The Cosmopolitan Mind of Louis Adamic
On the occasion Of
the One Hundredth Anniversary of his Birth
I knew Louis Adamic
and his literary work from school only vaguely until the very key period of
my life when I myself experienced
However,I only began to wonder seriously about Adamic's ethical vision when as a postgraduate student and an enthusiastic poet,I started to enter the seductively painstaking word of American English,the adopted media,to which,along with the special social imperative for an untroubled life in America,some prestige is also granted by the universal fact that it has the status of lingua franca.I myself arrived in America when I was over twenty-five,with already formed poetics and with the formative period of growing up in Slovenia behind me.That means that I actually came to the "land of a thousand opportunities" too late to successfully change my artistic language.
Adamic,on the other hand,was carried across the sea by the waves of political repression, undoubtedly gifted with the necessary measure of personal courage,at the tender age of fifteen after being expelled from a Ljubljana secondary school because of hid progressive ideas.Consider:a fifteen-year-old boy aboard an ocean liner carrying masses of emigrants to the New World.Is that not the archetype of the twentieth century,the century of refugees and normads,exiles and adventures? How many of them were lost and disappeared namelessly in the whirlpool of brutal competition under the Statue of Liberty? Countless numbers.Louis Adamic,however,did to get lost.On the contrary,with his life and creative talent,he showed how it is possible to turn the thrilling freedom of "starting over" to his advantage.And Adamic definitely had to start over,because he could not speak English on his arrival in America.The melody,rhythm,and dictionary of American English therefore became the air that he breathed:the adopted language became Adamic's "second nature," because he wrote all his literary works,critiques,and documentaries in it.His writing opus,as we know,is immense and formally diverse,although not always balanced in quality because there is a considerable stylistic difference between,for example,his complex social criticism novel Dynamite(1931) and the "politically interested" book Dinner at the White House(1946).
However,one must be careful here.After thoughtful consideration,we see that it is not possible to easily
reject the assumption that in Adamic's position,one could hardly avoid the often thankless genre
of political journalism.How could Adamic,a convinced advocate of socialist ideas,democratic order,and
national recognition,possibly resist the tempting
opportunity to acquaint Roosevelt with the partisan battle in Yugoslavia
which he ardently supported? This approach of his is fascinating because,in spite of his feverish
writing and perhaps precisely on account of it,Adamic
was in the position of having access to the president of the strongest world
power! Authors,American as
well as emigrant,were numerous in
This dimension of Adamic's exemplarily colorful biography and emigrant experience,which still has central meaning for the (self-)understanding of America,in itself eloquently reveals his reputation and high position in a creative career.And it directs us to another important fact just as infallibly:that Adamic never renounced his "first nature," the culture of the Old World and the homeland from which he crossed the sea to follow the myth of the Promised Land on a --though hardly reflected--historical,economic,and metaphysical level.Adamic soon sensed the painful contradiction and difference between the ideal and the reality in all its direct brutality.
Thus he wrote about his two homelands:with the swift strokes of realist portrayal where the palpable living fabric bursting with ambition to come to light has the final say.This is where I as a reader first encountered him,in a dynamic condition and in persuasive,though somewhat time-marked social criticism in the tradition of the popular literature written by Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser.It was only later that I came across his essays in which the critical note is preserved but augmented with the unmistakable acceleration of intellectual debate about Yugoslavia.In those somewhat less than five years during which Yugoslavia disintegrated that I spent on a campus on the east coast of the "land of plenty" as a postgraduate and gradually as a publishing poet in America,I inevitably pondered on my own individual and creative identity because of the experimental weight of the "newcomer" in a new cultural fabric was particularly inspired by the fact that Adamic was not a professor or a scientist--we Slovenes already had such people in America even before Adamic's appearance.
