Czech literature

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Czech literature,

literary works that constitute part of the Czech culture and, except for some early compositions written in liturgical languages, is in the Czech language.

Early Literature

Czech literature dates from the 10th cent. The legends of St. Wenceslaus, composed in that century, were written in Old Church SlavonicChurch Slavonic,
language belonging to the South Slavic group of the Slavic subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages (see Slavic languages). Although it is still the liturgical language of most branches of the Orthodox Eastern Church, Church Slavonic is extinct today
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. Until c.1400, Czech literature consisted mainly of Latin chronicles (Cosmas of Prague, 1125) and of Czech hymns, tales of chivalry, and romances in verse. The 15th cent. witnessed a poetic flowering that paralleled increasing national consciousness. In 1394, Smil Flaška of Pardubice initiated modern realistic Czech literature with an allegorical admonition in verse, New Council. In a similar vein were the sermons of Tomáš Štítný (c.1331–c.1401) and the works of the peasant mystic Petr Chelčický (The Net of the True Faith, 1440–43).

The language reforms of John Huss helped to make Czech an effective literary language for the writers of the Renaissance, as in the works of the humanists, in the religious and secular writings of the Moravian bishop Jan Blahoslav (1503–71), and in the histories of Veleslavin (1545–99). The crowning glory of the age was the Kralice Bible, translated by the Czech Brethren and published from 1579 to 1593. The Thirty Years War (1618–48) brought wholesale destruction of Czech literary works followed by repression of national life.

In the 17th cent. the great educator ComeniusComenius, John Amos
, Czech Jan Amos Komenský, 1592–1670, Moravian churchman and educator, last bishop of the Moravian Church. Comenius advocated relating education to everyday life by emphasizing contact with objects in the environment and systematizing all
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 (Jan Amos Komenský), like many other Czechs, worked in exile, and the language was gradually reduced to little more than a peasant dialect. In the late 18th cent. men like the philologists Josef DobrovskýDobrovský, Josef
, 1753–1829, Hungarian philologist, of Bohemian parentage. In 1792 the Royal Bohemian Academy of Sciences commissioned Dobrovský to recover Bohemian manuscripts lost in the Thirty Years War.
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 and Josef Jungmann helped to rehabilitate writing in Czech. Jan KollárKollár, Jan
, 1793–1852, Slovak poet who wrote in Czech. A Protestant minister, he was an ardent proponent of Pan-Slavism. He promoted his ideas in a famous essay on Slavonic cultural unity (1836) and in his best-known poem, The Daughter of Slava (1821–24).
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 led the Pan-Slavic revival in the early 19th cent., while Karel Hynek MáchaMácha, Karel Hynek
, 1810–36, Czech romantic poet. After studying law at the Univ. of Prague he became a civil servant. He published a number of promising poems and wrote Pictures from My Life, introspective autobiographical sketches.
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, considered the foremost Czech poet, expressed a Byronic romanticism developed further by the novelist Božena Nĕmcová and the poet Karel J. Erben.

The Nineteenth Century

Pan-Slavism and romanticism dominated Czech literature in the first half of the 19th cent. František PalackýPalacký, František
, 1798–1876, Czech nationalist and historian, b. Moravia. Regarded as the father of the modern Czech nation, Palacký played a leading role in the Czech cultural and national revival in the 1820s, 30s, and 40s.
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 highlighted Slavic scholarship. The 9th- and 13th-century Slavic texts produced by Václav Hanka (1791–1861) were proved spurious; they became, however, part of the Czech literary tradition and remained influential. In the later 19th cent., when the poetry of Svatopluk ČechČech, Svatopluk
, 1846–1908, Czech poet and novelist. His strong Pan-Slavism and his love for democracy and freedom won him great popularity. His political enthusiasms animate many of his writings.
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, Jan NerudaNeruda, Jan
, 1834–91, Czech essayist and poet, b. Prague. His popular Stories from Malá Strana (1878), tales drawn from his childhood in Prague and satiric portraits of members of the Czech middle classes, exemplifies early Czech realism.
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, and Joseph V. SládekSládek, Joseph Václav
, 1845–1912, Czech poet and translator. He lived in the United States from 1868 to 1870. Sládek later taught English in Prague and translated much English and American poetry into Czech, including 32 of Shakespeare's plays.
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 and the novels of Alois Jirásek achieved fame, literature was oriented toward the intellectual and the bourgeois.

