In Search of a Dream America

Place in the Life Writing of Eastern European Immigrants

by Irina V. Rodimtseva (Author)
©2017 Monographs 254 Pages


This book explores immigrant life writing and examines the complex relationship between the America imagined in the dreams of would-be immigrants and their ability to establish connections to actual places in America. The authors discussed in the book (Vasily Aksyonov, Mary Antin, Eva Hoffman, Edward Limonov, and Miriam Potocky-Tripodi) come to North America from different places in Eastern Europe and publish their books at different times of the 20th century, but for all of them an attachment to the new place begins before emigration. The initial stages of this process are imaginative – learning and dreaming about America, visualizing it as an ideal place – and the immigrants’ encounter with their new country is mediated by this idealized image of America. Although some immigrant autobiographers profess an immediate bonding to American places, the texts examined in this book demonstrate that the process of claiming a new place as one’s own is often rife with ambiguities and setbacks. Only by negotiating the gap between the dream and the encountered America can an immigrant begin to feel at home in the new place. At the same time, the bond to the home country can never be severed, and that rejected place becomes a reference point for comparisons or even a model for organizing the new environment. Briefly stated, immigrants maintain attachments to multiple places – physical, imagined, and remembered.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Place and Place-Connectedness
  • The American Dream and American Exceptionalism
  • Chapter 1 “That Alluring Land”: Eastern European and Russian Visions of America
  • Emigration from Eastern Europe and Russia: A Brief Overview
  • Images of America
  • Before the Wall
  • Behind the Wall: Reinterpreting Official Images
  • Behind the Wall: Alternative Images
  • After the Wall
  • Chapter 2 Mary Antin Takes Possession of America
  • Taking a Stand in the Immigration Debate
  • Dreaming About America
  • Encountering America
  • Defending the American Ideal
  • After The Promised Land
  • Chapter 3 Eva Hoffman in the Land of Yearning
  • Imagining America in Cracow
  • Out of Place in North America
  • Looking for a Home in the Language
  • Revisiting Childhood Places
  • The America of Immigrant Dreams
  • Chapter 4 Vasily Aksyonov and Edward Limonov in the Land of Freedom
  • A Love Affair with America
  • Aksyonov’s Encounter with America
  • Creative Freedom in America
  • Limonov’s Immigrant Rage
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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“Next year – in America!” That was the dream of Mary Antin’s family gathered around their Passover table in Polotzk, Russia.1 Immigrant literature abounds in similar descriptions of “the moment of dream anticipation,” as William Q. Boelhower calls it,2 before families and individuals followed their dreams and left their homelands for the United States in search of religious freedom, equality, justice, and the riches of what would become the mythical “land of Cadillacs and Coca-Cola.”3 The relationship between this imagined America and the immigrants’ descriptions of their experience in actual American places is the subject of this book.

My goal is to explore the link between the concepts of the American Dream and of place-connectedness. Theorists tend to acknowledge the human attachment to place as a given, without an explanation of its origin or attributes. I contend that for American immigrants, establishing an attachment to the new place begins before emigration. The initial stages of this process are imaginative – learning and dreaming about America, visualizing it as an ideal place – and the immigrants’ encounter with their new country is mediated by this idealized image of America. For this reason, establishing a connection to the new country can be impeded by unrealistic expectations as to what America should look like or what it should offer to new arrivals. Although some immigrant autobiographers profess an immediate bonding to American places, the texts examined in this project demonstrate that the process of claiming a new place as one’s own is rife with ambiguities and setbacks. Only by negotiating the gap between the dream and the encountered America can an immigrant adjust to and begin to feel at home in the new place. At the same time, because the bond to the home country can never ← 7 | 8 → be severed, the rejected place, no matter how deficient it might have seemed before emigration, becomes a reference point for comparisons or even a model for organizing the new environment that transforms the latter with elements of the immigrant’s home culture. Briefly stated, immigrants maintain attachments to multiple places – physical, imagined, and remembered.

