In America Summary & Study Guide

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In America Summary & Study Guide Description

In America Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion and a Free Quiz on In America by Susan Sontag.

A group of artistic and intellectual Poles, searching for a better life, unsuccessfully attempt to form a utopian community in the Tatra Mountains of southern Poland. Undaunted, they pursue their dream to America and to Southern California, where they form a commune. Everyone is changed by the experience - some get stronger while others collapse and return to Poland. Although their commune ultimately fails because of financial mismanagement, the immigrants who remain go their separate ways toward becoming full-fledged Americans. Maryna Zalezowski, a famous Polish actress and the main character, quits her acting career to start the commune then resumes acting when the commune fails, becoming an internationally famous actress

Thirty-five-year-old actress Maryna Zalezowski, restless and in search of adventure, leads a retinue of Poles to the United States in 1876 to form an idealistic commune near Anaheim, California. In the group are her husband, Bogdan Dembowski (a count without a counting house), seven-year-old son Piotr, a writer named Ryszard who is enamored of the actress, and others looking to start a new life in a new country. They depart from Poland in waves, with Ryszard and Julian, a family friend, leaving first to check out a community in California where the group imagines a life of freedom that combines shared financial responsibility with artistic expression and development. The group seems to believe a utopian society will be easy to create in California, even though their efforts to do just that in Europe have failed.

Their painful farewells to family, friends, and countrymen are a small preparation for the arduous journey with passengers separated into first class for those who could afford the fare and steerage (the below-deck steamship passage were reserved for the destitute and deranged). The party finally lands in New York at the time of the Centennial Exhibition, where they get a concentrated dose of what makes America exciting - new inventions such as the telephone that cause amazement and a fear for Maryna that the device may destroy the theater because of the ease with which audiences could listen remotely to performances.

Enraptured by advertising slogans that promote the ease and abundance of life in California, Ryszard and Julian board a high-speed train for the West Coast. As the company that includes Maryna sets forth on their American odyssey, they are torn between the excitement and challenge of the New World and a tender longing for the lives they abandoned in Poland. Having prepared herself to give up her acting career to move to America, Maryna is pleasantly surprised to find an active and vigorous thespian life in her adopted land. In a letter to a friend in Poland, Maryna describes some of the cultural riches she discovers in New York and admits that she has stashed several of the stage costumes in her shipping trunk. She also encounters the famed Booth family of actors that includes John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln.

Maryna gets her first exposure to American theater in San Francisco where she sees the famous Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth in two productions at the California Theatre. Once she joins the group at the commune outside the mostly German Anaheim, she discovers an inherent inequity in workload distribution: the men do only those tasks they cannot postpone, while the women take care of the daily meal preparation and feeding the animals. Soon after Piotr meets American children, he wants to change his name to Peter, and Ryszard wants to change his name to Richard. The commune has invested heavily in wine grapes and suffers severely because of a drop in market prices for their crop. They ignore the advice of a savvy Jewish businessman in Anaheim that the only way they can succeed is to also make and sell wines.

In his diary, Maryna's husband writes: "We live worse than we did in Poland. If our community fails, it won't be because of the impracticality of all utopian schemes but because we have renounced too much of what was gratifying". One member of the commune, Wanda Solski, attempts suicide. Another couple decides to return to Poland, yet another member takes off for New York. Maryna leaves her husband Bogdan and son Peter at the commune and goes to San Francisco to find work in the theater. For the first time, she experiences the rush of freedom that she expected to feel upon coming to America.

Maryna stays with a Polish immigrant couple in San Francisco and becomes an instant celebrity because of her fame as an actress in the old country. To help her to overcome the English barrier to an American stage career, Maryna hires a speech tutor named Mildred Collingridge who gives elocution lessons to Nob Hill matrons. Ryszard/Richard comes to visit Maryna in San Francisco and they have a brief but passionate affair - at the same time that Maryna finds a mutual sexual interest in Ms. Collingridge. The attraction leads only to repression.

Maryna changes her name to Marina Zalenska, and is billed by her manager/promoter over her tepid protests as a Polish countess because of her husband's title. Her career quickly catches fire, and she soon is touring the country in her own private, opulent railroad car and is giving performances at theaters in cities large and small. As Marina advances in her American theatrical career, she leaves more and more of her old life behind and becomes more narcissistic.

There is an estrangement between her and her husband and son. However, when Marina is called to perform with Edwin Booth in New York, they go on tour together. It is apparent that Marina's absorption in her career has become self-absorption of the sort that is totally American. The story ends with a drunken, self-absorbed monologue by the actor Edwin Booth, to which Maryna is witness. Her dramatic and artistic hero has become a snarling, vicious apotheosis of the American ideal of self-realization and fulfillment.

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