I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Witness for the Prosecution

Katrina Goldstone

The Romance of American Communism, by Vivian Gornick, Verso, 265 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1788735506

In a TLS podcast in March 2021 the reviewers Thea Lenarduzzi, Lucy Dallas and novelist Claire Lowdon tried to puzzle out why eighty-something-year-old Vivian Gornick was ‘having a moment’. None could fully account for whey the critic, essayist and memoirist was suddenly in the spotlight. But Lowden in particular appreciated the chance to experience the bracing effects of Gornick’s bold, spare writing. She was something of a secret, a writer’s writer, and a critical favourite without mega sales.

Gornick has been bearing witness to the key social movements of the twentieth century, literature and the status of women for decades. She has sent trenchant dispatches from the front lines, registering profound changes as they were happening, and assessing their impact decades later. Her reflections in a grey-violet eye coolly assess the world by foregrounding her personal experiences and emotions. This intimately personal and idiosyncratic origin of her take on the worlds of politics and literature, though commonplace now, was certainly not usual when she started out in the 1960s. Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe are now mentioned in the same breath as her, but they tended to garner much more of the attention. Since 2021, Gornick’s ‘moment’ has expanded and the praise has continued apace. Various re-issues from 2020 on (The Romance of American Communism, The Odd Woman and the City and Approaching Eye Level) have ushered in a renewed assessment and critical engagement of her work, from younger women and also Establishment critics. The re-issues of Gornick’s books have brought her new and unexpected audiences – young socialists, young women, of course. She is big in Spain apparently, which pleasantly surprises her. In all the encomiums, she has variously got credit for ‘reinvigorating political writing’ (New Republic); ‘championing the moral uplift of rereading’. (The New Yorker); identifying the feminist mission of writing (Lilith magazine); and upholding creative non-fiction as an honourable pursuit (Paris Review). Much earlier, Adam Kirsch, in Tablet magazine, insisted that she was joining the ranks of the ‘great chroniclers of Jewish America’ and declared that ‘… the last great memoir in that restless, angry Jewish tradition is Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments’. (In 2019, Fierce Attachments was named by New York Times book critics as one of the fifty best memoirs of the last fifty years.)

The book that has again crowned her as Queen of Activist Literature is The Romance of American Communism. As noted by Alan Wald in the Boston Review, ‘One measure of the shifting political landscape over the last half-century is just how different the reviews of the reprint today are from those of the time.’ How different indeed. Those original reviews ran the gamut of macho leftist misogyny (‘let’s lecture the little lady on how the history of Communism really works’), and the good ol’ conservative kind (‘she should stay at home and not go round THINKING’). The vicious dissection performed by Irving Howe, an old school Jewish socialist, ‘sent me to bed for a week’, she confessed. (She was able to get her own back on Howe some years later through a commission to review his intellectual biography.) As Alan Wald recalls from the book’s first time around, ‘What was not predicted was the extent to which The Romance of American Communism struck a profound chord among activist readers. Our used copies were passed from hand-to-hand as it morphed into an underground cult text on the left, a primitive version of what we now call going viral.’

Yet Gornick’s ambition as a young girl in the Bronx was not to write the type of books she has become acclaimed for, as well as the now canonical The Situation and the Story, a staple of the MFA in  creative non-fiction. ‘I grew up wanting to write the Great American novel,’ she has said. Some chutzpah. Born to communist parents in 1935, at the height of the Depression, and in a neighbourhood almost entirely made up of immigrant Jews, Gornick is a representative  of a dying breed – one forged in the crucible of twentieth century history and its twin political forces of socialism and feminism, experienced through a Jewish secular identity. Her ambition to write was quite singular. Yes, American literature would later be changed forever by the novels of  Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Few could have predicted that in the 1940s – but that a Jewish woman writer could bring about such a seismic shift? That would have been unthinkable. Gornick’s own admiration for the two titans was eventually eroded by consciousness-raising and feminism.

‘At the heart of the enterprise,’ she wrote, ‘lay a self-regard that made the writing rise to unmatched levels of verbal glitter and daring, even as its dangerously narrowed scope ruled out sympathy, much less compassion, for any character on the page other than the narrator himself.’ She penned a searing indictment of their misogyny in the essay ‘Radiant Poison’ in Harper’s magazine in September 2008.

Despite the subaltern social status associated with a childhood among immigrant Jews, in whose world she felt safe but restless, Gornick could still dream. Her mother – who towered over her life and, later, her writing – wielded an unquestioned authority in the neighbourhood and would be consulted on personal and existential issues alike. Her father, Louis,  a gentle man worn down by years of standing day to day in his work as a tailor’s presser but also politically committed to left-wing idealism, disappeared from her life, dying young, when she was just thirteen. She has admitted that it wasn’t till she was twenty-eight that she was able to cry, to give vent to the grief of that early loss.

