Stephen S. Lee’s The Ethnic Avant-Garde: Minority Cultures and World Revolution maps the intersection between ethnic American artists and the Soviet vanguard during the 1920s and 1930s. During these years, Lee argues, a variety of ethnic American artists made a “magic pilgrimage” to the USSR, seeing in the Soviet revolution an ally in the struggle against racial discrimination at home. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the early years of the revolutionary period, the Comintern began to reconsider the temporality of world revolution, often through recourse to a seemingly premodern ethnic “other” in Asia and Africa. As Lee shows, this turn to Asia and Africa was not merely a variant of primitivism, but an attempt, well before the Stalinist purges of the Cold War era, to theorize what we now know as “cultural pluralism” and to put it into practice through Soviet nationalist policy. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, Lee’s work is notable for the author’s fluency in both Slavic and Anglophone literatures. This range is particularly stunning in the use of previously unknown archival materials, translated by Lee, that will shift our understanding of both fields in the years to come.
Citing recent calls for transnational scholarship, The Ethnic Avant-Garde charts the material collaboration between Americans and Soviets, moving from familiar figures (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Vladimir Mayakovsky) to lesser-known artists, including Herbert Biberman, Nikolai Marr, and Sergei Tret’iakov. As Lee notes, the book adds to a growing field of scholarship on the “black-red thread” and comparative racialization more generally, including Kate Baldwin’s Beyond the Color Line and the Iron Curtain (2002), Bill V. Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism (2004), and Mary Helen Washington’s The Other Blacklist (2015), amongst others. However, The Ethnic Avant-Garde is not really a study of the influence of X on Y, or even an archival history of transatlantic collaboration. Rather, Lee builds on and extends this earlier, foundational scholarship to locate an anti-stagist formulation of world revolution and the avant-garde. Through readings of Walter Benjamin, Peter Osborne, [End Page 193] Vladimir Lenin, and others, Lee pushes back against more traditional understandings of Hegelian or Marxist historical development, reframing both “world revolution” and the “avant-garde” as part of “a variegated temporality that encompasses past as well as future” (6). In its most utopian strands, this perspective opens up space to imagine other histories, thus bypassing more well-trod “rise and fall” retrospectives of the Bolshevik revolution.
In Lee’s introduction, the relationship between avant-garde artists and the political vanguard emerges in an analogy to Vladimir Tatlin’s spiral tower, the Monument to the Third International, a sketch of which also adorns the book’s cover. According to Tatlin’s drafts, the tower’s spirals represent the intertwined arcs of world revolution and avant-garde art, made from the “primitive materials” of steel and glass, but signaling a future socialist utopia (9). In Lee’s reading, Tatlin’s Tower serves as a figure for the conceptual organization of the book as a whole in that each strand, art and revolution, past and future, will become “related but not bound, encircling but not touching” (12).
This architectural structure unfolds across four chapters, the first of which begins with Tatlin’s tower as both a Tower of Babel and a pathway between numerous cross-cultural encounters: Mayakovsky’s Afro-Futurist poems from his Cuban period; Hughes’s translations of Mayakovsky; Hughes’s travels through Uzbekistan; and Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished Mexican film. Weaving these threads together with recent theories of translation, Lee argues that Mayakovsky creates a model of minority writing as another sort of Tower of Babel, transcending linguistic distinctions, while Hughes’s translations reveal the shortcomings of this universalizing model.
The next two chapters locate a different way of accounting for cultural difference through the futurist concept of “factography.” Widespread in certain Soviet artistic circles in the late 1920s, factography offered a way of bringing life into art through documentary modes. In an extended reading encompassing more figures than I can name here, Lee traces the influence of factography in Tret’iakov’s play Roar China, which would eventually become the first major Broadway production with a predominantly Asian American cast. Here factography allows for an anti-exoticist representation of a non-European ethnic other, with documentary facts producing estrangement as varying modes of performance conflict with one another. Reading the Moscow and New York productions side by side, Lee historically situates factography against Hughes’s somewhat exoticist poem, “Roar China,” written after the author attended the New York production.
Moving from theater to film, the third chapter begins with a well-known incident from Hughes’s memoir, I Wonder as I Wander. In 1932, Hughes and twenty-one other African Americans were invited to Moscow to participate in a film about race relations in the American South. In the memoir, Hughes claims that the never-realized film script was a laughably inauthentic fantasy, featuring a group of black southerners rescued by northern white workers. However, Lee uncovers the actual Russian-language script in the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, revealing that Hughes’s oft-cited account is entirely false. In a virtuosic reading of the script, Lee unsettles decades of assumptions about Hughes’s participation in the “Moscow Movie,” while re-theorizing the status of “cultural authenticity” in the context of the McCarthy era.
The final chapter continues this investigation into cultural authenticity through the work of interwar Jewish writers, including Irving Howe and Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish author of the Tevye the Milkman stories (later adapted into the Broadway musical The Fiddler on the Roof ). Moving into the Cold War era, this chapter takes up the ways that cultural forms became weaponized within the larger US/Soviet divide, thus moving into a wider history of the postwar era.
Finally, in Lee’s afterword, Tatlin’s tower reappears in a reading of Karen Tei Yamashita’s architecturally structured novel, I, Hotel (2010). This last turn opens up a number of questions for future scholarship: What about the women of the Harlem Renaissance? Were they not fascinated by the possibility of a “magic pilgrimage” to the USSR? Why not? How, if at all, did Soviet artists respond to the homosexuality of McKay or (perhaps) of Hughes? What about [End Page 194] Soviet feminists or feminist Jews, like Emma Goldman? Were there Asian American/Mexican collaborations? During the interwar era, did Asian American authors also turn to the USSR, or did the interest only go one way? I do not enumerate these questions as a critique indicating what ought to be there; the scope of The Ethnic Avant-Garde is already quite ambitious and far-reaching. Rather, I want to show how Lee’s very exciting project itself offers a foundation for comparative work, thus opening new directions for future research into the vexed relations between the art and politics of the interwar era.