Back when I was in graduate school, on the last day of a seminar on Eastern European literature, the professor asked us what we thought characterized literature from that part of the world. We concluded that it was a sense of fatalism.
In fact, I think I was the one to first suggest that answer, for I recognized the fear and sense of futility. As an immigrant who came here at a young age with my parents from Slovenia, then part of communist Yugoslavia, I knew firsthand the difference in attitudes that marks the American character. It provided a source of conflict between me and my parents, who, like many immigrants, doggedly clung to security and obscurity — while I read and dreamed of becoming a famous writer, and in the American way studied for a Ph.D. in spite of my age and early educational track.
But this was not uncommon. The parents of my Ukrainian friends carried a look of worried fear. The mother of one of my friends made it a policy to sign no “papers.” Her refusal to sign a form denied my friend a scholarship to become a dental hygienist — her dream. My Polish friend Anthony Bukoski writes superb short stories that capture the sense of a proud and brave people brutalized by totalitarian regimes and then made refugees. Metod Milač, a Slovene, has written a riveting account of his experiences of imprisonment by the Italian Fascists and German Nazis. A friend, whose late father had been a member of the Slovenian Home Guard that had resisted the takeover by the communist Partisans, literally looked over his shoulder on the streets of Cleveland.
But those streets, once havens for displaced persons, soon were destroyed by the utopian plans of collectivists and their agitators who urged the mobs to violence. The neighbors of my working-class neighborhood in Rochester, New York, complained from their front porches of increasing taxes, as they watched their property values deteriorate from the urban “renewal” and social decay of Johnson’s Great Society program. While a job at Kodak or a stint at the community college was the aspiration for the graduates of Benjamin Franklin High School in the mid-seventies, we believed that nonetheless it was possible for someone of talent to make it big. Like the Partridge Family, they could take to the road, or at least enjoy owning a Camaro or Firebird — before the burdens of suburban family life took precedence.