The writing dream, and the circuitous route to its fulfilment, got its first practical boost when she wrote a profile for The Village Voice magazine, the flagship of New York liberalism. It continued as she became a valued contributor and witness to history in the making when she was asked by an editor to cover a meeting of ‘those liberationist chicks on Bleecker Street’. She cut her observational teeth at The Village Voice, and along the way documented the development of the Women’s Movement, in which she participated heart and soul. ‘For a good fifteen years it was glorious being a feminist,’ she told Adam Shatz on his podcast. Then came sneaking doubts and disillusion, which struck a chord in her, reminiscent of the fate of some of the old-time Communists she knew in her youth. Trying to accommodate that doubt, and how an impassioned activist, be they feminist or socialist, tries to quell doubt, brought her right back to that childhood in the Bronx and all the passionate Marxists she knew in her youth.

At the wooden table in our kitchen there were always gathered men named Max and Hymie, and women named Masha and Goldie. Their hands were work-blackened, their eyes intelligent and anxious, their voices loud and insistent. They drank tea, ate black bread, and talked issues. I sat on the kitchen bench beside my father, nestled in the crook of his arm, and I listened wide-eyed to the talk. Oh that talk! That passionate and transforming talk.

By the time she revisited that past, in the  mid-70s, the CPUSA was a wraith, far removed from its heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, with a membership of 75,000 and significant too through the myriad of ‘fellow travellers’ influenced by Party thinking on economic inequality, ‘race’ and social justice. First there were the Cold War McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s, then the death knell of the Khruschev revelations about Stalin. By the late 1950s, party membership had declined to nearly the same few thousands that had first signed up at the party’s foundation in 1919.

She assembled testimonies and interviews with a very varied range of communist activists, with a core of forty-five participants. As one of her chapters has it, ‘They Came From Everywhere’: Dustbowl refugees, assimilated middle class Jews; Irish migrant women; the sons of Italians and Danes, impoverished artists and mid-West drifters, a slew of legendary union organisers. By eliciting the origin story of their first political encounters with communism, she banishes the stereotype of the ascetic hardline cadre (think of Tom Courtenay as Strelnikov in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, but this time with an Appalachian accent). Although some of them did eventually turn into that type, Gornick gives us the context of their rich life trajectories, and we see beyond the reductive stereotype.

Those testimonies, and her sharp observations on the lives and personalities of her interviewees, became The Romance of American Communism. Some were unknown activists doing the grinding work of meetings, labour organising and pamphlet publishing, others include a well-known blacklisted actress, a famous author of a seminal account of American communism, and assorted professors. Gornick didn’t use their real names and this convention was retained for the re-issue. A few quick searches in Google will tell you who they are. Although this is ostensibly an oral history, Gornick deviates from the conventions and interweaves telling little pen portraits, sandwiched between extended quotation. One recurrent critique has been that she was too easygoing with her informants, that they are too frequently portrayed as ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome’ and that any of the nefarious roles they might have played within the Party –involving kangaroo court tactics or expulsions – are played down. But that is not quite fair. Gornick does seem enamoured, and if, in her eyes, many do seem to be impossibly charismatic individuals, she also includes plenty of examples about how their loyalty turned to intractable dogma which wreaked a dreadful  human cost.

Now the book has made its way onto the must reads for young radicals, and Gornick, somewhat bemused, has in the last few years since the reissue by Verso featured in the pages of Jacobin and Dissent, and on political podcasts for twentysomethings. In an era when ageism and sexism can take particularly pernicious forms, she appears to have broken the boomer-doomer barrier.

Gornick was of course writing about the self long before the Selfie memoir era. Using her beady eye to dissect sexual politics, analyse loneliness, and the price successful clever women can pay for achievement, she argues passionately for a life of the mind, and vividly extols the virtues of reading and rereading. In regular photos of Gornick, like a Cassandra of the Bronx, it is the eyes, grey-violet with a gaze that seems both baleful and wise, that mesmerise. But it is her voice, a relic from a forgotten epoch, that thrills. All the inflections of an old school Yiddish Noo Yawk milieu, ‘salty’ as Adam Shatz puts it, and with that deep growl, plus a throaty sceptic’s laugh. An early advocate for the brutally confessional, she also refracted her experience through the lens of the flâneur. Walks with her mother and their often radioactive conversations became the structure underpinning Fierce Attachments, a gut punch of a book about mother-daughter relations. As one commentator put it ‘The flaneuse as New York Jewess’. Gornick was inserting herself in zones both critical, emotional and cultural, spaces where she might not be entirely welcome, or what she had to say necessarily be understood. This is particularly true of Fierce Attachments, where her caustic honesty on the difficult relationship with her mother was so brutally on display.

