Serbian writer, translator, and educator Dositej Obradović (circa 1740-1811), usually considered the father of modern Serbian literature, dedicated his life and talents to building and celebrating the culture of his people.
Dositej Obradović was born Dimitrije Obradović around 1740 in the village of Cakovo near the present-day city of Timisoara in Romania. He was one of four children. His father, Djuradj Obradović, was a furrier and a merchant who died when Obradović was very young. Once widowed, his mother, Kruna Paunkić, took Obradović and his siblings to the home of her family in the nearby village of Semarton. Kruna died when he was nine or ten years old, leaving him orphaned. He was separated from his siblings and returned to Cakovo to live with an uncle on his father's side.
While living with his uncle Obradović discovered a passion for books and learning. He read Serbian and Romanian texts and studied Greek language and literature. His uncle wanted him to become a village priest, so Obradović was exposed to various religious readings. He absorbed the religious literature quickly and longed to become a saint. He made multiple attempts to run away with visiting abbots. Disturbed by these escapes, his uncle sent him to Timisoara as an apprentice to a quilt maker, hoping that learning a trade would make him abandon his grandiose religious aspirations.
But instead of making quilts, in 1757 Obradović left his uncle's household for good and took shelter in the monastery of Hopovo at Fruska Gora. The abbot there, Teodor Milutinović, took Obradović in as his disciple because he was impressed by the young man's reading and writing abilities.
Life as a Monk
Obradović spent the next three years at the monastery reading and studying spiritual literature. He was a serious and devoted pupil. In one of the books he studied he left this inscription: "I, sinful Dositej of Hopovo, an unworthy deacon, finished reading this soul-benefiting book on November 8, 1759." Obradović balanced his reading with secular texts, the most influential of which was a collection of Aesop's Fables.
In 1758 he was tonsured, a ceremony that made him officially into a cleric, and given the name Dositej. He was later ordained as a deacon but soon found himself dissatisfied with the rigidly circumscribed nature of his educational material. He fled the monastery in 1760 with the intention of traveling to Kiev to broaden his mind. But Obradović didn't make it to Russia, and instead spent a year in Zagreb studying Latin. He took teaching positions to support himself financially and to save money for his trip to Russia.
In 1763 he headed to Greece to visit Mount Athos, but fell ill and went instead to Montenegro, where he worked for a time as a schoolteacher. It was at this time, while traveling among his own people and teaching in various institutions, that Obradović recognized his culture's need for development. He felt his people were backwards and he wanted to raise their awareness of literature and culture. He began translating great works of other cultures into conversational Serbian.
In 1765 in Smyrna, he studied theology, philosophy, Greek literature, rhetoric, and song as a pupil of the master teacher Hierotheos Dendrinos. This gave him a classical education that few of his countrymen could obtain.
In 1768 Obradović went to Hormovo, Albania to study the Albanian language, worked in Corfu for a time as a student of Andreas Petritsopolos, and then returned to Dalmatia to continue teaching. He was a voracious reader, consuming books in Italian, Greek, and the Slavic languages while simultaneously writing and publishing his own moral works.
In 1771 he traveled to Vienna, and there for the first time he came into contact with the ideas and works of the Western Enlightenment movement. He supported himself by tutoring students in Greek and set about learning French, Latin, and German. He studied logic and metaphysics and tutored students in French and Italian once he had mastered those languages. He also studied French and English literature. In 1777 he took a position tutoring the nephews of Vidak, Archbishop of Karlovac, in Modra, near Bratislava.
Next, in 1779, he traveled to Trieste, continuing through Italy to the island of Chios. While there he taught Italian in a local school, then visited Constantinople briefly but had to leave because of plague outbreaks. He went next to Moldavia, where he spent a year tutoring for a wealthy family. By 1782 he had saved enough money to make a trip to Halle, Germany, where he enrolled in a university to study physics and philosophy. During this time he composed and published his autobiography, a manifesto for his intended educational program titled Pismo Haralampiju (1783), and the moral advice book Sovjeti zdravago razuma (Counsels of Common Sense, 1784). The morals book advocated coeducation for boys and girls.
