to visit the Shakers there, expecting to find “the most ignorant and fanatical people in existence.” Instead he was promptly converted, convinced that he had found just the ideal society he had envisioned.

Evans’s life as a Shaker was anything but cloistered. He served the Shakers as an ambassador to what they called simply “the World.” At the height of the Civil War, Evans and another elder visited the White House, petitioning President Lincoln for exemption from the draft. Although deeply opposed to slavery and actively supportive of the Union, the Shakers were steadfast and devoted pacifists for whom fighting was morally unthinkable.

Lincoln was impressed by the elders. After they finished making their case, he asked …

“Well, what am I to do?”

“It is not for me,” Elder Frederick replied, “to advise the President of the United States.”

“You ought to be made to fight,” Lincoln said. “We need regiments of such men as you.”

Even so, Lincoln granted the petition.

10606140_910718692290831_759700197982803500_nIn their correspondence, Evans and Tolstoy hit it off famously. When Evans died, Tolstoy wrote a letter of sympathy to another Shaker elder …

I can not tell you how sorry I am, not for the death of our dear and honored friend Evans, but for you and for all those who loved him and were fortified by his spirit. I am one of them.… I loved him very much.

In Anna’s World, I hope that Pat and I wrote a novel that both Frederick Evans and Leo Tolstoy might enjoy. I expect that our chances might have been better with Evans. Shaker intellectuals weren’t too otherworldly to disdain all fiction, and they much admired Tolstoy’s then quite scandalous story “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

But I suspect it would have been tougher to please Tolstoy, whose literary standards eventually got to be downright quirky. In his old age, he had this to say to poor Anton Chekhov

You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.