Literary life in the Rusyn homeland had traditionally been preoccupied with questions of language and national identity. Situated at a crossroads of culture in Eastern Europe, and subject to competing political pressures, the Rusyns emigrated to America without a cohesive national consciousness and lacking a standardized language. At the time of the largest migration to America before World War I, Carpatho-Rusyns communicated in several dialects that have been classified by modern linguists as part of the Ukrainian language, although as a result of Slovak, Polish and Hungarian admixtures, Carpatho-Rusyn speech differed markedly from standard Ukrainian. Each writer’s choice of written language reflected his own understanding of Rusyn national identity. While some argued that Rusyns were a branch of a larger all-Russian people, others claimed that they belonged to the Ukrainian nationality, and still others insisted that Rusyns were a distinct ethnic group, related to but distinct from both Russians and Ukrainians. Thus, some early Rusyn-American literature was written in Russian and Ukrainian. However, most writers supported the distinction of Rusyn culture and used an unstandardized language that followed the patterns of Russian grammar, but included numerous lexical and syntactical borrowings from Carpatho-Rusyn vernacular, as well as English. Initially, Rusyn writers used Cyrillic, but by the 1930s, most had adopted the Latin alphabet, using a system of transliteration that was based on Slovak orthography. At first, Rusyn-American literature was directed solely at the Rusyn community. However, since the 1950s, almost all publications for the Carpatho-Rusyn community have used English, and writers have oriented their works to a broader audience. Third-generation Rusyn-American writers have situated their works ideologically in the context of the contemporary Rusyn movement, which defends the identity of Rusyns as a distinct ethnic group. Since the fall of communism, Rusyn culture has experienced a renaissance in the European homeland, which has been nurtured by a reciprocal interest among Rusyns in the United States in their ethnic background.
Most Rusyn-American writers of the first generation insisted on their amateur status in literature, contending that it was only love for their people that led them to literature. Many writers were first and foremost Greek Catholic priests, such as Stefan Varzaly (1890-1957) and Basil Shereghy (1918-1988), who published occasional poems and plays in almanacs or newspapers. Others were journalists, such as Peter Maczkov (1880-1965), author of a collection of religious poetry (Vinec nabožnych stichov, 1958), or Stefan Telep (1882-1965) and Nicholas Cislak (1910-1988), who wrote plays for amateur theater groups. The Greek Catholic priest Emilij Kubek (1857-1940) was a prolific writer and is remembered today as the author of Marko Sholtys, the only Rusyn-language novel published in the United States. Dymytrii Vyslotskii (1888-1968), known by his pseudonym Van’o Hunjanka was active in journalism in the Lemko communities of Canada and the United States from 1922 until 1945, and his short stories and plays appeared in the annual almanac he published during the 1930s (Karpatorusskii kalendar’ Vania Hunjanka, 1930-1938).
While most of their stories are set in the new world, Rusyn-American authors reveal a certain detachment from the realities of American life, which results from their didactic intent and their concentration on moral and mythic principles. In distinction from most ethnic-American literature, little attention is paid to the motivation for leaving the old country, the ocean voyage, or the difficulties of adjustment in the new world. Many Rusyn characters achieve success not by navigating the American educational, social and political order, but through an intensification of traditional values. For example, in Kubek's story “Palko Rostoka,” set in industrial America, which was the reality of Rusyn immigrants, the eponymous hero hides his Rusyn identity and a mysterious past that includes unjust imprisonment. He achieves material success and universal admiration not by leading a strike against the factory’s owner, but by urging mediation and compromise. When his secrets are revealed, Palko pays homage to his Rusyn past, but becomes a new man in America, as symbolized by the removal of his beard. The values Kubek expresses in this story are repeated by every Rusyn-American author – the keys to success are hard work, modesty, temperance, and economy, and the virtuous man who achieves success is not materialistic, but kind, and most important of all, unpretentious. However, it is clear that Kubek’s praise of Rusyn ethnicity does not constitute a general endorsement of American diversity, as the author and his heroes cling to old-world prejudices, an aversion to speculation in business, distrust in the efficacy of legal remedies, and suspicion of political action. The heroes of Rusyn-American literature are suffering innocents who, in melodramatic turns, prevail against the world’s villains by dint of their moral character. Often lacking in realistic and culturally specific details, Rusyn-American literature depends on the allegorical mode. The pictures of working-class virtue and the triumph of the good present a kind of wish-fulfillment for readers and the prospect of a reorganized society in which they will be able to thrive on moral virtue alone.
