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Cover of the first USA edition of ‘Little Golden America’ by Ilf and Petrov (translation by Charles Malamuth), 1937
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After All: Two Soviet writers go in search of ‘the real America’ in 1935

Image credit: Christine Bohling

For the second session of his virtual anti-pandemic book club for E&T readers, our columnist suggests a witty trans-USA travelogue by two prominent Russian satirists of the 1920s-30s.

Let me begin by wishing all readers a very Happy New Year and a successful resolution of all New Year resolutions!

One of mine, by the way, was to carry on with the virtual After All book club, launched to beat the all-permeating ennui of the then partial lockdown, which shortly afterwards evolved into a full-scale one.

We started with Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Star Diaries’ – an intelligent sci-fi satire, written as a diary of Ijon Tichy, a Baron Munchausen of the space era. I want to thank everyone who got the book and shared their thoughts, particularly Simon Duerden from Holland who had to travel to Stockholm, Sweden, to get his copy. 

With the new First Couple about to move into the White House, I cannot think of a better book club choice than ‘Little Golden America’, originally ‘One-Storied America’, by the tandem of the Russian/Soviet satirists of the 1920s-30s Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov.

In 1935-36, they undertook a road trip across the United States. As the writers themselves concluded: “...we had been in twenty five states and several hundred towns, we had breathed the dry air of deserts and prairies, had crossed the Rocky Mountains, had seen Indians, had talked with the young unemployed, with the old capitalists, with radical intellectuals, with revolutionary workers, with poets, with writers, with engineers. We had examined factories and parks, had admired roads and bridges, had climbed up the Sierra Nevadas and descended into the Carlsbad Caves. We had travelled ten thousand miles.”

‘One-Storied America’ was almost impossible to find in the Soviet Union. Probably because it was favourably disposed towards many aspects of American life, particularly technology. It was also very witty. Having first read the book in my late teens, I dreamt of repeating the writers’ journey one day. In my inflamed imagination, I was often approaching the shores of New York after a six-day transatlantic crossing and could even discern Manhattan skyscrapers “rising out of the water like calm pillars of smoke”.

I did travel in the writers’ footsteps in the end to write a series of columns for the Daily Telegraph in 2000. But that is a different story...

I still don’t quite understand how Ilf and Petrov were able to get away with the positive portrayal of America in the atmosphere of Stalinist terror and mounting purges. I am sure that had Ilf not died of tuberculosis in 1937 (aged 40), and had Petrov not been killed in the siege of Sevastopol in 1942 (aged 39), their arrest and subsequent execution would have simply been questions of time. Yet even the Bolsheviks were unable to arrest and execute those who were dead already.

I am now lucky to be able to compare the Russian original of ‘One-Storied America’ with ‘Little Golden America’ – the book’s 1937 US translation. The fascinating thing is that whereas the most openly pro-American bits were removed from the Soviet ‘original’, the parts most critical of America were skilfully downplayed in the English translation too. The book’s headline itself can serve as an example: ‘One-Storied America’ was obviously deemed not hooray-patriotic enough for American readers in the times of the Great Depression.

Ilf and Petrov’s revealing descriptions of technology begin in the very first chapter, in which they travel from Europe to America on board the gigantic SS Normandie. “In the stern where we were located everything trembled. The deck and the walls and the easy chairs and the glasses on the washstand and the washstand itself trembled. The ship’s vibration was so pronounced that even objects from which one did not expect any sound made a noise. For the first time we heard the sound of towels, soap, the carpet on the floor, the paper on the table, the electric bulb, the curtain, the collar thrown on the bed... If a passenger became thoughtful for a moment and relaxed his facial muscles, his teeth at once began to chatter of their own free will...”

Ilf and Petrov’s impressions of the American business world mostly resulted from their visits to the General Electric factory in Schenectady, NY and the Ford automobile plants in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. (Interestingly, when I tried to arrange visits to the same plants in 2000 as a British journalist, I was refused.)

They were able to meet Henry Ford I himself. “Ford looked younger than his seventy-three years, and only his old brown hands with their swollen knuckles betrayed his age... His eyes were set close together, the prickly eyes of a peasant... Ford has no office of his own. Cameron [a guide – VV] had this to say about him: ‘Mr Ford circulates.’”

In Chapter 13, ‘Mr Ripley’s Electric House’, the writers visit the house of one of the General Electric Company engineers in Schenectady. His home was stuffed with cutting-edge (for 1935) electrical gadgets: “the electrical instruments for regulating the temperature in the room”, a coffeepot, a toaster, a teakettle with a whistle and “an electric stove of amazingly clear creamy whiteness”.

They also describe the electric chair, the original ‘sparky’, still in use then in the famous Sing Sing prison: “This is a yellow wooden chair with a high back and arm rests. At first glance it seems innocuous, and if it were not for the leather bracelets with which the hands and feet of the condemned are tied, it could very well stand in some highly moral family home. A deafish grandfather might well be sitting in it to read his newspapers there. But an instant later the chair was very repellent to us, and especially depressing were its polished arm rests. Better not to think about those who had polished them with their elbows...”

85 years on, “Little Golden America” remains as instructive, eye-opening and funny as ever. Why? Because its authors possessed irrepressible wit and superb power of observation that will never fail to impress the readers. A real treat and a must-read for engineers and non-engineers alike!

‘Little Golden America’ is published by Ishi Press and is available from Amazon. Share your thoughts and views on this book at engtechmag@theiet.org, mentioning ‘After All’ in the subject line.

‘The Bumper Book of Vitali’s Travels. Thirty Years of Globe-Trotting’ by Vitali Vitaliev is published by Thrust Books.

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