In The Romance of American Communism, Gornick not only documents and records the great diversity of those attracted to the ideals of communism, in America, but also records for posterity a slice of specifically Jewish radical history. Thus the reissue in this period inadvertently casts her as an accidental chronicler of a history that has been practically erased, the history of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish proletariat passionately engaged in world revolution – a revolution in ideas at any rate. Past Jewish communal leaders themselves  didn’t always want to highlight some of this history, particularly after the Russian Revolution of 1917 gave such voltage to the vitriolic stereotype of the Bolshevik Jew. The translation  of the 1903 Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and its circulation in the 1920s, helped fuel times of  Red Scare in the United States and, on a lesser scale, in Britain, which did in fact demonise Jewish leftists.

Gornick likened her conversion to feminism in the early 70s to that of those who came to Marxism in the Depression years. The startling clarity feminism  brought, by acknowledging  the multifaceted damage of the Patriarchy, was a mirror of  the passion kindled in so many in the Depression Years when Marxism and anti-fascism looked to be the only bulwark against the brutalities of capitalism and the rise of Nazism. Indeed, for many of the interviewees it was direct experience of the Depression, or of its long aftermath, that was the catalyst both for a way to lead a life of integrity and action, and as a solution to capitalism’s evils. It gave purpose when previously there had been despair. Take Will Barnes: ‘I was born in a mining camp in Idaho, the second oldest of five children, each one of us with a different father. My mother smoked cigars, had five husbands, shot three of them. All her husbands slammed her around, beat her kids, stole her money, drank themselves blind …’ Barnes found salvation and escape through labour organising. Quite a number of the interviewees now spread out in jobs in academia or the public sector ruefully admit that the skills of organising are the foundation of their success in their jobs today. She’s great at creating, in the space of a paragraph thumbnail sketches of her interviewees that are both physical and psychological, though then again we only have her word for it. Her novelist’s eye picks out the telling detail in the rough rooms some of her interviewees now live in, the bare and spare surroundings, or a social tic in her respondent, an odd cadence in speech, a jacket of cheap tweed.

At certain points in reading, one wonders at a certain naivety involved in writing such a book – though her explanations for doing it are convincing ‒ witnessing the splintering of feminism and becoming the accused herself, she felt echoes in her disillusion with feminism of old-time leftists’ disillusion after Khruschev’s revelations about Stalin. She saw echoes in how you could so quickly become reviled by those still inside the tent, the Faithful. Except that when Seventies feminists kicked you out of the tent you weren’t going to die as a result, or be sent to anything other than an intellectual gulag. Still the loss of sisterhood – or for American communists, comradeship – caused untold distress and sometimes job loss. Political engagement or commitment did have an affective side, as Gornick ably captured, in particular the emotional benefit of belonging for many who were brutally marginalised  by American capitalism. Nowadays even academia has taken an affective turn, as researchers insert themselves, their experience and motivation, into the research narrative. The primacy of raw emotion in everything from memoir to political slogan was something Gornick anticipated by 50 years.

The Romance of American Communism can be reread in many ways today – as a celebration, an elegy, a rallying cry, or a warning. In the current moment the political heirs of earlier radical movements are both diversifying and repeating some of the old mistakes, while still energised by the mesmerising passion Gornick so often describes. The trials and expulsions, when those guilty of ‘counter-revolutionary’ thought or actions are shunned and cast into political exile meet their echo in today’s cancellation and social media pile-on. When there are victories, optimism flashes through; some of these are Pyrrhic or short-lived, others long-lasting. What has not changed that much in decades, in America at least, is heavy-handed policing. Today’s students might read up further on the farm labour strikes of the ’30s, when hired thugs and police teamed up to terrorise workers with impunity and, as Gornick notes, ‘hundreds of Communists were arrested, beaten up and killed’. This too was part of the impetus to join the Party, actual resistance.

Gornick still believes in continuity of struggle even if the causes – and goals – change.

…. all the liberationist movements have taken these classes of people, blacks, women, gays, and instructed them now in these years that not only is it your right to act like a whole human being, but it’s your obligation. So I’ve watched, [for much longer than you,] how women have entered all of these professions that they never dreamed they could enter. And it’s a thrill to watch people, especially the young, who take their place in the world without any perturbation, without being perturbed in any way about their right, much less their obligation, to occupy a space. And I feel it’s our struggle that gave them this.

It is important to hear Gornick right now. She has lived through the great social revolutions and taken part in them, become disillusioned for their dogma and certainties yet remains nostalgic for the high ideals and solidarity. It was the dogma that alienated her. When ageism can go unchallenged amongst younger radicals, it’s good that a grande dame of former social movements is getting a hearing, disrupting stereotypes of the Older Woman, and disrupting an adversarial millennial versus boomer narrative.


Katrina Goldstone is a writer and cultural historian. Her book Irish Writers and the Thirties: Art Exile and War is published by Routledge, and is now available in paperback.




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