Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Essay/Book Review: Michael Gold: Writer Out of the Shadows

 Michael Gold: Writer Out of the Shadows

Biography and new generations ponder the rebel proletarian novelist

 by John Pietaro

In the pantheon of 1930s revolutionary writers, Michael Gold has too long faltered on historic periphery. A close associate of the leading literary voices of his time, Gold was not only overshadowed by the celebrity of others but blighted by decades of enduring discord from within and rabid anti-communism from without. And while his novel Jews without Money was a bestseller in 1932, catapulting him to renown, Gold’s own story has been purposely disappeared.

Michael Gold (born Itzok Granich, 1894) came of age in a New York that is but a distant memory. His Lower East Side was a stifling encasement of the poor, an exhausted swath of immigrant sights and sounds in the shadows of tightly winding cobblestone streets. The organic sense of deprivation as much as the cultural pride and revolutionary furor of his time remained glaring, outlasting the decades. Gold matured into a decidedly radical author who chronicled strife as he engaged in fearless 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 storytelling and in doing so forged the American proletarian novel. His work may be described as a literary Ashcan: dark realism, sure, but with a hyper sense about it. Hell, Gold wrote in social realism. His words were streamed in a plainspoken manner which felt conversational yet were anything but. The challenge, the confrontation, was always lurking just behind orderly dialogue.

Writers on the political left, in any case, have always looked to the breadth of Gold’s mission: literary fiction, poetry and dramaturgy thrived as much in his work as gripping, outspoken reportage. The prolific Daily Worker columnist and editor of New Masses was also a champion cultural organizer and inspiring public speaker. Odd that with so much literary adoration about him, with equal amounts of derision from other quarters, Gold’s biography would arrive at this juncture, some fifty-three years beyond his lifespan.  But given the depth of quality in Patrick Chura’s Michael Gold: The People’s Writer (SUNY Press, 2020), the long, ridiculous wait was worth every decade.

Chura, an English professor at the University of Akron, tore into definitive research to tell the story, enliven the realities, and reveal the once hidden. The biography, written not in the language of the academic but more in narrative fashion, shines, glows with investigative detail. Made clear is Chura’s profound ability to absorb streams of journalism, unpublished poetry and early pencil visions of fiction, memoir notes, letters, seemingly lost first drafts as well as overlooked and forgotten works of certain stature. It’s all here, interspersed with first-person interviews and of course Gold’s FBI file.

As biographers are wont to do, Chura exposes the reader to the days of his subject, offering not only facts and analyses, but the ability to see these through his subject’s eyes, to feel the sweat and survive the strain of his often conflicted life. As told by Chura, Gold’s early years of poverty were centered around his family home, a crowded, nearly airless flat infested with lice and crushing dysphoria. Gold faced long hours of child labor when his ailing, bed-ridden father lost his newfound business, and the family was left destitute. An excerpt of one of his earliest writings stated, “The streets of the East Side were dark with grey; wet gloom; the boats of the harbor cried constantly, like great bewildered gulls, like deep booming voices of calamity…”. Much later, Gold would write of his formative years: “It was in a tenement that I first heard the sad music of humanity rise to the stars. The sky above the airshafts was all my sky; and the voices of the tenement neighbors in the airshaft were the voices of all my world. There, in my suffering youth, I feverishly sought God and found Man.”

Knocked to the ground by a policemen’s nightstick during a Union Square protest, he moved rapidly to a macro view of the problem and delved into newfound militancy. After one of his pieces was published in The Masses, then-Itzok Granich began writing for this iconic magazine and other progressive periodicals. Membership in the Industrial Workers of the World came, too, in 1916 and he spent some time in anarchist circles, absorbing a kind of DIY individualistic approach to the Marxism he’d thrive on in the years to come.

By 1917, the youthful writer resided in Greenwich Village—the heart of bohemian life and radical cultural work—and became affiliated with the Provincetown Players. Founded by author Susan Glaspell, this left-wing playwrights’ collective included Edna St. Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, Floyd Dell, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Emjo Basshe and Theodore Dreiser. Like most of the other intellectuals in his circle, Granich joined the Socialist Party but quickly declared his sympathies for the Bolshevik Revolution. His art and politics were driven by the same passion and intricately enmeshed.

During the first World War, to evade conscription into a war he morally opposed, Granich moved to Mexico. He was back in New York for 1919’s tumultuous Palmer Raids 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, silenced by reactionary forces. The Liberator was a formidable voice against right-wing injustice and boasted the talents of not only the usual Village suspects but the likes of Claude McKay, Dorothy Day (later the founder of the Catholic Worker movement), illustrators Hugo Gellert and Boardman Robinson, Bertrand Russell, Louis Fraina, Louis Untermyer, Norman Thomas prior to his celebrity as a noted pacifist and leader of the Socialist Party, modern art painter Stuart Davis, and Helen Keller, then an anti-war radical traveling the circuit, communicating her dissent to huge crowds with the assistance of a  translator.

