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June 21, 2021

Now You Know Lesser-Knowns: Crime and Punishment and Amanuensis 

By Izzy Alexander

This is edition two of five of Now You Know Lesser-Knowns: a blog series in which I (Izzy Alexander) discuss rare literary devices present in teen fiction!  

Okay, so I cheated twice on this one. One, Crime and Punishment isn’t technically teen fiction – it solidly falls into the realm of classic literature. Two, amanuensis isn’t technically a literary device, but it’s still rare and super interesting, so I’m still going to talk about it.   

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is an (extremely long) epic of classic Russian literature about a broke student who formulates a plan to kill a pawnbroker to alleviate his poverty but finds after the crime is committed that he is tormented with guilt and disgust for what he has done. This book has been met with critical acclaim from multiple centuries and is widely considered one of the world’s greatest pieces of literature. Here’s the catch – this novel wouldn’t even exist had it not been for the tireless efforts of Dostoevsky’s wife Anna Snitkina.   

Before Crime and Punishment’s inception, Dostoevsky was forced to write a full-length novel (around 80,000 words by today’s standards) in less than a month. Overwhelmed by the sheer gravity of his task, but in dire need of the money that a publication might provide, he hired a stenographer – or a person who transcribes dictated text into a type of shorthand – to assist him. The stenographer in question, Anna Snitkina, was a talented woman and one of 25 students to graduate from a stenography class so rigorous that 125 other students dropped the course in less than a month. As Dostoevsky dictated his novel and Anna transcribed it, the two formed a friendship, and eventually were married after his novel was published.  

Anna’s marriage wasn’t the end of her career in stenography, though. She acted as her husband’s stenographer for Crime and Punishment, transcribing every word he dictated, and there’s evidence from her journals – which she also updated frequently, giving us one of the only hints into Dostoevsky’s life outside of his literary accomplishments – that Anna edited key elements of his novel and helped him further characterize his writing. In other words, Crime and Punishment wouldn’t even exist without her involvement, let alone be the successful classic we know today. So why don’t we learn about Anna Dostoevsky when we study Crime and Punishment?   

An amanuensis is a person employed to write or type the dictated words of another. Anna Dostoevsky is an exact example of an amanuensis – she wrote down what her husband dictated to her and received zero of the credit for the work she’d done. And unfortunately, she’s not the only woman that history (and husbands) have given the same treatment to. Sophia Tolstoy borrowed money from her mother to start her own publishing company when her husband Leo Tolstoy (author of War and Peace) fell into a creative block, and even learned many publishing tricks from Anna herself. Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald, authored multiple passages of her husband’s novel. And English professor at University of Virginia Bruce Holsinger created #ThanksForTyping, in which he exposes academic papers and novels that have been edited, co-authored, and typed by wives of academics – some of whom published their papers in this century. Not only do women who act as amanuenses receive little credit from their husbands for their carpal tunnel-inducing work, they also receive little historical recognition, and aren’t celebrated for their integral roles in the creation of our beloved classic literature.  

Next time you spot Dostoevsky’s monster of a novel on your bookshelf or at the Hamilton East Public Library, remember Anna and the long hours she spent editing and typing her husband’s novel, and remember the thousands of women typists that history forgets.  

Meet Izzy

Izzy Alexander (she/her) is short (5’3”) and a senior at Fishers High School. She is a fan of all things to do with literature, linguistics, language, and library science, and often daydreams of being a cool librarian once she graduates college. Izzy’s most recently checked out books include the Hildafolk graphic novels by Luke Pearson and Foul Is Fair by Hannah Capin. When she’s not asleep or applying for scholarships, Izzy can be found playing rugby, stage managing, or attempting to memorize the Dewey decimal system.