Why was it important at all that I saw Adamic first and foremost as a writer? Simply because on the international scale,Slovene poets and novelists indeed have no such prestigious references and names.Adamic's work,however,definitely represents such a reference,even though the pages of his numerous books are today yellow with time.In spite of his postwar moral and social engagement,Adamic was,after all,a writer who managed in his stories to reflect the painful tensions of history in the inevitably deformed mirror of literature.For the very reason that,in accordance with personal vision,the view of a literary work of art is inevitably deformed,it opens access to such a stylized form of experience that reaches beyond the valued indifference of political economy and beyond malleable statesmanlike rhetoric.It is only the artistic recuperation of reality as the utmost crystallization of the cultural experience that anticipates the sober mercy of that special light which "...life is most enriched by that story which is just to the complexity and multiple meaning of history,which opens the widest area to manfs creativity, which with elegance of form achieves a kind of transcendence and appeals to the better dimension of our essence,"as American cultural critic Neil Postman puts it.Adamic's work undoubtedly knows this kind of narrative.Directly but eloquently,it is evident in the spark which flew across the Atlantic into the Slovene atmosphere of politically and culturally charged debate on the national question in the 1930's.In the summer of 1932,Louis Adamic and his wife Stella Sanders-Adamic traveled across Slovenia and,of course,across Yugoslavia.With a grant from the prestigious Guggenheim Foundation,after nineteen years of emigrant life in America where he grew from a fifteen-year-old Grosuplje boy into a respected American writer,Adamic returned to his "old place" to write a book of essays on his former homeland and its literature and politics entitled The Native's Return.Published two years after the visit.the book was immediately banned in the kingdom of Yugoslavia.
Adamic met only fleetingly Josip Vidmar,whose polemically radical 1932 booklet Kulturni problem slovenstva ("The Cultural Problem of Slovene Identity") again stimulated the "eternal" debate on the national question,but Vidmar too had the impression that their interests did not really match.However,Vidmar and his colleagues at the magazine Ljublianski Zvon as well as other members of the literary elite of the time socially befriended the successful Slovene-American writer: Ludvik Mrzel,Jus and Ferdo Kozak,Fran Albreht,Mile Klopecic,and Oton Zupancic.Socializing with Adamic in Ljubjana and around Slovenia (including a visit to Adamic's birthplace in Spodnje Blato),Zupancic seemed to be extremely touched.In his essays,Zupancic,who then enjoyed the reputation of a poet with extraordinary public influence and spiritual authority, criticized with great affection the dangers of deeply-rooted Slovene provincialism.Adamic's personal example played a great role in forming Zupancic's position,which today it appears is again becoming relevant since chauvinism as the policy of the Nation,that is,the policy of the nation as an exclusive metaphysical idea in whose name all measures are justified,is again raising its Medusa's head all over the world,especially in the Balkans and in Central Europe.Adamic's creative and existentialist tension of life between two worlds which stands against ethnic fundamentalism is becoming relevant as well.In this kind of tension,an inspiring cosmopolitan approach is born that is marked by respect for different traditions without at the same time forgetting its own genius loci.In a period of migration and multilingual environments,forces of transnational capital,and the universal circulation of ideas;in a period of plural identities in which national identification is no longer generally self-evident--less because of political reasons than in the period between the two World Wars and more because of the gigantic economic and cultural processes of modern globalization;in this period which is our current fin-de-millenium,Adamic's vision increasingly embodies an important source from which it is possible to draw stimulation for considering "how to be human"--not a Slovene or an American but a human being.It is possible than this is a hopelessly humanistic and antiquated approach,as those provincials of the mind would probably say who care little about the tension between the individual and universal dimensions of existence and even less about the conflict between the national and global momentum of the individual's biography.
For me,however,Adamic's approach presents a welcome opportunity to look for the answers to one of the key dilemmas of modern times by looking back over my shoulder to past literary reflections of this dilemma.Ultimately,I cannot act in any other way since I remain bound to Slovene as a poet in spite of the English in the island of the family home where,after all, I speak the language in which Adamic lived a full writer's life with my two children and my American wife. Indeed,the first edition of Ivan Cankar's Hlapec Jernej in English that I showed to my wife to begin introducing her to the achievements of the literary tradition in which I create came from Adamic's generous translator's pen in distant 1926.
Adamic's mysteriously unexplained death on his farm in Milford with its undeniable elements of political murder,his extensive social activity after the war,and his evident moral engagement cannot but add a strangely attractive light to his "life and work." No Slovene literary artist of this century can pass him without a feeling of impoverishment.Adamic is firmly anchored in our literary heritage,despite his use of English.He is one of a kind.
*This article was appeared on
the quarterly magazine
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