Biographer Chura isn’t a New Yorker, but his book is an accurate capture of the city’s streets and shadows over the years bridging the early 20th century and Gold’s later years, but in particular his 1920s-40s period of greatest activity. The reader is walked through the headquarters of the John Reed Club at 102 West 14th Street, and offices of the Communist Party, then at 35 East 12th. It’s no small irony that rent for a single bedroom apartment in either now tops $5000 per month and apartment sales in the latter recently averaged at more than $4 million.

The biographer also brings alive Mike Gold’s grave financial and emotional struggles while briefly at Yale, his relationship with Dorothy Day and entry into and unfailing dedication to the Communist Party. Some of Gold’s dramatic sketches were published in Party periodicals including his Strike! of 1926, a “mass recitation”, and Futurist play, Hoboken Blues, that same year, not long after he and Day were arrested for protesting the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti. In 1927, Gold established the New Playwrights Theatre with John Howard Lawson and John Dos Passos. So strong was the output of this new collective, both artistically and politically, that they drew attention in mainstream press. Time magazine, in March of 1927, took note:

“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...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. 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…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)

But Gold’s ‘creative writing’ was never exclusive to poetry, fiction or drama. In his 1921 article “Towards Proletarian Art”, he eloquently warned that, “a mighty national art cannot arise save out of the soil of the masses.” And of the Sacco and Vanzetti executions in 1927 Boston, he presciently reported, “It is August 14th, eight days before the new devil’s hour... I am writing this in the war zone, in the psychopathic respectable city that is crucifying two immigrant workers…Boston is possessed with the lust to kill…the subconscious superstition that the death of Sacco and Vanzetti can restore their dying culture and industry. At last they have a scapegoat…They are insane with fear and hatred of the new America…”

This packed biography reveals, too, the protagonist’s battles with major depression and his lesser-known literature including previously lost or forgotten verse, such as the 1929 collection 120 Million (after Vladimir Mayakovsky’s 150,000,000), long out of print.  Gold’s numerous speaking engagements are cited, including moments experienced at lecterns here and abroad. Gold traveled on behalf of the Communist Party, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and then through much of Europe. This stint included stays in London, Paris (for the First International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture), Berlin, and ultimately the Soviet Union to Kharkov, for the International Union of Revolutionary Writers conference. Interactions with European notables including Andre Gild, E.M. Forster, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Mayakovsky, Poet Laureate of the Soviet Union, are highlighted. The Constructivist Theatre of Meyerhold and Mayakovsky melded standard theatre productions with pantomime, acrobatics and formalized scenery as non-verbal communication with the audience. Gold was greatly influenced by this daring brand of drama and was a major proponent after returning to New York.

1929, the notorious year of the Crash, saw the birth of the John Reed Club. The Communist Party cultural brain trust led by V.J. Jerome, Joseph Freeman and Gold quickly set plans for a radical artists’ force in Reed’s name, focusing on writers but encompassing cultural workers of every fold. Once proven in New York City, the John Reed Clubs nationally took the lead in the push for a proletarian literary drive while producing events by musicians, actors, dancers, painters, filmmakers and others. The Reed Clubs hosted classes, lectures, concerts, readings, plays, screenings and exhibits; it founded Partisan Review, published a series of magazines, newsletters, pamphlets and books, and offered tutelage combining social change with the arts. Membership included the celebrated, the up-and-coming and the fledgling who sought to create artworks of social, or at least creative revolution. Langston Hughes, John Dos Passos, Kenneth Fearing, Richard Wright, Josephine Herbst, William Gropper and Art Young were among its noted members and Maxim Gorky held honorary membership. The Clubs also spawned a series of off-shoots specific to different genres including the modernist concert music Pierre DeGeyter Club and its Composers Collective of New York (which counted Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Alex North and Marc Blitzstein in the ranks), the Red Dancers (led by Edith Segal) which produced modern dance of social conscience, and the far-reaching Workers Film and Photo League.

In January of 1930, Gold, by this time the best-known radical journalist and a high priest, so to speak, of cultural work, wrote of the origins of the John Reed Club, its multi-disciplinary nature, and his intent to guide it in a manner securing 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 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, many years of struggle proved productive for Gold, and by 1932, he gained his personal celebrity with the novel Jews without Money. Though a fictionalized account of a poverty-stricken family on the Lower East Side, it is based on his own family’s experiences, thus quite visceral in the telling. He’d been publishing bits and pieces as fiction in The New Masses, but once compiled into a solid, beautifully composed novel, the concept of the proletarian writer became an accepted—and popular—standard of literature. With this degree of success, Jews without Money brought him national attention. Two years hence, Gold’s status as an important new voice of radical literature had gone global, at least for a period. The second printing of the novel was translated into French, Swedish, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Slavic, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Yiddish, Dutch, and other languages.