Modern Czech Literature

After 1890 realism gained force with the writings of the influential critic Thomas Masaryk. Proletarian and rural themes were developed, and writers such as Jaroslav VrchlickýVrchlický, Jaroslav
, pseud. of Emil Bohuslav Frída,
1853–1912, Czech writer. Vrchlický, a poetic virtuoso, produced nearly 85 volumes of lyric verse, much of which is sensual and affirmative.
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, J. S. MacharMachar, Josef Svatopluk
, 1854–1942, Czech poet and essayist. A leader of the realist movement in Czech poetry and a master of colloquial Czech, Machar was active in anti-Austrian political circles in Vienna.
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, Petr BezručBezruč, Petr
, pseud. of Vladimir Vašek
, 1867–1958, Czech poet, called the bard of Silesia. Bezruč's fame rests solely on the Silesian Songs (1903, enl. ed. 1909).
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, and Otokar BřezinaBřezina, Otakar
, 1868–1929, Czech lyric poet, leader of the Czech symbolists, whose original name was Václav Jebavý. The first collection of his poetry, Tajemné dálky [mysterious distances], appeared in 1895.
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 won fame at home, while Karel ČapekČapek, Karel
1890–1938, Czech playwright, novelist, and essayist. He is best known as the author of two brilliant satirical plays—R. U. R. (Rossum's Universal Robots, 1921, tr.
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 brought Czech literature into the mainstream of world letters. In the period from 1918 to 1938 Czech literature was the most cosmopolitan of the Slavonic literatures; at the same time native themes were cultivated. A dominant trend was the movement away from the intellectual and the individual toward the abstract and the hedonistic. Jaroslav HašekHašek, Jaroslav
, 1883–1923, Czech writer, b. Prague. His experiences as a soldier in World War I inspired his famous novel The Good Soldier Schweik (4 vol., 1920–23; tr. 1930), a satire on the Austrian military bureaucracy and on war in general.
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 produced his classic war satire, The Good Soldier Schweik (4 vol., 1920–23), and Franz Kafka dominated the literary circles of Prague.

The German occupation saw the destruction of Czech literary art and the death of many outstanding figures. After World War II a reorientation of Czech writing toward Russia ensued, and socialist realismsocialist realism,
Soviet artistic and literary doctrine. The role of literature and art in Soviet society was redefined in 1932 when the newly created Union of Soviet Writers proclaimed socialist realism as compulsory literary practice.
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 became dominant in Czech literature. Postwar novelists of note include Egon Hostovský and Jan Drda. Some relaxation of the strictures of socialist realism was evident in the 1950s and 60s; the novelist and short-story writer Bohumil HrabalHrabal, Bohumil,
1914–97, one of the most important and popular Czech writers of the 20th cent., b. Brünn, Austria-Hungary (now Brno, Czech Republic). After working at a number of jobs, he became a professional writer in 1962, first winning recognition for his wryly
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 was popular during the Prague Spring, but his works subsequently were banned. Emigration brought a wider audience to the writers Milan KunderaKundera, Milan
, 1929–, Czechslovakian-born novelist and essayist. The publication of his first novel, The Joke (1967, tr. 1974), a satire of Stalinist Czechoslovakia in the 1950s, roughly coincided with the 1968 Soviet invasion of his homeland.
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 and Josef ŠkvoreckýSkvorecky, Josef,
Czech Josef Václav Škvorecký , 1924–2012, Czech-born novelist, grad. Charles Univ., Prague (1951). Written in 1949, Skvorecky's first novel, The Cowards (1958; tr.
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, who also found their works banned in Czechoslovakia.


See W. E. Harkins, ed., Anthology of Czech Literature (1953); M. Součková, A Literature in Crisis (1954) and The Czech Romantics (1958); P. Selver, ed., An Anthology of Czechoslovak Literature (1929, repr. 1969); W. E. Harkins, ed. and tr., Czech Prose (1983); A. Novák, Czech Literature (rev. ed. 1986); G. J. Kovtun, Czech and Slovak Literature in English (1984, 1988); An Anthology of Czech Literature (1990); P. Hruby, Daydreams and Nightmares: Czech Communist and Ex-Communist Literature, 1917–1987 (1990).

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