CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people, on the Left, ranging from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms and popular arts . The Cultural Worker celebrates revolutionary creativity and features a variety of essays, reviews, fiction, reportage, poetry and musings through the internet pen of this writer, musician and cultural organizer. Scroll straight down and you'll also find an extensive historical Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, followed by a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the writers, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, film and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
john pietaro

Monday, March 28, 2011

MICHAEL GOLD: Poetry in Red Journalism


MICHAEL GOLD: POETRY IN RED JOURNALISM

By John Pietaro

Michael Gold came of age in a New York that is but a distant memory today. His Lower East Side was a stifling encasement of the poor, an exhausted swath of immigrant sights and sounds in the shadows of tight, winding cobblestone streets. The organic sense of deprivation as much as the cultural pride and revolutionary furor of his time remained glaringly housed within him, outlasting the decades. Gold matured into a decidedly radical author who chronicled the strife as he engaged in a quite fearless sort of street activism. But the fight that emitted from his pen went beyond the realm of the Left press he shaped and even surpassed his call for art as a weapon. Gold offered a pioneering style which established the model for urban story-telling. In doing so forged the American proletarian novel. His was a literary version of the Ashcan school of painting: realism, yes, but with a hyper sense about it. Hell, Gold wrote in social realism. His words were streamed in an orderly manner which felt conversational yet were anything but. The challenge, indeed the confrontation, was always lurking just behind any gentle bit of dialogue…

Michael Gold was born Itzok Granich on April 12, 1893, just in time to be part of the impoverished, immigrant experience in a broken New York City ill-equipped for the masses that had passed the portside gaze of Lady Liberty. Once off Ellis Island’s limbo, most were stacked in poorly lit, barely heated downtown ghettos and told to fend for themselves. The people, then hailing from middle and southern Europe, landed into a new kind of multi-cultural lifestyle but congregated in hushed old-country gatherings. Dispossession in light of the machinations of the industrial revolution brought the mix to a slow boil and the new Americans began to emote widely. Accompanied by native working-class radicalism and European socialist philosophy the effect, as it turned out, was a wonderfully defiant thing.

A natural communicator, young Granich attended writing courses at New York University in 1912-13 and then spent a brief time in study at Harvard. But in 1914, after struggling to help feed his family when his father, incapacitated and unable to work needed to rely on young Gold, the author’s personal anger at such injustice brimmed over. Knocked to the ground by a policemen’s nightstick during a Union Square demonstration, he moved rapidly into a macro view of the problem and delved into a new militancy. He began writing for progressive periodicals in this period, when one of his pieces was published in the Masses. Many more followed and in quick succession. Membership into the IWW came in 1916 and he spent some time living in anarchist communes in the Boston area, absorbing an individualistic approach to the Marxism he’d thrive on in the years to come. Gold also began contributing articles for ‘the New York Call’, the Socialist Party newspaper.

In 1917, now living in New York’s Greenwich Village—acknowledged as the daring heart of bohemian life and radical cultural work--he became affiliated with the fledgling Provincetown Players. Founded by author Susan Glaspell, this progressive playwrights’ collective also included John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, Floyd Dell, Louise Bryant and Theodore Dreiser, among others. Like most of the other intellectuals in his circle, Gold officially joined the Socialist Party and quickly declared his sympathies for the Bolshevik Revolution. His art and his politics were driven by the same passion and intricately intertwined.

Gold moved for a time to Mexico to evade conscription for the First World War which he spoke out against in journalism as well as street-corner soap boxing. And then during the tumult of the Palmer Raids he was back in New York, in the thick of it, and began using the pseudonym “Michael Gold”, named for a noted Jewish veteran of the Civil War. His ties to the literary Left were strong enough that Gold became an editor of ‘The Liberator’, the Communist journal which grew from the embers of ‘the Masses’, itself silenced by governmental forces due to anti-war features during the World War. ‘The Liberator’ was a formidable voice against right-wing injustice and boasted the talents of not only the usual Greenwich Village suspects (!) but the likes of Claude McKay, Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker movement), illustrator Boardman Robinson, Bertrand Russell, Louis Fraina, illustrator Hugo Gellert, Louis Untermyer, Norman Thomas (later the noted pacifist and leader of the Socialist Party), painter Stuart Davis and Helen Keller, then an outward anti-war radical traveling the circuit, communicating her dissent to huge crowds with the assistance of a Braille translator.