 And while biographer Chura remains a proponent of Gold, the bitter discord surrounding the man is here examined with jarring clarity. Though deeply committed to both the Communist Party USA and the wider Communist International, Gold’s rebellious, unbridled nature never allowed for the discipline exhibited by other Party officials. The missed meetings and avoided functionary duties soon clarified that Gold’s decades as a revolutionist began in the company of anarchists. Ironically, his fights with Party bureaucracy were eclipsed by the attacks he launched on progressive and liberal writers in his position as the CP’s most profound and controversial arts critic: Gold denounced the works of progressive novelists, dramatists and screenplay writers whenever they softened or strayed from doctrine. Following early battles with Masses’ editor Max Eastman, his association with Claude McKay, too, became embittered (though he described McKay’s sonnets as “crystal songs”). Gold sought to shred Thorton Wilder and railed against Gertrude Stein, stating in blind anger that her work resembled, “the montonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums...” Stein, an avant gardist, was an out lesbian, a social and literary revolutionary who forged a new modernism in Paris. Yet Gold wrote: “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."

The Communist writer also lobbed continuous pot-shots at Albert Maltz (whom he accused of social fascism) and Howard Fast, among others. In his book The Hollow Men (1941), an overview of writers he saw as having refuted the cause, particularly those of wealthier origins, Gold’s opinions were unfettered, often bloodthirsty in the pursuit of forging an all-important literary force toward an egalitarian society and in opposition of fascism. And its title doesn’t seem to have been selected randomly; T.S. Eliot’s epic poem of sixteen years prior was so named in describing the post-World War broken, empty “straw men”: “Our dried voices/when we whisper together/are quiet and meaningless…Shape without form/shade without color…sightless, unless the eyes reappear…between the essence and the descent/falls the Shadow…” The inspiration seems all too obvious, albeit, angled outwardly. Gold saved a particular hellishness for former friends, most blatantly “Ernest Slummingway”. After publication of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gold’s review called the book “a minor story” in spite of its “narrative genius” as it was “so painfully fair to fascists”. Hemingway’s heroic figure of Robert Jordan, according to Gold, was ignorant of the class conflict in Franco’s Spain, so central to the story. Famously, Hemingway left a message at the New Masses office directing the critic to “go fuck himself”.

This raises the question: what is the mission of an artist of radicalized activism? 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 entrenched in the murk of uncertainty. Gold’s despair over the Moscow purges and Nazi-Soviet Pact, as well as his championing of experimental theatre works, belied doctrinaire sensibility. Yet, simultaneously, he both disavowed modernist art as a bourgeois tool and remained a leader of arts organizing within the Party and Popular Front. The conundrum rolled on. This combination—and a constant rain of blows from the Right--established an array of opponents that stretched over a lifetime. Still, following his own advice to young writers, Gold would “write, persist, struggle”, toeing the Party line through depressive episodes and doubt.

Gold's Daily Worker column ‘Change the World’ included praise for the early folksong revival, then largely ignored by American Leftist leaders, and he offered insight into the need for, "a Communist Joe Hill", referring to the legendary martyred songwriter-organizer of the Industrial Workers of the World. Gold's words did not go unheeded, for they alerted the CP to the importance of home-grown music as a voice of the people; by 1939, the Party had discovered Woody Guthrie, whose ballads of the Dustbowl, poverty and strength would be widely celebrated and whose song "This Land is Your Land" would eventually be called an alternative national anthem by many.

During the worst of World War II, Mike Gold was a constant source of strength for intellectuals and other Daily Worker readers in the fight against fascism. And though a target of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and constantly profiled by the FBI, he maintained a busy literary and speaking schedule into the 1950s and ‘60s. A respected editor of the Cold War-era Masses & Mainstream, Gold anticipated the coming global liberation fight for indigenous peoples as an outgrowth of his continuous work towards racial and religious equality.

Still, Gold was embattled by obscurity during most of his life. Largely, critics ignored his post-Jews without Money work; when it received any press at all the notices were negative, often severely so. The irony was that his peers, even through critical lambasting, held the writer in high regard. Perhaps the best description of the radical literary figures Mike Gold walked with in his time is supplied by Gold himself in a 1946 article, perhaps in anticipation of the post-war Red Scare, already developing among opportunistic conservatives:

“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).

According to historian Alan Wald in his study of Leftist writers, Gold more than any other established the proletarian novel: “All who came after Gold would stand on the shoulders of his legacy”, citing “his colorful semi-autonomy from the Party officials...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).

In a bitter irony, Gold aged into poverty, stifled by depressive episodes and physical ailments. He lived out his final years not in New York but San Francisco, writing his ‘Change the World’ column for the Party’s west coast paper, People’s World until not long before his 1967 death. He was never able to complete the second novel planned for so long but remained a survivor of our nation’s notorious red scare periods, each carrying its own butcher’s bill of repression, conviction, deportation, and ruination: 1919-20, 1938-9, and 1947 through each frigid year of the Blacklist and Cold War.

While our New York City is today crippled for the people by astronomical rent costs and harshly gentrified neighborhoods, the Lower East Side in which Gold lived, worked and fought now stands as a community marred and ruled by trendy wealth. One asks where the poor can call home, thus, the Communist writer’s proletarian literature becomes deeply, sorely missed. Gold, always one to analyze Marxian, seeking the wider, greater reality, wrote near the end of his life of the red scare terrors, citing on manifold levels: “the lined faces which had seen the trouble and white hair as the result of sleepless nights…We had lost all our youth”.

The biography, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer by Patrick Chura PhD, is available via SUNY Press.


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