Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

4-15 GOGOL: The Overcoat (Homegrown Government)

After reading The Federalist Papers many readers likely paused to consider what kind of government works best for America? A related question should be considered in this week’s reading: would the government that works best for Americans work just as well for other peoples too? In Gogol’s story “The Overcoat” we meet a low level Ukrainian-Russian clerk. Akaky Akakievich is not the kind of guy who sits around reading The Federalist Papers or any other book. Today we would call him a couch potato. Akaky’s lifestyle is virtually non-existent; there’s no style to it. He goes to work, comes home, eats a quick dinner and goes to bed. The next day he gets up and does the same thing all over again. He doesn’t go out. He has no friends. He has no hobbies. He copies letters; that’s pretty much it for Akaky Akakievich.
After reading The Federalist Papers about the theory of government now is a good time to examine the practical effects of government. For starters, Akaky is a government employee. Today we call it civil service. He’s only one tiny cog in the vast bureaucratic machinery of the state. Here’s a question: is the purpose of government to provide jobs for people like Akaky? It doesn’t pay much but without this simple job as a copyist Akaky would have a hard time making a living. He would have a hard time surviving the cold St. Petersburg winters. A job, even a simple job, gives Akaky something to do, somewhere to go, someone to be every day. It gives him an identity. Gogol writes, “Directors and all sorts of chiefs came and went, but (Akaky) was always to be found at the same place, in the same position, and in the same capacity, that of copying clerk.” This would drive most people crazy, but not Akaky, “He worked with love. There, in his copying, he found an interesting, pleasant world for himself.” We may want to feel sorry for him but how many of us find “an interesting, pleasant world” in our own jobs?
It sounds like Akaky was reasonably happy in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, Russia. Now let’s return to our original question: what kind of government works best for America? We claim we want a government dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In “The Overcoat” we read that Akaky “never gave a thought to his clothes… Never did he pay any attention to what was going on around him in the street… He never noticed the taste (of his food)…” Is that what Americans want? Is that the kind of citizen The Federalist Papers had in mind? Is that the kind of man Madison and Hamilton wanted to create with a new constitution? What would Akaky think of The Federalist Papers and the thrill of creating a whole new country? We don’t know for sure but we can guess from this quote in the story: “At the word “new” Akaky Akakievich’s vision became foggy and the whole room began to sway.” Akaky was a good copy clerk but he would not have made a good Founding Father.
On the other hand, how many Americans would have made good Founding Fathers? Madison and Hamilton were unusually talented Americans from the top drawer of life. Akaky lived at the bottom of the heap. His fellow co-workers tormented him constantly. In modern terms we would say they bullied him. Akaky never fought back. He would just say, “Let me be. Why do you do this to me?” Good question. Maybe it’s just human nature. But to go back and quote James Madison from Federalist Paper 51: “what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” Is the purpose of government to stop bullies? On the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are inscribed the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” Question: could a man like Akaky, a man with a Russian heart, ever be truly happy in America? Or is government a product that’s custom-made, meant to fit the geography of a specific people?


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