Gold joined the Communist Party in this period, braving raids of the Bureau of Investigation, and authored a long-standing arts column for Party organ ‘the Daily Worker’. He also helped found and often edited the Party’s ‘New Masses’ which had culture as a focus. Gold traveled on behalf of the Communist Party, first to San Francisco and then on to Europe. This stint included stays in London, Paris, Berlin and ultimately the Soviet Union where he came to first study the German theatrical director Meyerhold’s conception of Constructivist Theatre. This genre melded standard theatre productions with techniques such as pantomime, acrobatics and formalized scenery in an attempt to focus on non-verbal communication with the audience. Gold was greatly influenced by this daring brand of drama and though he focused his efforts on journalism once back in New York, he would intermittently resume writing for theatre over the years. He published some of his dramatic sketches in Party periodicals including his “Strike!” of 1926, which he called a “mass recitation”. Gold also completed a Futurist play called “Hoboken Blues” this same year-- that which saw him arrested for protesting the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

One year later, he established The New Playwrights Theatre with the likes of John Howard Lawson and John Dos Passos. So strong was the output of the New Playwrights, both artistically and politically, that they drew considerable note in the mainstream press. Following is an excerpt from ‘Time’ magazine’s March 1927 review of Lawson’s “Loudspeaker”. While the ‘legit’ media may have been sure to voice distrust of such new, worker-oriented forms, they none the less took notice:

The New Play-wrights—John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson, Francis Faragoh., Michael Gold, Em Jo Basshe—impatient with the restraint of conventional theatre, have set up one of their own, bolstered up by the generous purse of Otto Hermann Kahn. Here, at old Bim's, now the 52nd Street Theatre, they propose to experiment with those radical dramatic forms of whose marketability the commercial producers are suspicious.

Their first production, Loud Speaker, was written by John Howard Lawson, author of Processional (TIME, Jan. 26, 1925). As expected, it is staged against a "constructivist" background and presents the subjective state of the principal characters as well as their objective actions. The virtue of such staging is that, by affording the playwright several planes of action on one stage, it allows greater flexibility than is permitted by the rigid three-walled limitations of ordinary theatre. Thus, in Loud Speaker, the candidate for governor of the State may be discovered mulling over his radio speech in one corner of the stage, while his memory of an Atlantic City bathing beauty may be enacted in another corner. His daughter may black-bottom on an upper level and his wife receive a weird, bearded, hypnotic lover on still another. By proper punctuation and emphasis, such a production may be made colorful, clear, rapid, nervous, like jazz music. (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,846123,00.html#ixzz1HoPY32nN)

1929, the notorious year of the Crash, saw the birth of the John Reed Clubs. The Communist Party cultural brain trust led by VJ Jerome, Joseph Freeman and Gold quickly set plans for a nation-wide radical artists’ collective in Reed’s name, focusing on writers but encompassing cultural workers from every fold. Once proven in New York City, the John Reed Clubs took the lead in the push for a proletarian literary drive while hosting events by musicians, actors, dancers, painters and others. The Reed Clubs produced classes, lectures, concerts and exhibits; it published a series of magazines, newsletters, pamphlets and books and offered tutelage to fledgling cultural workers that combined lessons in social change with the arts. Membership included both the celebrated and the up-and-coming, largely all Communists, who sought to create works of social revolution. The Clubs spawned a series of off-shoot gatherings specific to different genres such as the Pierre DeGeyter Club of modernist concert musicians and the Red Dancers which served to develop modern dance of social conscience.