Eastern Europe can be an ambiguous designation. According to Roy E. H. Mellor, before 1945 it referred to the “so-called European Russia,” while countries to its west were “included in the vaguely defined but conceptually live Central Europe,”4 but after World War II the definition shifted to “the eight states associated with the Soviet Union through their political ties,”5 including the German Democratic Republic, Yugoslavia, and Albania, but not the Soviet Union.6 The relative stability of the Cold War term lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall, after which it was replaced by a variety of definitions, none strictly geographical and all to some extent based on political divisions.7

In addition to its ambiguity, Eastern Europe implies the continued separation of the two parts of Europe long after the confrontation of ideologies has ended and the physical borders have opened. As a consequence, to quote Andaluna Borcila, a Romanian American scholar, ← 8 | 9 → “partial, simplistic, or erroneous” images of Eastern Europe in the Western media bring forth “a completely incomprehensible territory/space outside a normative Europe and the United States.”8 Yet the term persists because long before the Cold War, during the Age of Enlightenment, Western Europe “invented Eastern Europe as its complementary other half,” explains Larry Wolff, who in 1994 foresaw that such an extraordinarily potent idea would “outlive the collapse of Communism, surviving in the public culture and its mental maps.”9

In this book, I lean toward the political definition of Eastern Europe, often using the term interchangeably with Soviet Bloc or Communist Bloc. On one hand, I agree with the scholars cited above and Richard Frucht that Eastern Europe is an artificial, simplistic construct and with Mellor’s reminder that the region’s states do not necessarily share a sense of unity in their physical environment or in human patterns.10 On the other hand, like Borcila, I think that Eastern Europe, although a fiction, seems to be necessary,11 and I would add that it can be a productive term for analyzing the outflow of emigrants. Adding into the mix the western parts of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union opens up divisions within a region that was artificially separated from the rest of the continent to which it organically belongs. The primary texts examined are works by five immigrant authors who came to the United States from the Russian Empire, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union, and the provenance of these texts is doubly significant.

First, all the authors discussed (Vasily Aksyonov, Mary Antin, Eva Hoffman, Edward Limonov, and Miriam Potocky-Tripodi) spent their pre-emigration lives in a geo-political space that developed its own version of the American Dream. In countries ruled by a succession of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, where an individual did not enjoy the same freedom and respect associated with Western democracies, a longing for the ideal America was especially intense. Government restrictions – from ← 9 | 10 → the laws of tsarist Russia that circumscribed areas of residence and occupation for Antin’s Jewish family, to the party directives that limited the choice of subject matter for Aksyonov and other Soviet writers – spread a sense of helplessness and hopelessness among the population. Social and political upheavals that ravaged and reshaped the region during the twentieth century further contributed to the instability of place and to the vulnerability of individuals, forcing many to look outside for a certain place where they could live their lives with dignity and achieve material prosperity. In the Eastern European, Russian, and Soviet imaginations, America was such a place, an ideal country. At the turn of the twentieth century, its image was shaped mostly by emigrants’ letters, the advertising efforts of emigration agents, and for the literate few, by literature. In the Cold War era, the notion of America was influenced by American and domestic literature, conflicting communist and anti-communist propagandas, and sketchy glimpses or impressions from occasional Hollywood movies, jazz, and rock and roll music. Because the resulting ideal echoes the myth of American exceptionalism, tracing its origins as well as its expression in immigrant texts illuminates the complex workings and the wide reach of an ideology that designates the United States as the fulfillment of humanity’s dream.

A second reason it is important to reclaim Eastern European and Soviet immigrant texts for study is that since the fall of the Berlin Wall the examination of the so-called Second World seems to have lost its urgency,12 and Westerners’ loss of focus has impeded their understanding of the societies that were hidden behind the Iron Curtain and obscured by anti-communist propaganda. Consequently, the authors considered in this book can shed much-needed light on the life led by ordinary citizens in “the evil empire” and its satellites.

A project that puts together texts by Soviet and Eastern European writers might seem problematic because the USSR dominated its eastern neighbors for forty years, ruthlessly suppressing any reform movement and any expression of free thought. Most ordinary Soviet citizens, moreover, were indifferent to the plight of the Eastern Europeans, and some wholeheartedly supported their government’s imperial policy. Yet, ← 10 | 11 → people in the Soviet Union were in many respects as oppressed as the people of Poland and Czechoslovakia, also experiencing similar shortages of housing and essential goods as well as restrictions on their freedom of thought, expression, and religion, and the Soviet domination of Eastern European countries did not benefit ordinary Soviet people, nor did it expand the territory to which they were allowed to travel or their economic opportunities.

