The Long Half-Life of Proletarian Prose: On Michael Gold and Maxwell Bodenheim
By Woody HautNovember 19, 2021
Michael Gold: The People’s Writer by Patrick Chura
Slow Vision by Maxwell Bodenheim
From the Depression to the beginning of the Cold War, Michael Gold was arguably proletariat writing’s leading advocate, as well as one of its primary practitioners. As one learns from Patrick Chura’s excellent biography, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer, the tentacles of Gold’s influence, in his heyday, spread far and wide. Moreover, Chura, in what constitutes the first full-scale Gold biography, drives home the point that anyone who professes to represent a progressive point of view owes no small debt to Gold, who, since the early 1950s, has gone largely unrecognized.
Born Itzok Isaac Granich in 1894, Gold chose to assume the name of a Jewish abolitionist civil war veteran in the midst of the notorious 1919–’20 Palmer Raids. A lifelong communist, he is best known, if known at all, for Jews Without Money, a semi-autobiographical novel that lifted the lid on New York’s poverty-stricken Lower East Side Jewish immigrant community. The literary equivalent of Lewis Hine’s famous New York photographs, Jews Without Money remains a powerful work that, since its publication in 1930, has never been out of print.
My parents hated all this filth. But it was America, one had to accept it. And these were our neighbors. It’s impossible to live in a tenement without being mixed up with the tragedies and cockroaches of one’s neighbors. There’s no privacy in a tenement. So there was always some girl or other in our kitchen, pouring out a tale of wretchedness to my mother, drinking tea and warming herself at my mother’s wonderful heart. That’s how I came to know some of the stories of these girls.
At the time of the novel’s appearance, Gold was being called an American Gorky. Through a series of vignettes, based, for the most part, on his own impoverished family and their neighbors, Gold captured the lives of poor Jewish immigrants of the era in prose as unvarnished as that of the most hard-boiled of writers.
Jews Without Money would be Gold’s primary literary achievement, but he also wrote poems, plays, and stories, as well as fiery polemics that, for over 30 years, appeared in a variety of progressive periodicals. H. L. Mencken considered Gold’s stories hardcore enough to be published in his American Mercury, which, until the early 1930s, specialized in tough guy regional writing by the likes of James M. Cain, Edward Anderson, Jim Tully, and John Fante. However, Gold’s tenure as a Mencken protégé didn’t last long, mainly because he felt Mencken was coaxing working-class writers like Tully into highlighting their anti-social exploits without any ideological comment, critique, or context. Had Gold been more flexible and less politically conscious, he might have, with Mencken’s backing, been more widely read. Fortunately for leftists, Gold was too preoccupied with political matters, preferring to put his efforts into periodicals like The Masses, New Masses, the Daily Worker, and Liberator. Had he not done so, there’s no telling how many plays, stories, and poems Gold might have produced, or how far his literary star might have ascended.
Gold’s Daily Worker columns, first entitled “What a World,” before morphing into the more militant sounding “Change the World,” were extremely popular among Party members and their fellow travelers. Written, for the most part, in a populist, even folksy, language that belied their intellectual acumen, they could be counted on to champion most progressive causes that came Gold’s way, from the release of Sacco and Vanzetti and the Rosenbergs to the fight for fair housing and civil rights. A confirmed autodidact, Gold attended journalism classes at New York University, and, in 1914, spent a truncated and rather miserable year at Harvard, where he supported himself by satirizing the social conditions on campus for the local newspaper. Back in New York, Gold slid seamlessly into left-wing bohemianism, all the time honing his proletariat literary skills and aesthetics.
Tough and uncompromising, Gold barely wavered in his support for the Soviet Union, yet, according to Chura, the Party hierarchy still considered him something of a deviationist, wrongly insinuating, in the late 1940s, that he supported the expelled ex-leader Earl Browder. But given Gold’s popularity, Party apparatchiks were always hesitant to discipline him. It’s undeniably true that Gold had an independent spirit. After all, his political perspective had been forged in the heady days of Lower East Side anarchism. Though precocious, Gold was only to become an activist at 21, after hearing “Rebel Girl” and International Workers of the World stalwart Elizabeth Gurley Flynn speak on New York’s Chrystie Street. Interestingly, one of Gold’s two brothers — also self-styled radicals — attempted to “correct” the record, telling Chura it wasn’t Flynn but Emma Goldman that Mike heard that day. Yet regardless of the ideological nuances such a discrepancy might imply, Gold, over the years, was able to cast his aesthetic net wide, finding common ground with Modernists, Futurists, and, of course, