03/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

President Obama and Remembering Chekhov

President Obama's two ambitions as a young man were to write fiction and to work for social change. The jarring contrast between his inspiring speeches and his compromising politics, it seems, mirrors these dual influences: the writer in him as the pure idealist; the politician as the strategizing pragmatist.

One the one hand, a writer's life offers both what Obama praised in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech as the spiritual goal of the "continued expansion of our moral imagination" and what he derided as the "satisfying purity of indignation." A pragmatist, by contrast, does what he can in the present.

That these competing impulses exist in Obama's character is not that surprising -- politicians are often forced to stomach the impracticality of idealism. Perhaps more remarkably, the life of one of the greatest writers to have ever lived, Anton Chekhov, was also shaped by these very same ambitions.

This Friday marks the 150th anniversary of Chekhov's birth. The most popular playwright in the English-speaking world after Shakespeare, and arguably the best short-story writer of all-time, had, as he said, "peasant blood flowing in [his] veins." Before the emancipation of the serfs, his grandfather had bought his father's freedom.

Despite accusations of pessimism, Chekhov was profoundly idealistic. He was also a deeply committed pragmatist. He wrote over a dozen plays and six hundred short stories, and, trained as a doctor, he treated peasants at free clinics and fought cholera outbreaks and famine, donated thousands of books, and built three schools.

Chekhov, one friend noted, "never tired of hoping for a bright future." His literary characters can appear spiritually weak, but in Chekhov, paradoxically, this reveals only his hatred of false hope, the close-minded optimism that he detested as escapist. His stories feel unfinished to some because he understood that in life, as Virginia Woolf noted of his work, "an inconclusive ending" is "much more usual than anything extreme."

Critics call this pessimism, but it's actually courage -- Chekhov is one of the most fearlessly moral of all the great writers. His famous letter to an editor in 1888 revealed his true nature: "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take."

But Chekhov's pragmatic half was unsatisfied with such pure idealism. After the failed staging of his play The Wood Demon in 1889, having already achieved his first stretch of great success as a young author, he found himself repulsed with the stagnation of literary life. He wanted desperately, he wrote, to do something practical, to "engage in serious, painstaking work." It was, in the words of a biographer, a "spiritual breaking point."

So in 1890, Chekhov traveled by wagon, train and boat to an infamous penal colony on Sakhalin Island off the coast of Siberia. He spent months there, conducting hundreds of interviews and documenting conditions. His reportage resulted in modest reforms of the treatment of prisoners. In Sakhalin, literary critic Donald Rayfield wrote, Chekhov "sensed that social evils and individual unhappiness were inextricably involved; his ethics lost their sharp edge of blame and discrimination."

Chekhov's short story "The House with the Mezzanine: An Artist's Story," written in 1896, reflects his grappling with idealism and practical action perhaps better than any other.

The story's narrator, an artist, is a landscape painter. "Condemned by fate to permanent idleness," he falls in love with a young woman whose older sister Lida is involved in social reform. Like Chekhov did, Lida treats the sick and gives out books. She speaks of organizing political opposition. Whereas the artist believes that spiritual enrichment is the key to an improved human future, Lida, as she tells him, puts "the least perfect of all little libraries and first-aid kits...above all the landscape paintings in the world."

In Chekhov's art, the tension between idealism and the necessity of practical action is never resolved, it merely is: a question perfectly formulated. In Obama's case, as Ross Douthat recently pointed out, the "puzzling combination" of ideology and pragmatism existing in such extremes in one man is likely why the President "baffles observers." He is a dreamer willing to take half-steps.

As Chekhov once wrote with characteristic self-deprecation: "[B]eside the people who...write trivial stories, unnecessary projects, and cheap dissertations," there "are still people of another order, people of heroic action, of faith and a clear, conscious goal."