Kubek’s first home in Mahanoy City, St. Mary’s old rectory.
People’s Tales and Songs
While 1923 was a year of great professional disappointment for Kubek after he witnessed many members of St. Mary’s defect to a new church, it was also a year of great personal accomplishment. After sitting on a manuscript for eight years, his novel Marko Šoltys — the first Carpatho-Rusyn novel — appeared in print.
Kubek had completed Marko Šoltys in 1915 but had trouble finding a publishing house that was willing to incur the substantial cost of producing a lengthy, multifaceted saga for a Carpatho-Rusyn community that was not at all inclined to read, let alone purchase, belles lettres. The literary committee of the GCU accepted the novel in 1916, but only published 100 pages before they pulled out of the project. A new literary committee decided to try again in 1918, but, as Kubek writes, “they only decided to do it.” Two years later, Kubek gave the manuscript to P. J. Maczkov, the head of the GCU youth organization “Sokol” (The Falcon), who distributed parts of the novel among Carpatho-Rusyn students. The students responded so positively to Marko Šoltys that they petitioned Kubek personally and in public to publish it in its entirety, so Kubek decided to finance its publication himself.
Kubek spent $4,000 of his own money to print 3,000 copies of the four-volume Narodny Povísti i Stichi (People’s Tales and Verses), which would turn out to be the only commercial print run of his work during his lifetime. He took the opportunity to release a number of his unpublished short stories and poems as well, which appeared in 1922 in the first volume of People’s Tales and Verses. The second, third, and fourth volumes were taken up by the monumental Marko Šoltys. The publication turned out to be a family affair as well, for all four volumes were illustrated by his son, Anthony Kubek, and edited by his son-in-law, Nikolaj E. Petrik.
Set in Subcarpathian Rus’, Marko Šoltys tells the story of the trials and tribulations of Marko Furman amidst the backdrop of Central European history from 1860s to World War I. Orphaned at a young age, Marko serves in the Austro-Hungarian army, works for wealthy lords, but manages to become a successful landowner through his “diligence, perseverance, and prudence” (Danćak 2004).
In the preface, Kubek proudly announces that Marko Šoltys is “the first long tale (povíst’ dol’ša) — novel — of a writer from Subcarpathia in the Rusyn language.” The fact that Kubek gives two different descriptions of the work’s genre and feels the need to explain that a novel was “a long tale” reveals that the Carpatho-Rusyn readership was largely unprepared for this pioneering work. Kubek himself seemed to have a good deal of anxiety about whether the novel would sell, for he makes an appeal to the Carpatho-Rusyn youth to help offset the significant personal investment he made to bring his collected works to the light of day. “Boys and girls of the Falcons! At your request … Marko Šoltys has appeared, in three volumes, with illustrations … don’t you want to help me so that I can pay off my work?” His fears, unfortunately, proved to be justified, and Kubek became increasingly frustrated when orders for People’s Tales and Stories weren’t coming in. To add injury to insult, Kubek soon developed respiratory problems, which began to take a toll on his health. Broke in body and spirit, Kubek picked up and took a long, well-deserved vacation to Florida, which resulted in a radical reconsideration about his career as a writer.
The Long Road to Florida
Kubek’s trip to Florida came about when his daughter Mary and her husband, the painter F. C. von Hausen, stopped into Mahanoy City in December 1925. The couple was on their way to Florida, where they had been vacationing and would later permanently settle, and invited Kubek to accompany them. Kubek initially was hesitant to go, but after the disappointment of People’s Tales and Verses and the difficulty of shaking his cough in the harsh Mahanoy City winters, Kubek decided to let loose: “My cough is bothering me, my lungs are exhausted, the doctors recommend a long rest… Hey, I’ll go! It’s decided!” (March 26, 1926).
St. Mary’s threw Kubek a large banquet to see him off, and the Mahanoy City papers covered the event. Describing him as “a wonderful character,” “a true type of manhood,” and “a lovable Christian gentleman,” the Record American marveled at the fact that after forty-five years as a priest, “this is his first vacation!” (December 15, 1925).
