In July, four members of the editorial board of the Heath Anthology of American Literature-Paul Lauter, Amy Ling, Hortense Spillers, and Andrew Wiget-constituted the United States delegation to a conference on American minority literatures at the Gorky Institute for World Literatures in Moscow. They exchanged papers with a group of Soviet scholars from the Gorky Institute, Moscow State University, and the University of Tbilisi and engaged in a series of lively debates over the course of three crowded days. The Gorky Institute is a research organization of some 300 scholars in a variety of fields, about ten of whom constitute the American literature group. The Heath Anthology itself constituted one source of discussion.
As many American scholars have come to know, a significant group of our Soviet counterparts are quite familiar with work principally by African-American and American Indian writers-less so with texts by Hispanic- and Asian-American authors. They have translated a large number of works into Russian (as well as into some of the other languages of the Soviet Union, like Georgian), published books and pamphlets on a broad range of American minority writers, and are often quite up on new books from the United States. The Gorky Institute participants are, in fact, deeply involved in producing a long-delayed multi-volume history of American literature. Furthermore, certain works "rediscovered" in the last decade or two in the United States, like Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron-Mills" or Claude McKay's Home to Harlem, have long been familiar to Soviet scholars.
Still, as the sometimes heated discussions showed, American and Soviet critics seem headed in quite differing directions. Soviet scholars, perhaps reacting to the earlier official lines, seemed less interested in questions of politics or historicism-in issues of the "cultural work" texts perform-and more devoted to formal, sometimes rather New Critical, analyses. Some of the debate centered around what U. S. participants saw as rather idealist formulations posed by Soviet scholars; certainly materialism, dialectical or otherwise, did not occupy center stage in their literary world. The Soviet participants, women and men alike, also found it difficult to see the importance of recent feminist approaches to the study of culture; perhaps the most heated arguments of all concerned questions of gender, often underlined by the Americans and marginalized, at best, by the Soviets. (It ought to be said, however, that elsewhere in Soviet academic life, "women's issues" and questions of gender are taken with great seriousness and studied intensively. But there seems to have been relatively little interaction between those sectors and most of the critics doing literary study.) Many of the Soviet scholars were also skeptical about the questions of the canon that have become so conflicted in the United States. One participant insisted that, after all, "we know what our classics are"-Turgenev, Dostoievski, Tolstoi-and the point is to study them-and, it often sounded, them alone.
While most of the discussions focussed on American literatures and cultures, the question of Soviet "minority" cultures did arise. As is better known now (post-coup) in the United States, the American and Soviet situations with regard to minority and ethnic cultures are vastly different-to put it mildly. Certainly experience in the United States provides little useful guidance in a situation where ethnic groups are separated not only by thousand-year histories and formidable geographical boundaries but by everything from religions and eating habits to languages and alphabets. The group was fortunate enough to meet and talk with the directors of two ethnic publishing houses, one of which is planning to print a Russian-language version of the conference papers as well as a series of translations of American ethnic works.
While the arguments were intense and some of the differences profound, the Soviet scholars were wonderfully generous and informative hosts. Despite the most daunting financial constraints, intense work demands, and the social upheavals clear even weeks before the failed coup, they provided an amazing series of opportunities for American participants to learn about the cultures, arts, and history of their country. Some of us, for example, had the good fortune to see an enormous show of Soviet art from the 1920s and 1930s. It contained hundreds of works, some reflecting the officially-approved styles, but much else a variety that would be surprising even to the well-informed. Variety, however, was not confined to museums: street art in many forms has a vivid life at least in Moscow and Leningrad-as, indeed, does street democracy.
A number of the Soviet literary scholars from the Gorky Institute and elsewhere have spoken or taught-indeed, are now teaching-in U. S. institutions. These kinds of exchanges are, of course, enormously interesting and helpful for both sides and provide significant opportunities to foster the study of all the literatures and cultures of the United States here and throughout the Soviet Union.