O'kei: An American Novel

Pilnyak, Boris and LeBlanc (Translator), Ronald D., "O'kei: An American Novel" (2020). Faculty Publications. 926. https://scholars.unh.edu/faculty_pubs/926

On January 4, 1931, Boris Pilnyak (1894-1938) wrote a letter to Joseph Stalin, pleading with the Soviet leader to grant him permission to travel to the United States in order to conduct research for an ambitious book project he was undertaking that would compare communist Russia favorably to capitalist America. Pilnyak’s request received official approval, and a few months later the writer set off for the U.S., arriving in New York by steamer on March 12, 1931, and remaining in the country until August 3, 1931. During his nearly five-month stay in America, Pilnyak became acquainted with a number of prominent native writers, journalists, and critics (among others, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Floyd Bell, Max Eastman, and Michael Gold), attended a number of theatrical performances on Broadway, and visited a number of popular tourist sites, such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the Ford automotive plant in Detroit. Hired by MGM Studios to co-author the screenplay for a film about a Five-Year Plan construction project in the Soviet Union (and to serve as a consultant on this film project), Pilnyak in early spring travelled with his host and personal interpreter, Joseph Freeman, to Hollywood, where they spent a month working on a pro-Soviet film, tentatively titled Soviet, which was plagued by creative differences and was never released. Pilnyak and Freeman decided to return to New York by car rather than by train, enabling them to see more of the country as they visited various locales in the desert Southwest, the deep South, and the industrial Midwest as part of their journey back to the East Coast. Upon his return to Moscow in early August 1931, Pilnyak began recording his impressions of the United States – and especially his serious misgivings about that country’s failing capitalist economy and its purportedly poisonous social and moral values (individualism, philistinism, materialism, consumerism, and so on) – in a travelogue that was completed in February 1932. It was subsequently serialized under the title, O’kei: An American Novel, in the March, April, May, and June 1932 issues of the journal Novy mir, before being published in a separate book edition in 1933. What is being presented here for the first time is a complete English-language translation of O’kei. Amerikanskii roman, available to readers in both an annotated version and a version without annotation, accompanied by an essay from the translator that seeks to acquaint readers generally with the reception that Pilnyak’s American travelogue received in the Soviet press at the time of its publication and its subsequent scholarly treatment by academics in both the former Soviet Union and the United States.

Status of Research