Reading “The UnAmericans” and Revisiting John McPhee’s “The Ransom of Russian Art”


There are many reasons to read The UnAmericans, Molly Antopol’s terrific debut collection; many of them are covered by Jason Diamond’s recent piece on the book. For me, one of the side benefits to reading it was through its invocation of another notable book: John McPhee’s The Ransom of Russian Art. McPhee’s book, first published in 1994, focuses on the curious life of Norton Dodge, an economist who, during the Cold War, smuggled numerous works of art out of the Soviet Union, and worked to raise awareness of the dissident artists working there.

Antopol cites McPhee’s book in the Author’s Note at the end of The UnAmericans, and one can see its influence in a passage in “Retrospective,” the story that closes the book. The story revolves around Eva Kaplan, a now-deceased art collector who, like Dodge, spirited art from out of a totalitarian state. At one point, Antopol describes her character’s relationship to an unnamed figure who sounds quite a bit like Norton Dodge:

The only person with a bigger collection was an American economist in Maryland, a friend of Eva’s, whose quest to bring as many unofficial Russian works to the western world had inspired her, she’d said in numerous interviews, to do the same for Soviet Jewish art.

It’s a nice nod in the direction of the story’s historical roots–and, hopefully, it might prompt some admirers of Antopol’s collection to delve into McPhee’s book. As for the subject of the latter, Norton Dodge died in 2011, and this obituary provides a good overview of his life and work. Those who are curious about the art he collected might find a trip to New Jersey instructive: his collection was donated to Rutgers in the early 1990s, and is on display at the Zimmerli Art Museum.

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