In January of 1930, Gold, by this time the best known of the proletarian journalists and a high priest, so to speak, of Communist cultural workers in the US, wrote of the origins of the John Reed Club, its multi-disciplinary nature, and his intent to guide it in a manner which would secure the artist’s relationship with the worker:

The John Reed Club was organized about two months ago here in New York. It is a small group of writers, artists, sculptors, musicians and dancers of revolutionary tendencies…Several activities have begun. The artists arranged an exhibition at the Workers Co-Operative House in the Bronx. About 35 pictures were hung. The exhibit will be shown for about four weeks. Over 300 workers came to the opening. There was a furious discussion led by Lozowick, Basshe, Gropper, Klein and others…At the next meeting I shall propose the following:

“That every writer in the group attach himself to one of the industries. That he spend the next few years in and out of this industry, studying it from every angle, making himself an expert in it, so that when he writes of it, he will write with like an insider, not like a bourgeois intellectual observer. He will help on the publicity in strikes, etc. He will have his roots in something real. The old Fabians used to get together and write essays based on the books they had read. We will get close to the realities” (Gold, Michael. The Daily Worker, January 1930; source: Dilling, Elizabeth, The Red Network: A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. Self-published, 1934, page 180)

Apparently, a lifetime of bitter struggle proved productive and Gold, by 1930, had published the novel which he’d become most celebrated for, Jews Without Money. While this is a fictionalized account of a poverty-stricken family on the Lower East Side, it is loosely based on his own family’s strife, thus a quite visceral tale. He’d been writing it over the decade prior, publishing bits and pieces as fiction in ‘the New Masses’ and other periodicals, but once compiled into a solid, beautifully composed novel, the concept of the proletarian writer became an accepted—and popular—standard of literature. With the degree of success Jews Without Money brought him,

Gold became a national figure, cultural commissar of the Communist Party, arbiter of artistic value according to the artist’s political allegiances. As the Twenties had buoyed up F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Thirties buoyed up Michael Gold—it was the decade for which he was born. In 1933 he became daily columnist for the Daily Worker, the mass circulation Communist Party newspaper. In 1935 in the introduction for a new edition of Jews Without Money, Gold noted that it had been translated into French, Swedish, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Jugo-Slavian [sic], Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Yiddish, Dutch, and Tatar and was particularly proud that “German radicals had translated it and were spreading it widely as a form of propaganda against the Nazi anti-Semitic lies.” (Gross, Barry. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 5. Ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Heath, 2005).

By the later 1930s, Gold's Daily Worker column included praise for the early folksong revival, then largely ignored by most American Leftist leaders, and he offered insight into the need for, "a Communist Joe Hill", referring to the legendary songwriter-organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World. Gold's words did not go unheeded, for they alerted the CPUSA to the importance of US home-grown music as a voice of the people; by 1939, the Party had discovered Woody Guthrie, whose ballads would be celebrated internationally and whose song "This Land is Your Land" would be called an alternative national anthem by many. Mike Gold was a tireless fighter for unions and other movements of social justice, and he spoke out fiercely against the rise of fascism in Europe, easily bridging the gap between the arts and social activism. Still, Gold desperately struggled with obscurity during most of his life. Largely, critics ignored his work; when it received any press at all the notices were negative, often brutally so. Old age would find Gold living in poverty and stifled by dysphoria and physical ailments. The irony was that his peers, even during critical lambasting, held the writer in very high regard:

Gold, too, had been among the cultural luminaries of his generation; a friend and associate not only of Leftists such as Eastman, Dell, Reed, McKay, Dreiser, Dos Passos, and Sinclair, Gold was also championed at different intervals by Eugene ONeill, Edmund Wilson, H.L. Mencken, and even Ezra Pound. (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pg. 55).

