Estonian Literary Society

by Krista Ojasaar


In 2007 the Estonian Literary Society (ELS) celebrated its 100th anniversary. It is an organisation that had, at its heyday, about 2000 members, and it became the third largest publishing house in Estonia in the 1930s.

ELS was founded in 1907. Its  story, however, begins much earlier, where the story of the Society of Estonian Literati1  ended. A need for such an organisation had not disappeared, although the disagreements and political differences that led to the demise of the Society were still very much there. That's why it was risky to re-establish The Society of Literati or found another similar society, although a few attempts were nevertheless made.

However, in 1905, it seemed the time was ripe for establishing a new literary society and, on the initiative of Jaan Tõnisson2  and Jaan Jõgever3 , the first meeting of the founders took place in the editorial offices of the Postimees newspaper4. According to Jõgever, they hoped that the society 'will, if it develops as it should, have a remarkable, frequent and decisive impact on many generations of Estonian intellectual life'5 .

The name of the new society proved a great problem; the members of the former Society of Literati preferred the same name to continue, although they also feared this might bring about the same disagreements. In the end, the will of Friedebert Tuglas and Gustav Suits7  prevailed: the establishment to further literature, science and the arts would be the Estonian Literary Society. After several changes in the constitution, the official founding meeting took place on 6 August 1907 in the newly completed Vanemuine Theatre8 . Many writers, scientists, artists and society people joined. Both Jõgever and Tuglas acted as chairmen of the society at different times.

The name of the society might be a bit misleading, as besides literature, its task was to further both science and the humanities. Estonian language, culture and science needed a proper plan of development, and education had to be made available to people. The Society of Estonian Literati not only dealt with language and literature; its tasks were wider and more comprehensive, and various politicians and society figures acquired their mature views there.

The society was involved in history, language (with a sub-group of Estonian grammar), textbooks of literature and popular literature. Later the members were united into one literature group, a group involved in helping Estonians to better understand Estonia. The group was also involved with the monthly magazine Estonian Literature, with the process of changing names, with folk songs and with researching local lore. ELS held literary meetings, gave awards to new literature, unified the written language, collected and published literary, cultural and historical material, e.g. the correspondence between Lydia Koidula9  and Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald10 , compiled collections of folk songs, and published textbooks, literary classics and modern literature, dictionaries, popular-science works etc. As a joint undertaking of ELS and the Estonian National Museum, the Estonian Bibliographical Board was founded in 1921. The society's archive developed into the Estonian Cultural History Archives in 1929.

The accomplishments of the society are even more remarkable when one remembers the situation during the tsarist era. School instruction was in Russian, although it was possible to study in German in private schools. After the 1905 uprising, many cultural figures who had participated in the society were forced into exile. On 28 March 1915, eight years after the founding of the society, Johannes Voldemar Veski11 , the research secretary of ELS, wrote to Johannes Aavik12 , 'we should not merely acquire the literary language but also the language of science'13 , and 'the universal means' to achieve this is to 'further our culture in every possible way; especially important is the Estonian-language school. The Estonian-language university should not be missing in our ideals either'14 .

When the Republic of Estonia was established in 1918 these ideals were realised. One of the first things the Estonian Provisional Government15  did was to change the language of schools and the University of Tartu16  to Estonian. On the initiative of the Ministry of Education, a Science Institution was founded as well, although this remained a paper institution for years, because there were no means to hire employees or cover other necessary expenses.

For ELS, a temporary loss of direction occurred, as their previously set tasks were now fulfilled. Johan Kõpp17 , chairman of the society at the time, even suggested there was no longer any need for it, but Jaan Jõgever disagreed. He compiled a plan of action for the society for the coming years; he felt it was necessary to continue educating people and furthering culture and science, and that definitely more should be done in publishing. In 1922, Jõgever was elected chairman of ELS. Thanks to its well-organised activities, the society became the third largest publishing house in the country in the 1930s. In 1907-1940, a total of 891 books were published.

The June 1940 communist coup d'état disrupted the society's extensive activity. The publishing house and print shop were nationalised, and their assets were used to found two new state publishing houses; Fiction and Art, and Scientific Publishers. The magazine Estonian Literature18  became Estonian Language and Literature. The society struggled on, even when the German occupation started. The last period was even more successful; some public meetings were held and literary events organised. However, the society failed to get permission to publish. When the Soviet occupation returned, the society was closed for decades. Some members escaped abroad (including members of the board), some were deported, and those who stayed at home were unable to organise any patriotic events.