The Eastern European and Soviet communist systems pushed their people toward the drastic decision to leave home in much the same way. Party dictate ruled cultural production and denied writers, artists, and scholars freedom of thought and of creative expression in all Soviet Bloc countries, and anti-American propaganda created distorted, cartoonish images of the United States, while bits and pieces of forbidden Western culture seeped into the lands through the alternative sources. Samizdat (self-published) and smuggled books, Hollywood movies, jazz and rock music, radio broadcasts by the Voice of America and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe outbalanced the propaganda images with their own idealized picture of a free and prosperous America that welcomes immigrants with open arms.

Unlike most Soviet citizens, intellectuals were keenly aware of events in Eastern Europe, and in the 1960s cultural influences were mutual and strong. As Vladislav Zubok points out, to intellectuals in Moscow, the Prague Spring of 1968 was more important than the raging protest movements in the West, and even some high-ranking officials, editors and journalists, “rooted for the Czech reformers.”13 Suppression of the reformist movement in Czechoslovakia consequently spurred emigration throughout the Communist Bloc. Such similarities of existence in the communist countries and corresponding similarities in the ← 11 | 12 → experience of their immigrants in North America shape this study of texts by Eastern European and Soviet immigrants.

The book opens with a chapter on the complex sources that shaped the Eastern European, Russian, and Soviet concepts of America. It traces the evolution of the American Dream from the vision of religious tolerance and material prosperity in Mary Antin’s day to the cosmopolitan ideal of intellectual freedom Soviet writers embraced. Subsequent chapters examine the selected texts and juxtapose the emigrants’ visions with the immigrants’ reality that the authors encountered in America. To develop the context for these accounts, I rely on academic sources and on personal interviews with immigrants from Soviet Bloc countries and also draw on my own experiences as a resident of the Soviet Union and as an immigrant in the United States.

The discussion begins with what is often considered the master narrative of immigrant autobiographical literature – Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1912). Having escaped the discrimination and anti-Semitism of tsarist Russia, Antin claims to have found in America everything an immigrant can hope for: freedom from persecution and boundless opportunities. She asserts that her ambition and hard work are rewarded with prosperity and successful integration; her American Dream is fulfilled. A closer reading of Antin’s book, in conjunction with her letters and the facts of her life, however, reveals omissions and glosses that contradict the enthusiastic tone of The Promised Land. America does not become an immigrant’s new home at the moment of arrival, and the process of domesticizing a new place is more complex than Antin is willing to admit.

No longer compelled to continue Antin’s heroic tradition, the authors of the late twentieth-century narratives describe less orderly journeys and less satisfied expectations, though they also escape from an oppressive system and initially idealize America. Eva Hoffman and Miriam Potocky-Tripodi, like Antin, were child immigrants brought to America by families fleeing anti-Semitism and discrimination. In addition, these two immigrants from Poland and Czechoslovakia, respectively, as well as Vasily Aksyonov and Edward Limonov from the Soviet Union, were pushed out of their countries by the all-embracing ideological control of the Communist Party.

Hoffman’s autobiography Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language (1989) reveals the author’s arduous adjustment to America. ← 12 | 13 → Leaving Poland at the age of thirteen, Hoffman managed to embrace her parents’ dream of America’s fabulous riches by devising her own vision of social advancement through intellectual accomplishments. She presents language as a venue and mode of assimilation, admitting her ambivalent attitude toward American places. Potocky-Tripodi’s short memoir Where is My Home?: A Refugee Journey (2000) serves as a corroborating example of the complex relationships immigrant children maintain with their native places as do insights drawn from a similarly named book by Mark Stolarik, a Canadian historian. His Where is My Home?: Slovak Immigration to North America (1870–2010) combines his family’s emigration from Slovakia and adjusting to a new life in Canada with the author’s childhood memories and a meticulously researched history of Slovak immigrant communities in North America.