Upon Kubek’s return to Mahanoy City, he wrote a long account of his trip and published it serially in the American Rusyn Messenger from March 26 to May 20, 1926. Entitled “My Journey to Florida,” Kubek’s travelogue is a fascinating look at America in the 1920s through the eyes of a man who feels liberated from the burden of his familial, literary, and pastoral duties, if but for a few weeks. Kubek drinks wine on the side of the road in Pennsylvania, investigates Southern Baptist churches, talks with the homeless, smokes in line at the post office in Fort Meyers, is deeply moved by the terrible living conditions of Southern blacks, and reaches a level of profound joy, mixed with deep sadness, at the thought that he could have bought a plot of fertile land in the south and grown whatever would suit his fancy – only if he hadn’t just spent his savings on the publication of the ignored, unread, and unappreciated Marko Šoltys! In the first installment of “My Journey to Florida,” Kubek with great frustration and bitterness announces his retirement from writing and excoriates the Carpatho-Rusyn reading public for wasting his money, time, and well-being. He tells his readers that “My Journey to Florida” will be his last publication, and the following excerpts illustrate the heights of his joy and intensity of his regret experienced along the long road to Florida.
“My Journey to Florida”
By Emil Kubek
[…] We have writers, poets, composers, actors, on the level of the most educated, magnificent peoples. And their work is in vain – there’s nobody to write for, to compose for, to paint for, to work for. We had to teach ourselves and went through a lot. Books came out, we published our poems, songs, etc… for the people. We sacrificed our health and our money. […]
I’ve written all sorts of things for the papers: religious works, didactic polemics, humorous pieces, when necessary, I’ve answered questions, […] published poems, but in particular I’ve written a lot of short stories from the life of our people so that they would understand their own soul, their character, their good qualities and their baser sides and customs.
I’ve received a lot of letters, maybe even from you, my dear reader: “Don’t waste your works, publish them in books. The people will buy them because it’s wonderful to read stories about our own lives… Our Rusyns in the homeland, our poor brothers, we will buy your books and send them abroad, so that they can read them…. Our reading rooms, our libraries, the Sokol lodges,… they will buy them, only start publishing!” […]
I’m gullible, as Rusyns often are, and don’t listen to the warnings of practical people but instead follow good patriotic appeals, and I published an illustrated four-volume collected works, financed it myself … and spent all of my savings in the sum of $4000, not counting the considerable work of publishing, editing, and illustration… All of this was for my people.
Our newspapers, in which I have published my work for so many years … for free, refused to advertise the publication, with one exception. One of them even sent me a bill! I waited for orders from individual Rusyns, fraternal organizations, Sokol lodges, our brethren in the homeland … and I’m still waiting. These thousands of volumes aren’t being read by Rusyns, but are being read by Rusyn mice and rats. So when I hear that “Rusyn priests don’t do anything for the people, they don’t write, the people don’t have books to read!” Hmmm…
Our Rusyns don’t read in the winter because it cold. In the summer it’s too warm. The weekends are holy and for rest. During the week there’s work. And the people don’t read, with a few exceptions, not even the newspapers, which they personally receive from the fraternal organizations …
“Why have you fallen silent, why haven’t you written for a long time?” the people ask me?
Why? I’ve come to my senses in old age. I’ve learned. In dark, careless days, I’ve spent all of my money and confidence. This sentimental patriotism, this “monkey business … nevermore!” This is why I haven’t written for a long time.
“Priests never publish books for us to read” … what idiots!
“But, an account of your journey?”
Truth be told, this is my last appeal to the Rusyns. With this, I would be done, if I didn’t promise to write about my “journey” to Florida. […]
[“On the road in Pennsylvania”]
Life is here a happy poem
Filled with dreams and tropic charms
Mocking birds and dove are nestling
Midst thy flower and Royal Palms
There is a road sign with the invitation to visit “Onyx Cave” and a bit further one “Crystal Cave,” which are just off the highway!
“Let’s go for a few minutes if the caves are interesting,” I say.
“We’re not going,” says my daughter, “because ‘just off’ means twelve miles. Last year we took a detour. We went down this awful road to see them, and in the end we didn’t see anything, and wasted three hours.”
After Hamburg, a clean town, with a German population, we arrived to Reading, where a pleasant policeman showed us the road to Lancaster. A beautiful, clean city.