ELS was re-established in 1992 and operated according to the constitution that had been valid on 16 June 1940. The initiators of the re-establishment were Peeter Olesk, the director of the Estonian Literary Museum, the writer Ain Kaalep, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Akadeemia (Academy), and the writer and professor Kaljo Villako. The latter was elected the first chairman in decades.

The constitution and the tasks remained the same, but the situation had obviously vastly changed: there were many publishing houses and the role of the magazine Estonian Literature was taken over by the magazines Language and Literature and Vikerkaar (Rainbow); in addition, there were numerous research institutions. The Estonian Literary Society restored its tradition of annual literary overviews and of publishing yearbooks. Many literary events have been organised during the past 15 years, mainly academic, but also of a lighter nature. These include seminars, conferences, overview meetings, literary festivals etc. For a long time, ELS has cooperated with Estonian Radio, and at one point the society even had its own programme. In 2002, the avant-garde magazine Vihik (Copybook) was first issued, and in 2005 a literary magazine for the young, called Värske Rõhk (Fresh Pressure) appeared. The society has been a good springboard: quite a few institutions that started under the wing of ELS later became independent organisations, such as the Vanemuie culture street festival, the Prima Vista literary festival and the magazine Värske Rõhk.

The ELS is today officially an academic research society: on 23 January 2001 an associating contract with the Estonian Academy of Sciences was signed.

The activities of the society have been continuous and there is no reason to think they will one day cease. There are always young people who want to be involved in literature and its history, and there are always those who want to discuss literature with others. The Estonian Literary Society plays a significant role in furthering literary criticism and promoting literature, and in giving young literary scholars a chance to present their ideas, orally and in published form.

[1] The Society of Estonian Literati (1871-1893) operated in Tartu, issuing yearbooks and various publications, and organising literary competitions. Under the cover of literary undertakings, the society was involved in anti-Russification activities; the meetings on Estonian language and literature often became occasions where people tried to advance Estonian interests.

[2] Jaan Tõnisson (1868-?) was an Estonian statesman, politician and lawyer, and served several terms as the State Elder of the Republic of Estonia. He was one of the founders of the Estonian political national ideology and the head of its moderate wing. In 1896-1930, Tõnisson was the editor of the Postimees daily newspaper, and later was editor-in-chief.

[3] Jaan Jõgever (1860-1924) was the founder and editor of the magazine Estonian Literature, as well as being a linguist.

[4] Postimees is an Estonian newspaper, established in Tartu in 1886 by Karl August Hermann. It was the successor to Perno Postimees, which first appeared in 1857. In 1891, it became the first Estonian daily. In 1896, Postimees changed hands; one of the owners was Tõnisson, and it quickly became the main paper advancing the Estonian cause. During the Republic of Estonia, Postimees was the paper of the parties headed by Tõnisson. In the Soviet era it was called Edasi (Forward).  

[5] Jõgever [On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Estonian Literary Society]. Speech. KM EKLA, f 51 (J. Jõgever), m 15:3, p 5.

[6] Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971) was an Estonian writer, critic and literary historian; he belonged to the writers’ group 'Noor-Eesti' (Young Estonia).

[7] Gustav Suits (1883-1956) was an Estonian poet and literary historian; he was one of the intellectual leaders of the group 'Noor-Eesti'.

[8] The oldest professional theatre in Estonia. In 1906 a new Jugendstil building was opened that has not survived.

[9] Lydia Koidula (1843-1886), Estonian writer, one of the leading figures in the Estonian national awakening movement.

[10]  Fr. R. Kreutzwald (1803-1882), Estonian writer and doctor, creator of the national epic Kalevipoeg.

[11] Johannes Voldemar Veski (1873-1968) was a linguist, compiler of dictionaries and terminologist; he compiled  the first Estonian grammar (published 1918).

[12] Johannes Aavik (1880-1973) was a linguist; in 1912, he started a language innovation movement. His contributions to the contemporary Estonian written language were outstanding.

[13] J. V. Veski’s eight letters to Joh. Aavik 2 Feb 1912 – 9 April 1921 + undated -  J. Veski’s postcard to the editor of the Language Monthly 28 III 1915. KM EKLA f 275 (J. Aavik), m 17:15, p 4

[14] Ibid.

[15] The Estonian Provisional Government was the executive power of the Republic of Estonia from 24 February 1918 until 8 May 1919.

[16] The University of Tartu  (founded in 1632) is the biggest and oldest university in Estonia.

[17] Johan Kõpp (1874-1970) was a theologian and historian. In 1928-1937 he was the rector of Tartu University.

[18] Magazine Estonian Literature was published in 1906-1940 in Tartu. EL was one of the essential publications for literary research, reviews, articles about history, folklore and linguistics.