Nature in the autobiographical writings of two men born in the mid-19th century

Keywords: autobiographical writings, modernity, nature, vernacular literarcy

The article looks at nature references in texts written in the 1890s by two men born in the middle of the 19th century: namely, the autobiographical writings of farmer and school teacher Paulus Paurmann (1850–1903), and the diary of miller Märt Siipsen (1846–1916). Paurmann and Siipsen can be called vernacular literati – despite their poor education they were eager to participate in the modern literary sphere as both readers and writers. Both men depended on nature in their livelihood – this combined with their interest in contemporary literary matters makes them good examples of the spread of modern ideas about nature among the lower social classes. 

The influence of these ideas can manifest in at least three different ways: (1) as an interest in modern scientific ideas; (2) as a wish to shape nature – plant new species, apply new technologies; (3) by using nature (as well as poetic language stemming from nature) to express one’s identity, to position oneself with respect to modern identity markers.

In Siipsen’s text we can see two different ways of positioning oneself in relation to nature: passive (religious) and active (practical). In some passages he states that everything which happens in nature depends on God, whereas in others he describes attempts at designing his surroundings by adding new plants and birds. The relationship between the two remains ambiguous. 

Paurmann has written two autobiographies. The earlier one uses a lot of descriptions of and metaphorical references to nature and its composition adheres to the poetics of sentimental chapbooks; the latter one is written in plain language and barely mentions nature at all. That is to say, references to nature in his writings depend on the chosen poetic language.

In conclusion, we can see that both men have incorporated into their writings certain new ideas about nature that were disseminated in the written discourse at the time. Siipsen mostly describes new ways of designing one’s farmyard, whereas Paurmann turns to poetic uses of nature.


Katre Kikas (b. 1981), MA, Estonian Literary Museum, Department of Folklore Studies, Researcher (Vanemuise 42, 51003 Tartu),