“Watch out dad, when the car is going to start bouncing around and tossing us back and forth, know that we’ve crossed the border of Pennsylvania and entered Maryland.”
“If this type of danger is before us, then let’s wait a bit. I’m hungry, and you kids have nothing in your stomachs. Let’s stop and let the car rest.”
We stopped along the road near a small forest in a small clearing, and my daughter prepared a nice afternoon snack. Homemade kiebasi, baked goose, and šoldra (in English, “ham” and in Russian “a cad”!) and a flask of wine (just make sure Mr. Volstead doesn’t find out). It’s a sin that we were afraid to take more. […]
Day 12, December 26, Saturday
We stopped into the post office early because our letters and trunks were sent poste restante to this office. In a new cafeteria we had breakfast and rushed to the post office and then to the express office. We’ll finish this soon and then will keep on moving!
But how many people there were in front of the post office? I’m amazed. It was impossible to approach the poste restante window. The line from the window went out the building and all the way to the street. So we’ll have to wait here, although only half an hour? I stood in the “first come, first served” line! After me the line was in the street. About fifty people were in front of me! I wait, I look at the clock, I have a cigarette … nothing helps. The line becomes shorter, but really only a little bit.
I loathsomely look around at my co-sufferers: when will my turn come? It was impossible to move. Luckily it was warm. In front of me a man walks across the line and … it’s Michail Hanchin!
What a pleasant surprise to meet one of your own in such a faraway land. We greet each other, and I rejoice that I had the chance to see him in the city. We wrote back and forth, but I didn’t know his address by heart. We received a lot of letters, and maybe after an hour and a half, we got out of the post office, stopped into the express and returned to the hotel to look over the letters. After lunch, hospitably accepted by Mr. Hanchin, we left in two cars to look at the surroundings.
While I had a sense of the citrus plantations, however, I was enchanted to tour these farms. […]
Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, bananas, pineapples, sweet potatoes for acres and acres, it was all beautiful, especially as a man who knows the snows, winters, and fronts of the north back at home! Some of the farmers only plant vegetables, and there are those who plant vegetables for their own use. As the vegetables ripen, they pick them with special boxes and sell them to picker companies.
I saw wonderful vegetables, new few cabbage, peas, beans, lettuce. I saw a farm that only grows vegetables. Fourteen miles to the west of Fort Meyers we saw more farms and mountain vegetables, one that I had never tried. Florida’s climate seems to be a profitable one for tropical plants too.
I toured a twenty-acre farm, and if I didn’t waste my money on the publication of books, I would have definitely bought this farm! I really became quite sad. I was amazed how I was able to be so careless, blindly blow the money for my retirement and my health out of sentimental patriotism… […]
Upon returning to Mahanoy City, Kubek redirected his energies away from his writing to the renovation and expansion of St. Mary’s. His long silence in the Carpatho-Rusyn press was noticed by a number of readers who began to miss seeing his articles, poems, and stories appear in the pages of the paper. Ironically, Kubek’s retirement from writing created the space for the assessment of his legacy as a writer, and he began to be celebrated in retrospective tributes to his life and work.
The most effusive testimonial to Kubek’s literary career may be that of Michael Yuhasz, then the president of the GCU, who took the opportunity to express his admiration for Kubek on the pages of the American Rusyn Messenger. In his article, published in 1929, Yuhasz calls Kubek “the lamp” of the Rusyn people and from his “golden pen” “have appeared wonderful epics, poems, stories, even monumental works, novels in our dear Rusyn language and for us — exclusively for us Subcarpathians Rusyns.” He emphasizes the unique gift of having an author of Kubek’s caliber who writes in the Rusyn language but also perceptively explains the regrettable consequences this has had on Kubek’s fame as a writer and financial well-being:
If he wasn’t born a Rusyn, if he would have been the son of a different people, then he would have had a great worldly glory, his name would have been written in golden letters in the book of hymns, our dear poet-writer would have had worldly riches. But God gave him to us, the poor Subcarpathian-Rusyn people, who although we value him higher than anything else, although with sweet and bitter tears we read the work of this creative genius of ours, nevertheless we’re not in the position to honor or compensate him materially for the work Father Kubek has done for us. (January 17, 1929)
A year later, the literary magazine Vozhd’ (The Leader) also ran a tribute to Kubek, and in his preface to Kubek’s “Autobiography,” Josif Perovič paints a sweeping and heartfelt portrait of Kubek as a human being. “As a man,” Perovič writes, Kubek “is always joyful, has a sharp mind, is full of amusing jokes and stories, and above all is a good-natured and open human being, in spite of life’s many difficulties.” As a priest, Perovič describes him as a man who “believes deeply, is highly-educated, meticulous, performs his duties to his faith and his rite, passionately loves his flock, and is a bold fighter for the rights of the Church.” Finally, Perovič calls him a writer who is “a rigorous expert on the soul of his people, a sharp critic of all sorts of sins and vices that are prevalent among the populace, and abundantly reveals his noble qualities and thoughts for the sake of praising and cultivating virtue to raise up his poor, downtrodden people” (February 1930: 4). For these reasons, Perovič closes by calling on the Carpatho-Rusyn community to collect and publish all of Kubek’s work in a single volume in time for his golden jubilee, which would be held the following year in 1931. This appeal wasn’t answered, but nonetheless Kubek celebrated his 50th year as a priest in style.
