Throughout the twentieth century, it was not unknown for leading left-wing American cultural figures to visit the Soviet Union. W. E. B. du Bois, Langston Hughes, John Reed, and Angela Davis all explored the vast socialist country with anticipation and an open mind. The same was true of Russians who were, despite the Cold War, often fascinated by the dynamism of the United States.
One such character was the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, who traveled to the United States in 1925. Though almost a century ago, his insights provide a unique perspective into a nation’s character as seen from the perspective of an outsider. Born in rural Georgia in 1893, Mayakovsky was a young man when he arrived in America. A founder of Russian futurism — a cultural movement which rejected premodern notions of art and embraced the turbulent pace of modernity — his travels to the United States, the world’s most modern nation, between May and October of 1925, were of both artistic and political significance.
In the New World, he recited verses to working-class audiences and gave talks on proletarian aesthetics, fighting back feelings of homesickness and disgust at the political backwardness of American capitalism. These were distinctly unromantic times. Vladimir Lenin died the year before the poet arrived in the US and Russia was still scarred from the horrors of the Civil War.
For Mayakovsky, there was little separation between poetry and politics. Reflecting on his own bohemianism, he wrote, “That is my great problem: to burn out all my bohemian past, to rise to the heights of the Revolution.” In the States, he never turned down the opportunity to talk with fellow avant-garde artists in cafés, even though the linguistic barriers between himself and his comrades made communication difficult. On one occasion, while addressing an audience, he told his intermediary to “translate this for them . . . tell them that, if only they knew Russian, I could, without as much as a blemish on their dicky shirt, nail them with my tongue to the crosses of their own braces, I could twirl the whole verminous collection of them round the skewer of my tongue.” His friend and fellow futurist David Burliuk paraphrased: “My great friend Vladimir Vladimirovich would like another cup of tea.”
Not much happened during the American trip that was not transmuted into verse. Of the Brooklyn Bridge he wrote, “I’m proud of this very mile of steel, that’s where my visions can arise”; the Atlantic Ocean: “Waves are masters of agitation: they can splash up your childhood; or else — your lover’s voice.” There is something refreshingly unsettling about having the familiar images of one’s own country cast in a new light and described with such wholesome accuracy.
The early twentieth century was a time of political mobilization and militancy. The Socialist Party of America, the International Workers of the World, and the Communist Party of America were all founded within the first two decades of the century.
Communists and Socialists were as prevalent within popular culture as they were in politics. They were on the radio (Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Sis Cunningham), the movie screen (Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Dalton Trumbo), in books (Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Arthur Miller), in galleries (Pablo Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Alice Neel), and all over the daily newspapers and magazines, of which the Communist and Socialist parties had many.
Mayakovsky, like his fellow communists in the US, saw right through the spectacle of the roaring ’20s. With a comical literal mindedness, he was always quick to point out how capitalist exploitation undergirded the whole economic and social system. On one occasion, he observed that aspects of feminine beauty were directed heartlessly by the tight grip of market forces — whether one prefers short or long hair depends entirely on the degree of influence of hairpin manufacturers (on the side of long hair) and hairdressers (invested wholly in the bob).
The American Volga
Mayakovsky’s “discovery of America” is often associated with his lengthy and adventurous time spent in New York City, where he famously wrote the Brooklyn Bridge poem, met with legendary American Communist writers like Mike Gold, and had a romantic affair that led to the birth of a secret daughter.
But he also journeyed westward, taking the so-called express train to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and that great beacon of the Midwest, Chicago. Displaying his characteristic wit, Mayakovsky wryly remarked that, “one train from Chicago to New York takes thirty-two hours, another one takes twenty-four, and a third one takes twenty. They are all called the same thing — express.”
The Midwest, gliding by the train window, was, for him, where “the real American towns started.” “There was a flash of the American Volga — the Mississippi; I was taken aback by the train station in St. Louis.” He admired these landscapes of vastness, ampleness, its nuances, varying geographies, the industrial landscapes of Detroit’s automotive core, Chicago’s factories — the radiant, irredeemable Midwest.
Mayakovsky had already developed a romantic attachment to America’s heartland long before he set sail across the Atlantic. In his narrative poem “150,000,000,” he described Chicago in 1920 as
from fragments of light
gathering a quintet,
endowed [America] with a power that’s magical —
a city therein stands
on a single spiral —
it’s all electro-dynamo-mechanical.
What drew the poet to the city was its unashamed combination of urbanism and industrialization. “Chicago is not ashamed of its factories,” he proclaimed. “It doesn’t regulate them to the outskirts. There can be no surviving without bread, and McCormick [a mechanical reaper manufacturer] puts his agricultural machinery plants on display more centrally, even more haughtily, than any Paris can do its Notre-Dame.”
Detroit was that city familiar to those across the world: the center of the automobile industry, between Chicago and Cleveland, here you found factories for Packard, Cadillac, and Dodge, but towering over all of these names was Ford, and more importantly Fordism. Mayakovsky maintained a nuanced perspective on the potential of the new capitalist system of management: it would be beneficial for a socialist government to implement some of these new forms of organization, he thought, but this alone would not be enough. Fordism, he insisted, could not be “transposed, without any changes, to the socialist system.”
In Central Cleveland, he spoke at the Carpenters’ union hall, where, according to the Daily Worker, he gave a “proletarian cultural lecture” for “all Russian-speaking workers.” He appreciated that Midwestern charm, criticizing the density of Manhattan while finding “poetic inspiration [from] some twenty-story Cleveland hotel or other, of which the locals say: ‘Hey, that building is crowding us.’”
The Midwest of 1925 was, in many ways, drastically different from today. Once the workshop of American capitalism, the Great Lakes megaregion has since shed much of its industry due to increasing international competition. Yet despite this, there is something charming and moving about Mayakovsky’s portrait of the region. It remains true that understanding the distinct circumstances and the precise relations between classes within America today is a precondition for enacting political change. Almost a hundred years on, Mayakovsky still offers lessons worth following.