Friday, September 25, 2015

Into Primordial Emptiness

First U.S. edition of Ilf & Petrov's travelogue (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937) / Image courtesy of Amazon

In a recent postscript to his weekly American Hour (Американский час) on Radio Svoboda, Alexander Genis articulated a conclusion he’d come to that struck me as remarkable in its insightfulness. The theme of the segment was “America through the Eyes of Russian Writers,” and special emphasis was placed on Ilf and Petrov’s 1935 travelogue One-Story America (Одноэтажная Америка), named for the predominance of houses with just one floor here. Previous episodes had focused on Maxim Gorky, Sergei Yesenin, and Vladimir Mayakovsky, each of whom had also visited and written about the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. 

Genis, a brilliant essayist, concluded the series by throwing in his own two cents on the subject, extrapolating outward from the commentary by correspondent Vladimir Abarinov and his guest Nikolai Rudensky. That’s when my interest was piqued.

First, a quick tangent: note that Ilf and Petrov’s book was published in English the first time, cleverly, as Little Golden America (trans. Charles Malamuth, 1937) and more recently as Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip (edited by Erika Wolf & translated by Anne O. Fisher, 2007), in an edition that includes the photographs Ilya Ilf took for the Soviet magazine Ogonyok. I recommend the newer book; it’s great fun to flip through!

Now, back to Genis and his insight on Russians in America. I’ll let him speak for himself:

…Vladimir Abarinov has to admit that our fellow Russian writers who visited this country didn’t like it—not Gorky, not Yesenin, not Mayakovsky, and not Ilf or Petrov (to these names, one might add Pilnyak, Ehrenburg, and many others).

Why? Perhaps because they had all come to the New World for new impressions. From dilapidated Europe, the traveler arrived in the land of the machine, where, as Yesenin put it, “every cigarette butt grew into a smokestack.” Not noticing the machine in America was as hard as not finding the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Ilf and Petrovs true heroes are highways, gas pumps, assembly lines, automobiles, dams, electricity, and of course, a bridge (this time in San Francisco). They wanted to wrap it all up and haul it home so they could get to the bright future more quickly.

As for “one-story” America, the two authors, like many other Russian travelers, came to an unpleasant conclusion: this great country is populated by a small people—mercantile, greedy, narrow-minded, and not worthy of America’s technological might.

And now it’s time to pose a question: why is the machine, which was inevitably found in America by Russian writers, absent from the work of American writers? Without technology, all of them managed to get by: Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and—stepping further into the past—Jack London, Mark Twain, Melville, Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Why weren’t Americans themselves captivated by their technological civilization? Why didn’t the industrial novel spring up here? Why, as Ilf and Petrov asked, didn’t the engineer become a national hero?

Because America is not principally an urban nation. And that’s what the outsiders from the Old World didn’t notice. They looked for America somewhere other than where it prefers to live. Cities in America are the exception that proves the rule…

Setting skyscrapers aside for offices and visitors, Americans themselves have always preferred to live on the first floor of their own home, a little further away from the excesses of technology. Having traded civilization for geography, nature for culture, and artificial landscapes for a natural one, America came out ahead. But you can only evaluate this deal when you learn to travel like an American.

The secret of that art lies right on the surface: it’s in the road, which is an end in itself. Greedily covering mile after mile, the wayfarer dissolves himself into primordial emptiness, vast reserves of which the New World still contains within its shores. Beneath the wheels of the automobile, space takes on an almost physical palpability. The map comes to life, tears away from the page, and moves from two-dimensional abstraction into real life.

America can only be understood on the move.
[Translation mine]
Fascinating! And to my mind, mostly on the mark. It’s nothing new to say that wilderness and the open road loom large in the American imagination, but it does seem to be true that many visitors from Russia have somehow missed that key point. 

Not surprisingly, though, two Russian writers who don’t fit the city-centric New World pattern are Nabokov and Brodsky: the former wrote one of the classic American road novels, and the latter set some of his finest poems in the woods of New England and small towns of the Midwest. They got the lay of the land better than their machine-head compatriots did.

Leave it to exiles to complicate things!


  1. Because America is not principally an urban nation.

    Of course, that was even more true of Russia at the time.

  2. True, but those early Soviet years, especially after the civil war, were marked by a national desire to modernize quickly, which may account for the attention paid to American cities (not farms, not yet).