The myth is varied only slightly in the work of Vyslotskii-Hunjanka and Cislak, where the Cinderella narrative takes on a political coloring. In these works, the morally virtuous are the pro-Soviet socialists who fight against the aristocracy and the church. In opposition to Kubek, Hunjanka is overtly anti-clerical and his heroes espouse explicitly political solutions to their socio-economic problems. His stories “Starŷ i molodŷ" ("The Old and the Young," 1925) and “Marko Bohach,” (1932), and his plays Sholtys (1935) and Petro Pavlyk (1937) depict the struggles of Lemkos to survive in their homeland under conditions of poverty and political oppression. In “Leško Myrna” (1932) and “Agentŷ,” (“Agents,” 1928), Rusyn immigrants encounter the Great Depression in the United States, and the author voices support for labor unions. Hunjanka-Vyslotskii also persistently reminds his American readers to offer aid and support to their brothers in Europe.
The most popular literary genres among Rusyn-American writers of the first generation were poetry and drama. Short plays provided a sizeable repertoire for the numerous dramatic circles that were centered in local parishes and fraternal organizations. Many are set in the American-Rusyn community and deal with its problems – the struggle to become Americans, generational conflicts, and alcohol abuse. Fedorišinovy (The Fedorišins, 1925) by Valentin Gorzo (1869-1943) is a three-act drama, which is based on a true story and deals with all these issues. American holidays such as a family Thanksgiving dinner represent civility to the second-generation of the family but are alien to their religious, tradition-bound mother and their alcoholic father. Despite an appeal to the American legal system, the oldest son is forced to kill his father to defend the family and achieve an “American style” of life. Stefan F. Telep wrote satirical plays that feature a daughter’s struggle against patriarchal authority (Khytra dîvchyna, A Shrewd Girl, 1927) and the witty efforts of Rusyn immigrants to deal with the American legal system (V sudî, In Court, 1944). The audience is expected to laugh at the antics of the simple Rusyns, but to heed the judge’s admonitions – parents are told to educate their children so they will be an honor to their people, and children are encouraged to remember their roots. Maria’s Problem (1941) by Judy Mirek, written in a mix of English and Rusyn vernacular is a lesson addressed to young Rusyns to honor their linguistic and cultural heritage. While Maria’s Rusyn-speaking mother tells her “there are no bad ethnicities, only bad people,” it is only her Scottish-American boyfriend who can influence her, with his reminder that America is “a melting pot of different nationalities.” By 1960, plays such as the comedy Van’o Peperytsia by Nikolai Tsysliak satirized the immigrant community, which, in the eyes of a recent immigrant, persisted in the same faults and vices that were common in the old country.
While drama was primarily light and entertaining, poetry tended to be serious, religious, and ideological. Lyrical effusions about the beauty of the homeland and the Rusyn experience of suffering fill the work of Sigmund Brinsky (Stichi, Verses, 1922) and Ivan A. Ladižinsky (Karpatorossy v Evropi i Ameriki, 1940). Of more aesthetic value is the work of two talented poets who began their literary careers in Europe but also published in the United States – the Russian-oriented Dmitrii Vergun (Karpatskie otzvuki, Carpathian Echoes, 1920) and the Ukrainian-language poet and Basilian monk, Sevastiian Sabol, pseud. Zoreslav (Z rannikh vesen, From Early Spring, 1963).
Writers of the second-generation used the English language to memorialize the immigrant experience in longer forms. The first Rusyn-American writer to seek an audience outside the Rusyn community was Vasil S. Koban, with his novel The Sorrows of Marienka (1979), written in the style of sociological realism. Thomas Bell, whose father was of Rusyn background, dealt with the fate of Rusyn, Slovak, and other east European immigrants during the Depression in his well known novel Out of This Furnace (1987). Sonya Jason, the daughter of immigrants from Subcarpathian Rus’, incorporated Rusyn-American themes in her memoir Icon of Spring (1987). In Eternal Memory (1999), Ann Walko interweaves memoirs of immigrant life with songs, recipes, and embedded narratives about the homeland in aesthetically compelling poetic prose. An adaptation of Walko’s play Zhenska shleboda (Women’s Lib), originally written in Rusyn, was performed in English at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2004. It offers a rare counterpoint to the stereotypical misogyny expressed in traditional male-dominated Rusyn-American literature.
Third-generation Rusyn-Americans have concentrated on literary and historical scholarship, rather than creative literature, but recently novels of autobiographical fiction have appeared that reach beyond the Rusyn community. Nicholas S. Karas’s novel Hunky: The Immigrant Experience (2004) blends history, biography, and fiction as he follows three generations of Rusyns from their home in the Carpathian Mountains to industrial America. Less Than Diamonds by Pete Bohaczyk (2002) tells a similar story centered on Rusyn mine workers. Unfortunately, these novels have little aesthetic value and reveal a great deal of confusion about Rusyn history and identity. Another novel in progress, The Linden and the Oak, by Mark Wansa, is well researched, historically accurate, and written in a poetic style that captures the spirit of Rusyn folk art.
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