Michael Wachtel’s research focuses on Russian poetry and poetics from the eighteenth century to the present. He is especially interested in questions of literary interpretation, both how a poem communicates as an individual work of art and how it fits into a larger tradition (whether Russian or European). These concerns are reflected in Wachtel’s books The Development of Russian Verse (Cambridge, 1998) and The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry (Cambridge, 2004).
Two poets play an especially prominent role in Wachtel’s scholarship: Aleksandr Pushkin (1799–1837) and Viacheslav Ivanov (1866–1949). The former, widely acknowledged as Russia’s greatest writer, helped to create the modern literary language. His lyric poems, masterpieces of concision and balance, have been memorized by generations of Russians. Wachtel’s Commentary to Pushkin’s Lyric Poetry 1826–1836 (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2011) provides the biographical, literary, historical, and cultural background essential to understanding Pushkin’s achievement. Viacheslav Ivanov was one of the most significant figures in pre-revolutionary Russian culture, but his emigration to Italy in 1924 made him a persona non grata in the Soviet Union, where his multi-faceted contributions to Russian culture were carefully expunged from the historical record. Wachtel’s numerous books and articles have been part of a post-Soviet Ivanov renaissance. These include a monograph that traces Ivanov’s indebtedness to German writers (Russian Symbolism and Literary Tradition: Goethe, Novalis, and the Poetics of Vyacheslav Ivanov, U. of Wisconsin Press, 1994) as well as two books of correspondence gathered in archives in Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Israel, and the USA. The first brings together his German writings (Dichtung und Briefwechsel aus dem deutschsprachigen Nachlass, Liber Verlag, Mainz, 1995), while the second contains his correspondence with his wife (Viacheslav Ivanov–Lidiia Zinov’eva-Annibal, Perepiska 1894–1903, NLO, 2009). Together with Christian Wildberg (classics department), Wachtel has prepared an edition of Ivanov’s own German translation of his treatise on ancient religion (Dionysos und die vordionysischen Kulte, Verlag Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, forthcoming in 2012).
In addition to courses on Russian poetry (for students who know Russian), Wachtel has taught the undergraduate survey of Russian literature in translation (from the beginnings to Dostoevsky, and from Dostoevsky to Belyi) as well as the second half of the Humanities sequence (from Renaissance to the twentieth century). Trained as a comparatist, Wachtel strongly encourages humanities students to learn foreign languages. He urges all students — whether in humanities or sciences — to study abroad, since his own education was profoundly influenced by two years at the Universität Konstanz (Germany) and one year at Moscow State University.
When not involved in literary study, Wachtel enjoys listening to classical music. His wife Anna Lim is an instructor of violin in the Music Department. They live in Princeton with their three children.