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While the Soviet Union (USSR) only existed from 1922 to 1991, it has had an enduring reputation as an oppressive regime that controlled everything its citizens could do, say, and even read. These tight restrictions on life relaxed after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. At least one Thomas Wolfe short story, however, was printed and available in the USSR even during the period of the tightest restrictions. His works were eventually studied by Soviet literary scholars, and numerous articles published in the Russian language. Such interest in Wolfe’s work in the countries of the former Soviet Union provides evidence of the author’s long-standing global appeal.
Given his reverence for America and the personal freedoms the country stood for, at first glance, it may seem odd for the USSR to have favored Wolfe. He was a loud critic of American society, and frequently decried capitalism in his letters and writings. As a young man in 1922 Wolfe wrote “There are three ways, and only three, to gain distinction [in the U.S.]: 1) money, 2) more money, 3) a great deal of money. And the manner of getting it is immaterial.” In the 1930s, Wolfe became increasingly aware of the suffering brought to millions of Americans by the Great Depression, and his views strengthened. He identified himself as a working man and genuinely sympathized with the working masses.
His first editor, Maxwell Perkins, feared Wolfe would be influenced by the Communist party. As his fame spread various leftist groups courted Wolfe’s favor. Thomas Wolfe received invitations to serve on leftist committees, participate in demonstrations, and sign petitions for left-wing causes. But he was not someone who tended to join groups. He thought of American Communists as a fashionable cult with too much influence over writers.
Pressured to take a political stand Thomas Wolfe declared himself a social democrat, “a man who believes in socialism but not in communized socialism, and in democracy, but not in individualized democracy.” This in part likely prompted the FBI to eventually open a file on Wolfe. In 1987 author David Herbert Donald was informed that the FBI “never opened a file on Thomas Wolfe.” Yet, in 2004 historian Herbert Mitgang acquired a censored 123-page file now housed at the New York Public Library. Evidently most of the pages were written after Wolfe’s death. They were concerned with the fact that Wolfe’s writings had become part of the required reading lists in schools thought to be influenced by Communists.
Wolfe never visited nor wrote about the Soviet Union, and aside from being courted by leftist groups he had no association with the country whatsoever. His work was first published in Moscow in 1950. The novella “The Lost Boy” was translated in 1958, with other stories following. A Russian translation of Look Homeward, Angel was published in 1971. Today Russian translations of Wolfe’s writings are hard to find in the United States. Searches of several online book sellers including Amazon, eBay, and AbeBooks yielded only a few Russian translation of Wolfe’s work available for collectors. If you have copies of Wolfe’s work in Russian, we would love to hear from you.