The Soviet pilgrimage : American writers in Russia, 1922-1947.


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For a few decades following 1917, many American and European intellectuals attempted to understand the Soviet Union through travel. Hundreds of writers, journalists, academics, philosophers, engineers, and public intellectuals travelled to Russia (or, more properly, to the Soviet Union) to see the land of revolutionary communism. The list of such travelers is vast and includes significant literary figures such as John Dos Passos, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Malcolm Muggeridge, Paul Robeson, John Steinbeck, E.E. Cummings, Mike Gold, Elmer Rice, Lillian Hellman, Theodore Dreiser, Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Edmund Wilson, Erskine Caldwell, Waldo Frank, Josephine Herbst, Abraham Cahan, and many others. This study examines the works of four of these travelers—Claude McKay, E.E. Cummings, Lillian Hellman, and John Steinbeck—each of whom travelled to the Soviet Union between 1922 and 1947, in order to evaluate how their encounter with the Soviet Union influenced their political and aesthetic commitments, and to evaluate, when considered together, how their depictions of the Soviet Union helped to create, perpetuate, or challenge American conceptions of Russia. McKay, Cummings, Hellman, and Steinbeck learned, grew, and changed as a result of their journeys, and despite their many personal, aesthetic, and political differences, their journeys suggest important connections between travel to the Soviet Union and American conceptions of modernism, communism, and Russianness. These four also reveal an extensive, international network of modernist thinkers and writers, the existence of which places Moscow alongside New York, Paris, and London as an important center of modernist cultural activity. Travelling to the Soviet Union resulted in a massive body of travel writings that helped define American modernism in relation to travelers’ experiences in the Soviet Union. Representing a wide variety of genres, from Hollywood screenplays to novels to poems about time spent abroad, these travel writings provide insight into the evolving political and aesthetic philosophies among twentieth century American writers.