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He was born at Révkomárom. His father, Joseph, was a member of the Asva branch of the ancient Jókay family; his mother was a scion of the noble Pulays . The lad was timid and delicate, and therefore educated at home till his tenth year, when he was sent to Pressburg (today Bratislava), subsequently completing his education at the Calvinist college at Pápa, where he first met Petőfi, Alexander Kozma , and several other brilliant young men who subsequently became famous. His family had meant him to follow the law, his fathers profession, and accordingly the youth, always singularly assiduous, plodded conscientiously through the usual curriculum at Kecskemét and Pest, and as a full-blown advocate actually succeeded in winning his first case.
But the drudgery of a lawyers office was uncongenial to the ardently poetical youth, and, encouraged by the encomiums pronounced by the Hungarian Academy upon his first play, Zsidó fiú (The Jewish Boy), he flitted, when barely twenty, to Pest in 1845 with a MS. romance in his pocket; he was introduced by Petőfi to the literary notabilities of the Hungarian capital, and the same year his first notable romance Hétköznapok (Working Days), appeared, first in the columns of the Pesti Divatlap , and subsequently, in 1846, in book form. Hétköznapok, despite its manifest crudities and extravagances, was instantly recognized by all the leading critics as a work of original genius, and in the following year Jókai was appointed the editor of Életképek , the leading Hungarian literary journal, and gathered round him all the rising talent of the country.
On the outbreak of the revolution of 1848, the young editor enthusiastically adopted the national cause, and served it with both pen and sword. Now, as ever, he was a moderate Liberal, setting his face steadily against all excesses; but, carried away by the Hungarian triumphs of April and May 1849, he supported Kossuth's fatal blunder of deposing the Habsburg dynasty, and though, after the war was over, his life was saved by an ingenious stratagem of his wife, the great tragic actress, Róza Benke Laborfalvi , whom he had married on the 29th of August 1848, he lived for the next fourteen years the life of a political suspect. Yet this was perhaps the most glorious period of his existence, for during it he devoted himself to the rehabilitation of the proscribed and humiliated Magyar language, composing in it no fewer than thirty great romances, besides innumerable volumes of tales, essays, criticisms and faceti. This was the period of such masterpieces as Erdély aranykora (The Golden Age of Transylvania), with its sequel Török világ Magyarországon (The Turks in Hungary), Egy magyar nábob (A Hungarian Nabob), Kárpáthy Zoltán, Janicsárok végnapjai (The Last Days of the Janissaries), Szomorú napok (Sad Days).
On the re-establishment of the Hungarian constitution by the Composition of 1867, Jókai took an active part in politics. As a constant supporter of the Tisza administration, not only in parliament, where he sat continuously for more than twenty years, but also as the editor of the government organ, Hon, founded by him in 1863, he became a power in the state, and, though he never took office himself, frequently extricated the government from difficult places. In 1897 the emperor appointed him a member of the upper house.
As a suave, practical and witty debater he was particularly successful. Yet it was to literature that he continued to devote most of his time, and his productiveness after 1870 was stupendous, amounting to some hundreds of volumes. Stranger still, none of this work is slipshod, and the best of it deserves to endure. Amongst the finest of his later works may be mentioned the unique and incomparable Az arany ember (A Man of Gold translated into English under the title of Timar's Two Worlds) and A tengerszemű hölgy (Eyes like the Sea), the latter of which won the Academy's prize in 1890. He died in Budapest on the 5th of May 1904; his wife having predeceased him in 1886.
Jókai was an arch-romantic, with a perfervid Oriental imagination, and humour of the purest, rarest description. If one can imagine a combination, in almost equal parts, of Walter Scott, William Beckford, Dumas pčre, and Charles Dickens, together with the native originality of an ardent Magyar, one may perhaps form a fair idea of the great Hungarian romancer's indisputable genius.
- Névy László, Jókai Mór
- Hegedűs Sándor, Jókai Mórról
- H. W. Temperley, "Maurus Jokai and the Historical Novel", Contemporary Review (July 1904).
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