Journeys to the Land of Cinema: Americanism as Rite of Passage

Jeffrey Karlsen, University of California, Berkeley

1926 saw the release of two children's novels set in the United States: Rustam Bek-Tageev's Russkij amerikanec and Viktor Shklovskij's Puteshestvie v stranu kino. In both, a young Russian protagonist makes his way through the American landscape, becomes a film actor, and announces his intention to return to the USSR; in both, the narrative is periodically interrupted by explanations of the particular phenomena the protagonist encounters.

The purpose of this paper is to locate these two texts within the troubled discourse of Americanism in the mid-1920s. The term "Americanism" generally referred to the fascination with and attempted cultivation of the specific forms of modernity embodied by the United States. These two novels respond to this current in very different ways; while Russkij amerikanec presents a melodramatic encounter with the topoi of city, factory, and cinema, Shklovskij's ironic text presents, as might be expected, an encounter with the construction of narrative itself. What unites the two texts is their attempt, from radically different perspectives, to overcome the Americanism that has produced them: both work to deflate the reader's fascination with America, ending with the protagonist's rejection of America's allure.

The paper combines close attention to the two texts' narrative techniques with a discussion of the interaction between certain motifs employed in both--specifically, fatigue and spectacle--and the appearance of the same motifs in the larger discussions of Americanism at the time. In addition to the two novels, the paper draws upon contemporary published lectures, essays, feuilletons, and films dealing with the "American theme."