Perhaps the best description of the radical literary figures Mike Gold walked with in his time is supplied by Gold himself from an article written in 1946, perhaps in light of the Red Scare, then preparing to evolve from the embers of V.E. Day:

Marxism flourished…during the first half of the 1930s…New writers wrote “proletarian novels”, plays and poems and became a main stream in our national culture, that formed the finest literary epoch our country has known since the Golden Age of Whitman, Emerson and Melville. It was a fighting art, a Marxist art, and frankly a weapon in the class struggle then raging so openly…We must find our way back to the main highway…We must rebuild the Marxist cultural front, with its literary magazines, theatres, music and art. (Gold, Mike, Daily Worker, March 1946; source-Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pg. 57).

Gold was a conflicted man, an undisciplined writer who could be very oppositional to expected CP discipline, yet a Communist Party stalwart with an almost undying faith in not only Party leadership but that of the Comintern and CPSU. Through it all, he stood as a respected leader of Party—and Popular Front—arts organizing. He also became the CP’s most profound cultural critic, often to a fault: in the course of his journalism, Gold denounced the works of progressive novelists, dramatists and screenplay writers whenever they softened or strayed from Party doctrine. He trounced Gertrude Stein in the pages of ‘the New Masses’, stating in blind anger that her work resembled, “the montonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums ...The literary idiocy of Gertrude Stein only reflects the madness of the whole system of capitalist values. It is part of the signs of doom that are written largely everywhere on the walls of bourgeois society."

He was noticeably harder on Party members whom he felt had lost sight of the mission and took continuous pot-shots at the likes of Albert Maltz and Howard Fast. And so this raised the question: just what is the mission of an artist engaged in social activism? The outcome was surely not what he’d hoped for; while Gold worked closely with Party cultural leaders to build the John Reed Clubs, ushering in new and exciting cultural workers and establishing a school of writing which crossed boundaries and raised the awareness of countless artists, he turned off many of them in the process. It was impossible, it seemed to some, to be both revolutionary and disciplined-- Gold himself fell victim to this conflict throughout his career. Perhaps, he was not aware of how to rise above this and became deeper entrenched in the murk of uncertainty. His own noncompliance with deadlines and bold championing of experimental theatre works belied his doctrinaire sensibility. Yet simultaneously he accused the likes of Albert Maltz of “social fascism” and disavowed modernist arts as bourgeois tools, thus the conundrum rolled on. Still, his relevance remains clear.

According to historian Alan M. Wald in his study of Leftist writers,

"Simply put, no single individual contributed more to forging the tradition of proletarian literature as a genre in the United States after the 1920s. All who came after Gold would stand on the shoulders of his legacy. Part of the explanation for Gold’s impact was his colorful semi-autonomy from the Party officials such as Jerome on the Party headquarters “Ninth Floor”. The dazzling blend of proletarianism, bohemianism, romanticism, and even a strain of modernism that comprised the early 1930s mix of Left poetry was quite evident in Gold’s own personality and career". (Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002, pp 39-40).

*******

Sadly overlooked today even by students of 1930s literature, Michael Gold’s artistry needs revival in yet another time of xenophobia and polarized economics. While our New York City—and the rest of the nation---struggles in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, it is bitterly ironic that the Lower East Side in which Gold lived, worked and fought now stands as a gentrified community largely of the wealthy. As the jobless rates ominously rise, one wonders where the poor now call home and Mike Gold’s proletarian literature becomes deeply, sorely missed.

Sources:

Buhle, Mari Jo, Paul Buhle, Dan Georgakis, Encyclopedia of the American Left. Chicago: St Martin’s Press, 1990

Daily Worker collection- Fighting Words: Selections from Twenty-Five Years of the Daily Worker. NY: New Century Publishers, 1949

Dilling, Elizabeth, The Red Network: A Who’s Who and Handbook of Radicalism for Patriots. Self-published, 1934

Gold, Michael. The Daily Worker, January 1930

Gold, Michael. The Mike Gold Reader. New York: International Publishers, 1954

Gross, Barry. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 5. Ed. Paul Lauter. New York: Heath, 2005.

Spartacus School website - http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAgold.htm

Time Magazine, 1927 - http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,846123,00.html#ixzz1HoPY32nN

Wald, Alan M. Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth Century Literary Left. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2002

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