Estonian literature has long roots. Folk-poetry dates back to well before the 1100s. A newer folk poetry flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the country has one of the world’s largest collections of such poetry. The national post “Kalevipoeg” initiated the national romance.
Anton Hansen Tamsaare (1878–1940) and Oskar Luts (1897–1953) are prominent names in older Estonian prose literature, while Jaan Kross (1920–2007) and Jaan Kaplinski (1941–) are the country’s best known and most translated authors. Andrus Kivirähk (1970–) is a contemporary author who uses elements of Estonian folklore and mythology. Among lyricists are Marie Under (1883–1980), Uku Masing (1909–1985) and Aimée Beekman (1933–).
Estonian literature has long roots. The periods 500 BCE – 400 AD and 800–1200 are considered to be flowering times for the older folk poetry, while a newer folk poetry emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite the modest population, Estonia has one of the largest collections of national poetry in the world, and in the 19th century the national awakening led to a large-scale collection work that is still ongoing.
The physician Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803–1882) created Kalevipoeg, based on popular poems and prose tales, which have gained the status of national epic and initiated national romance.
Photo by the members of Siuru from 1917. Back from left: Peet Aren and Otto Krusten. Middle row, from left: Artur Adson and Johannes Semper. Front, from left: Friedebert Tuglas, Marie Under, August Gailit and Henrik Visnapuu.
The art of poetry was long influenced by German patterns. The first poet with clear endowment was the patriotic and philosophical lyricist Kristian Jaak Peterson (1801-1822). His sparse production reveals several motifs and forms of folk poetry. Johann Voldemar Jannsen (1819–1890) and Carl Robert Jakobson (1841–1882) united journalistic and fictional activities. Anna Haava (1864–1957) debuted in the national romantic spirit, but later varied her expression and was the most beloved lyricist of her time.
Towards the end of the century, a realistic prose was strongly reflected, among others with the skilled narrator Eduard Vilde. In his historical portrayals, he often took as a starting point the social conditions of the 19th century. From 1905 to 1920, there was a complete change of town, where village poetry became a modern literary culture on a par with that found in other countries.
The author group Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) was formed during the revolution in 1905 with a neo-romantic program that emphasized the aesthetic aspects of literature. Leading figures in the group were Gustav Suits, who wrote philosophical and lyrical poems in complicated verse form, and Friedebert Tuglas, who in his short stories developed a modern Estonian prose style. Tuglas also led the highly-voiced and beauty- growing group Siuru in 1917.
The opening of the Vanemuine Theater’s new building in Tartu in 1906 became an inspiration for the playwright August Kitzberg (1856-1927), who introduced the psychological drama in Estonia; best known is the Werewolf (1912). Lasting popularity gained Oskar Luts (1897–1953) with his colorful school depictions in Spring (1912–1913).
The Age of Independence (1918–1940)
The era of independence provided a strong boost for literature. Anton Hansen Tammsaare ‘s widely acclaimed educational novel Truth and Law (5 volumes, 1926-1933) is a highlight of Estonian prose art. Sharp psychological insight showed Karl August Hindrey (1875–1947). The lyricist Marie Under first wrote erotic sonnets, but under the impression of the First World War switched to writing apocalyptic colored poems and cultural history frescoes, and later returned to a more personalized central centric poetry.
In 1938, a new generation of promising lyricists debuted in the anthology Arbujad (The Truth), edited by Ants Oras. They proclaimed their intellectual independence and emphasized the importance of art and form.
Soviet era (1940–1991)
During the Soviet occupation of 1940, some writers switched to communism. Others stayed in the country, but remained passive. During the German occupation of 1941-1944, many writers had evacuated to the Soviet Union, publishing anti-fascist works with poetry as the dominant genre.
After the German defeat in 1944, a number of writers fled. Of these, many ended up in Sweden. Lyricist Bernard Kangro led an Estonian publishing house in Lund, the Eesti Kirjanike Cooperative, which was responsible for most of the releases. In Toronto, Canada, there was the Estonian publishing house Orto.
In the Estonian Soviet Republic, literature up to the late 1950s was characterized by a dogmatic socialist realism with rather schematic treatment of the history of the Estonian people, class struggle in the countryside, conditions during war and occupation and more. The first major renewal during the occupation came at the end of the 1950s in the lyric, with Jaan Kross, who had been relegated to Siberia, Ain Kaalep (born 1926) and Ellen Niit (1928–2016).
Estonian literature moved back to its home country in the 1960s. The poetry of the religious scientist and orientalist Uku Masing (1909–1985) is absolutely unique. An important impetus was Artur Alliksaar, whose production partly came out posthumously. Betti Alver remained silent during the occupation; now she emerged again with old and new poems and marked herself as perhaps her most important Estonian poet of her time.
A new generation of female lyricists emerged after the hesitancy of the 1960s, Lilli Promet (1922–2007) and Aimée Beekman (born 1933). In 1985, Viivi Luik moved sensationally into the ranks of the prosaists with daring treatment of taboo subjects from Estonia’s history under Josef Stalin in the Seventh Peace Spring (in Norwegian 1988).
Towards the end of the Soviet period, the regime’s power loosened so that several prohibited works and works that dealt with previously taboo-covered subjects emerged. Norwegian readers received the first translations from Estonian in the 1980s. After a quiet period, the Estonian literary environments showed signs of rising throughout the 1990s, thanks in part to the Cultural Fund which started again in 1995, but sales figures dropped dramatically. While the authors won a new freedom of expression in relation to the regime, they lost the old position of prophets and leaders.