Chekhov–Saunders Humanity Kit.

The Chekhov–Saunders Humanity Kit (assembled by Maria Bustillos) is a remarkable thing, a website representing George Saunders’s MFA classes at Syracuse, and specifically the Chekhov “About Love” trilogy – “usually the best class of the year.” The linked page is the intro:

I’ve wrestled with how to write about the resulting experience in a way that would most clearly transmit the benefits I received to readers. I’ve reread the stories many times in the years since, and it’s always acutely pleasurable—increasingly so, in fact. The repetition in slightly different circumstances is something like the telling of a literary rosary; the same ideas seen and considered through all different prisms of personality, time and circumstance grant a newly deepened awareness each time. This is the sensation I sought to reproduce in what follows.

In the end I made this kit, which provides a number of methods by which you can experience The Little Trilogy, and George Saunders’ teaching methods, on your own, according to your own purposes.

To navigate it you click on the tabs under the images of Chekhov and Saunders: “How to Use,” “Syllabus,” and so on. I still haven’t read everything in it, but I find it fascinating and thought-provoking, and maybe some of my readers will too. The Coda quotes Chekhov’s famous letter to Pleshcheyev — “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom—freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves” — and Saunders says that he agrees:

I understand this idea to mean: We are our best (most complex, generous, ambiguity- and contradiction-friendly) when we are writing or reading – in that very particular mode. I also understand it to mean that a human being’s highest state is one of non-judgement. It doesn’t have to (maybe can’t) last forever but we learn so much in that mode, when we are just openly accepting data, even if that data contradicts our existing view.

Words to live by.


  1. I am a bit afraid to dispute Prof. Saunders. He forgot more Chekhov than I ever knew, but his interpretation of the “holy of holies” strikes me as decidedly non-Chekhovian. I would connect it to another quote found in the kit website.

    What aristocratic writers take from nature gratis, the less privileged must pay for with their youth. Try and write a story about a young man—the son of a serf, a former grocer, choirboy, schoolboy, and univeristy student, raised on respect for rank, kissing the priests’ hands, worshiping the ideas of others, giving thanks for every piece of bread, whipped time and again, making the rounds as a tutor without galoshes, brawling, torturing animals, enjoying dinners at the houses of rich relatives, needlessly hypocritical before God and man merely to acknowledge his own insignificance—write about how this young man squeezes the serf out of himself drop by drop and how, on waking up one bright morning he finds that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave, but that of a real human being.

    For Chekhov its all about freedom (including freedom from illness and want) and it is not an exalted state that one may achieve rarely and for a brief moment, but something much more permanent and “normal”. Like a hungry person who is not feasting once a year and becomes satiated for a day or two, but someone who becomes well-off enough not to go hungry another day. In other words the “holy of holies” is a state of normalcy, an ideal that should become the norm.

    Here’s another quote in the same vein (it’s absurdly overused in Russia)
    В человеке должно быть все прекрасно: и лицо, и одежда, и душа, и мысли.
    In a human everything should be beautiful: the look, the dress, the soul, and the mind. (from Uncle Vanya)

  2. I agree, but one must remember that Saunders is first and foremost a writer, and writers interpret other writers in idiosyncratic ways. I certainly wouldn’t go to him for an objective take on Chekhov, but his main purpose is to get people thinking in certain ways about literature and life, and I suspect he teaches a great class.

  3. What would be an “objective take”? An ant is born, crawls about the earth for a certain time emitting certain curious piping noises, and then dies and decays. “The Author of the Acacia Seeds”.

  4. True, “objective” is not a particularly useful term here, but offhand I’m not sure what to replace it with.

Speak Your Mind