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Literature and Writing

Lithuanian Literature

Judita Vaiciunaite, padavimai, Motiejus Valancius, silelis, Vincas Kudirka

Lithuanian Literature, literary works in the Lithuanian language. In contrast to other European languages, Lithuanian was late in coming into literary usage, emerging early in the 16th century. In 1962 a text was discovered at Vilnius and authenticated as dating from the early 16th century; it appeared to be a copy of an even earlier work. This version of two Christian prayers and a statement of faith represents the earliest example of written Lithuanian. Previously a catechism printed at Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1547 was thought to be the earliest. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the literature of Lithuania was mostly religious.

The 18th century witnessed a modest increase in secular publications, including dictionaries. The first notable name in Lithuanian literature is that of Kristijonas Donelaitis, a poet whose masterful work Metai (The Seasons, 1818), depicts in lyrical hexameter the passage of a year in a Lithuanian village.

In the first half of the 19th century, the University of Vilnius was the center of a movement promoting the language, history, and folklore of Lithuania. A leader of this group was Simanas Daukantas, a romanticist and historian. In 1863, troubled by Lithuanian nationalist uprisings, the Russian tsar proclaimed a 40-year ban on the printing of the Lithuanian language. Consequently, much literature written in Lithuanian was published in East Prussia and smuggled across the border. An important figure whose works were treated thus was Motiejus Valancius, Roman Catholic bishop of Samogitia and author of many lively works on religion and education.

During the ban, the Lithuanian people's desire for independence became a theme in much of the literature. Two influential nationalist periodicals began to be published in the 1880s. Jonas Basanavicius, founder and editor of the first periodical, Ausra (Dawn, 1883-86), was a folklorist turned statesman and guiding force of Lithuanian nationalism. The second periodical, Varpas (The Bell, 1889-1905), was started by Vincas Kudirka, also an important satirist, poet, and translator. Whereas Ausra was interested in forwarding the romantic ideal, Varpas was characterized by political populism and literary realism. Other major authors of the national renaissance period were the Roman Catholic bishop Aleksandras Daumbrauskas, who wrote influential literary criticism under the pseudonym Adomas Jakstas; Aleksandras Fromas Guzutis, one of the first playwrights to use the Lithuanian language; Vilkutaitis Keturakis, the author of the highly successful comedy, Amerika pirtyje (America in the Bathhouse, 1895); Jonas Maciulis, a poet and dramatist who used the pen name Maironis; and the poet Antanas Baranauskas, whose Anyksci?silelis (The Grove of Anyksai, 1858-59) is considered one of the great achievements of Lithuanian literature.

When the ban against printing the Lithuanian language was lifted in 1904, various European literary movements such as symbolism, impressionism, and expressionism each in turn influenced the work of Lithuanian writers. The first period of Lithuanian independence (1918-1940) gave them the opportunity to look into themselves and their characters more deeply, as their primary concerns were no longer political. An outstanding figure of the early 20th century was Vincas Kreve Mickevicius, a novelist and dramatist. His many works include Dainavos salies sen?zmoni? padavimai (Old Folks Tales of Dainava, 1912) and the historical dramas Sarunas (1911), Skirgaila (1925), and Mindaugo mirtis (The Death of Mindaugo, 1935). Petras Vaiciunas was another popular playwright, producing one play each year during the 1920s and 1930s. Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas wrote lyric poetry, plays, and novels, including the novel Altori?sesely (In the Shadows of the Altars, 3 volumes, 1933), a remarkably powerful autobiographical novel.

During the Soviet period (1940-1991), literature written in the Lithuanian language fell into two distinct categories. Those authors who remained in Lithuania tended to write in the vein of Soviet socialist realism. Expatriated authors, writing for a small but devoted audience in such countries as the United States, Australia, and Canada, were concerned with maintaining Lithuanian culture and traditions.

Contemporary Lithuanian writers include the playwright Kazys Saja and the poets Tomas Venclova and Judita Vaiciunaite. The Soviet regime forced Venclova to emigrate in the 1970s, and he moved to the United States.

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