Kubek’s Golden Jubilee
On November 27, 1931, St. Mary’s was in a festive mood. It was Thanksgiving day. They had just completed the grand renovations on their new church. And their priest was celebrating his 50th year in the priesthood. The church held an extravagant day of festivities to give thanks for their church and its leader, and after the morning liturgy was held to a capacity crowd, the party continued into the evening, where a dinner was held at the Elks Club to honor St. Mary’s beloved priest.
The banquet featured performances by St. Mary’s church choir, a male choir who sang Rusyn folk music, the Mahanoy Township High School band, and a classical violinist. The Record American described John Žinčak Smith’s son Augustine as the “capable toastmaster for the occasion,” who introduced “each entertainer and speaker with clever originality.” Speeches were given by priests from Landsford, Hazelton, and the Lithuanian Catholic church in Mahanoy City, and the presidents of the Mahanoy City Borough Council, the Merchants Banking Trust Company, and John Žinčak Smith of the American Banking Trust Company. But it was Kubek, naturally, who stole the show:
The most amazing address of the afternoon was given by the beloved Fr. Kubek himself, who addressed the assemblage fluently in six languages, namely, Latin, Russian, English, German, Slovak, and Magyar. In Latin he addressed the reverend clergy, in Russian his beloved parish, in English the guests, in German and Magyar several distinguished guests. As Father Kubek rose to speak he was given a rising ovation, the approximately four hundred guests joining as one in according tumultuous acclaim to the veteran of Christ and the church. (November 27, 1931)
As we can see, while the broader Carpatho-Rusyn community did not always appreciate his poetry and prose in the way that he felt he deserved, it was overwhelmingly evident that, after twenty-seven years in Mahanoy City, Kubek had earned the respect, admiration, and love of his friends and neighbors.
A New Home
In addition to the unveiling of the new church, Kubek also moved into a new residence in November 1931, and the current rectory was Kubek’s home for the last nine years of his life. During the 1930s, Kubek began to delegate more and more of his pastoral duties to his son Anthony and dedicated all of his energy to a new profession — grandpa.
When asked to write a brief autobiography in 1938, two years before his death, Kubek took stock of his life with great playfulness and self-deprecation. As John E. Usalis writes, the autobiography is “filled with humor” and is “an excellent indication of a priest who cared much for his flock and who didn’t take himself all that seriously. The world would be much better if we followed his example.”
The conclusion of his autobiography is included here.
By Emil Kubek
[. . .]
After 57 years of priesthood, now I have little material worries, because I have absolutely nothing, except my 81st birthday – and this testifies to my business cleverness! My entire fortune consists of the love and thoughtfulness of my children.
At present, my spiritual work during the summer months consists of swatting flies and reading on the porch, while during the winter I feed the sparrows, cough and play solitaire. My salary is now, 24 hours daily, enough for breathing and living, but not for clothing and salt. Now I live like the field lilies.
I have had no trouble with the police nor the law, neither in the old country nor here, and I’ve never been in jail. I like homemade chicken soup with noodles and Florida.
That’s all I remember about myself.
Signed E. A. Kubek, Great Grandfather