In 1784 he spent a year in Europe translating fables and studying English literature. He tutored for the next few years and by 1787 had saved enough money to take his long-desired trip to Russia. He spent six months in Sklov, reading Russian literature and writing the second half of his autobiography.
In 1789 Obradović settled in Vienna. He stayed there for twelve years, writing and printing both original works and translations. In 1802 he traveled back to Trieste because a printing press there was publishing Serbian works. While there he heard of the Serbian uprising against the Turks, and Obradović raised money and donated funds of his own to the cause. He went to work for the victorious Karadjoedje administration in 1806.
At more than sixty years of age, Obradović became a champion of the effort to educate his people. He settled in liberated Belgrade in 1807, and in September 1808 he opened the Velika skola (Great School), later the University of Belgrade. His health started to decline in 1809, and he died on March 28, 1811, shortly after being appointed Secretary of Education.
Obradović's most substantial contribution to the education of his people lay in his dedicated use of the Serbian popular language. In his lifetime, the Serbs were divided into three linguistic camps: the educated few who spoke and wrote in Russian Church Slavonic (a language of prestige), other educated people who spoke and wrote in slavenoserbski (a hybrid of Russian Church Slavonic, Old Church Slavonic, Russian, and local Serbian vernacular), and the masses, mostly illiterate, who spoke the local Serbian vernacular. As the Dictionary of Literary Biography explains, "Dositej considered the introduction of vernacular elements into the literary idiom necessary because he believed that only one in ten thousand people understood slavenoserbski well, whereas the language of the people was understood by all, peasants and educated people alike. With minor dialectal differences, the spoken language was the same in all the areas populated by the Serbs. If books were printed in the language of the people, they would reach broad segments of [the] population."
His work consisted mainly of translations, the most famous of which were his 1788 translations of some of Aesop's Fables. Obradović included corresponding moral instructions with each of the fables, as well as Serbian folk proverbs and popular expressions to help the reader relate to the message of each fable. His goal was to help the Serbian public realize their need for significant cultural enhancement.
During the Serbian uprisings he established the first Serbian school of higher learning. His most notable original work is his autobiography titled Zivot i prikljucenija Dimiteÿa Obradovića, narecenoga u kaludjerstvu Dositej, n'im' istim' spisan' I izdat' (1793), which was translated in 1953 as The Life and Adventures of Dimitrije Obradović Who as a Monk Was Given the Name Dositej. It is believed to be the first book ever published in the Serbian popular language.
Cassell's Encyclopaedia of World Literature describes Obradović's writings as "permeated by enlightened common sense and sane patriotism, sincerity and integrity, keen intellectual curiosity and wide erudition." Cassell's states that Obradović's "influence on the development of Serbian literature has proved both far-reaching and constructive." He is considered the chief representative of the Serbian Age of Enlightenment. Through his work the Serbian literary world began to develop its modern literature and culture and to develop a sense of national consciousness.
To this day Obradović is seen as a champion of Serbian culture. In 1911, 100 years after his death, many essays were published in celebration of his life and works. One of the essays imagined Belgrade in the year 2011 with a cultural museum called the Dositej Building, "a magnificent palace, situated in the most beautiful spot in the city centre." Although less grand than imagined in that essay, the Dositej Museum in Belgrade was opened in an old, tiny Turkish home that preserved both Obradović's works and those of language reformer Vuk Karadzic (1787-1864). Obradović remains an admired and much celebrated figure in Serbian literary history.
Cassell's Encyclopaedia of World Literature Volume 2, Funk & Wagnalls, 1954.
Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Chambers Harrap, 1997.
Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 1995.
South Slavic Writers Before World War II-Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 147, Gale Research, 1995.
Journal of Modern Greek Studies, May 1998.
Fischer, Wladimir, "The Role of Dositej Obradovic in the Construction of Serbian Identities During the 19th Century," Space of Identity,http://www.univie.ac.at/spaceofidentity/Vol_3/_HTML/Fischer (January 2, 2004).
"Serbian Literature," Vojvodina,http://www.vojvodina.srbijainfo.yu/ingles/kultura/kultura1 (January 2, 2004).
"Obradović, Dositej." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/obradovic-dositej
"Obradović, Dositej." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved January 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/obradovic-dositej
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