Examined in the final chapter, Vasily Aksyonov’s In Search of Melancholy Baby (1985) and Edward Limonov’s It’s Me, Eddie: A Fictional Memoir (1978) were written and published in Russian and also issued in English translation. Thus, they address two audiences and continue an over-a-century-old tradition of Russians’ writing about America and measuring it against the immigrant’s (or the traveler’s) mental image and expectations. For these adult immigrants, each inspired by his own American Dream, connection to American places proved to be as elusive as it was for immigrant children discussed previously. As did other Soviet and Eastern European intellectuals of the Cold War era, Aksyonov and Limonov imagined America as a place of intellectual and creative freedom where writers, poets, and artists occupy an influential position. Instead of becoming part of a cosmopolitan Western culture, having their books widely read and their names celebrated, however, they were disappointed to discover America’s commercialized, competitive literary scene and its seeming indifference to high culture. Whereas Aksyonov was able to secure a foothold in American letters and academe, Limonov spent his first few immigrant years in obscurity – a difference reflected in the contrasting tones of their books and their responses to American places.

The rationale for the leap from 1912, when Antin’s The Promised Land was published, to the 1970s and 1980s, when the rest of the texts appeared, is that the intervening period of less than forty years, brought Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union two world wars, genocides, revolutions, civil strife and civil wars connected with communist takeovers. ← 13 | 14 → Under the impact of such unprecedented suffering and dislocation, the emigrant autobiographies of that time differ significantly from those of previous and later periods in their focus on the forcefulness of the displacement and on the traumatic loss of home and loved ones, not on dreams of a better life. Although the threat of violence always loomed close for Jews in the Pale of Settlement14 in Antin’s time and for citizens of Soviet Bloc countries during the Cold War decades, these were periods of relative peace and stability. Emigration then was influenced not only by the “push factors” of anti-Semitism, discrimination, or ideological restrictions but also by the pull of the American Dream since individuals and families had at least a semblance of choice in whether to stay or to leave for America.15

As migrants, all the authors discussed in this study are involved in transnational practices. Donald E. Pease quotes, among other interpretations of transnational, a dictionary definition of the term as “someone operating in several countries,” which can be applied to political and economic entities (such as NGOs or corporations) or highly mobile individuals.16 Late twentieth-century global migrants, with their high ← 14 | 15 → rates of returns, would certainly seem to fit this designation.17 Within these larger patterns, there are still migrants who make one drastic move from their home country to a new place without the possibility of return, and transnational can be applied to them as well.18 Even remaining stationary in their new location, today’s permanent immigrants sustain connections with their home places, and their new identities are contingent upon their home cultures.

Most immigrant authors represent just two cultures and structure their texts as oppositions between old and new, but they present a picture of a hybrid culture and hybrid space resulting from transnational connections. Katarzyna Marciniak refers to immigrant authors as “bicultural” and to their texts as featuring “binational characters who transgress the boundaries of established nationhood by moving across national borders, languages, cultures, and competing ideologies.”19 Boelhower describes immigrant autobiographies in a similar way, as organizing “two cultural systems, a culture of the present and the future and a culture of memory into a single model,” resulting in “a new birth” of the protagonist-narrator that is accomplished in “a doubling, not an erasing process.”20 In sum, the Americanization of an immigrant implies the acquisition of new cultural habits without the elimination of the previously accumulated cultural baggage. Becoming a native is not possible due to the persistence of the original culture; what is possible is a commitment to multiple places and to a cosmopolitan conception of culture.

Cosmopolitan, an older term than transnational, is encumbered with negative connotations and has been much debated in the scholarship of the recent decades. Inderpal Grewal argues that the key ideas traditionally associated with cosmopolitanism – “the liberal subject as a possessor of rights and the subject of international trade” – were assumed to ← 15 | 16 → belong only to Europeans but in the late twentieth century spread out “among formerly colonized and non-European Others through relations of power with the West and histories of colonialism.”21 In this view, the shift of economic and trade power to centers in other parts of the world does not eliminate the class distinctions that seem to be inherent in the idea of cosmopolitanism. Regarding immigrants, Marciniak finds that cosmopolitan “exudes an aura of sophistication and elegance, and is more readily linked with a desirable economic and racial position,” but alien “suggests a space of inferiority and unwanted otherness.22 Even so, in cultural terms, cosmopolitan and alien are not mutually exclusive. A migrant can identify himself or herself as belonging to a cosmopolitan culture and still be seen as an alien by the native population of the new country. Ultimately, while the cultural assumption behind cosmopolitanism – that is, the existence of one human culture and literature – has been criticized for its elitism and Eurocentrism as well as for its connection to celebrity authors,23 the term has not been discarded as a means of identification and analysis. Acknowledging the consistent criticism,24 a number of scholars have proposed rigorous historicized approaches to cosmopolitanism, with “watchfulness about specificities of racial, gender, and ethnic formations.”25 In one such attempt to “rescue” cosmopolitanism, Kwame Anthony Appiah identifies in it two crucial strands of ideas:

One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.26 ← 16 | 17 →

Appiah’s definition illustrates the continuing appeal of cosmopolitanism as a source of hope for solving problems that arise from nationalism and asymmetrical economic development.27

Regardless of travel possibilities, cosmopolitanism can be a state of mind, and the desire to penetrate another culture can be realized on an intellectual level. In the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, after intellectuals learned English in order to understand the lyrics of jazz and rock songs and to read smuggled books in the original, they incorporated their knowledge of the Anglophone cultures into their own creative endeavors. Although a lack of direct contact breeds many misconceptions, mobility can be the result of cosmopolitan familiarity with the world outside one’s home country. Emigrants, before they leave, transcend borders by imagining or dreaming about a different place, and even dreams based on limited and misleading information, as were those of the authors examined in this project, can inspire a radical change of place.

Place and Place-Connectedness

Place is one of the most fundamental, yet most complex elements of human existence. J. E. Malpas claims, “place is not founded on subjectivity, but is rather that on which subjectivity is founded,” and Tim Cresswell elaborates that place is primary both to human existence and “to the construction of meaning and society.” Cresswell defines places as “spaces which people have made meaningful” and says our understanding of ← 17 | 18 → them needs to consider the “rich and complicated interplay of people and the environment.”28

The influential geographer Yi-Fu Tuan was among the first to recognize that in the study of place we can never “distinguish sharply between cultural factors and the role of physical environment. The concepts ‘culture’ and ‘environment’ overlap as do the concepts ‘man’ and ‘nature.’”29 According to Tuan, humans respond to their environment selectively and develop a world view, or a structured system of beliefs, that is only partly based on the physical environment, so similar physical environments have been hosts to widely different cultures.30 In the years since Tuan’s seminal book was published, researchers have emphasized the social aspect of place to the point that, as Linda McDowell laments, place is now “defined by socio-spatial relations that intersect there and give [it] its distinct character.” As a result, place becomes relational whereas boundaries between places are seen as fluid.31 This relativistic approach can obscure the fact that physical places and the boundaries between them continue to cause bitter conflicts and bloody wars, and in peaceful parts of the world, most people “live spatially restricted, geographically bounded lives, in a home, in a neighborhood, in a city, in a workplace, all of which are within a nation-state.”32 For them, displacements, whether forced or voluntary, can rupture the fabric of life and cause traumatic loss.

The human need for place is so fundamental we should look closely at the experiences of people who migrate from one place to another, challenging what Liisa Malkki calls territorialized and sedentary conceptions of culture and identity.33 In all cultures, there seems to be a constant pull between a tendency to construct and reinforce the boundaries of place ← 18 | 19 → and another tendency to dissolve them. Immigrants are caught in the middle. Having violated the existing boundaries of settlement and identity, they are often perceived by the natives as a threat to “their” place. Yet, to survive, the immigrants need to become invested and rooted in a new place and to construct their own boundaries to secure that place.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (April)
American Literature Immigrant Literature 20th Century American Dream Eastern Europe
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszasa, Wien, 2017. 251 pp., 14 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Irina V. Rodimtseva (Author)

Irina V. Rodimtseva is an Assistant Professor of English at Alderson Broaddus University in Philippi, WV. She received her Master’s Degree in English from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) State University in Russia and her doctoral degree from West Virginia University in the U.S. Her research interests are 20th-century American literature (in particular immigrant and prison literature) and place studies. Her articles have been published in Arizona Quarterly and the Nabokov Studies.


Title: In Search of a Dream America
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254 pages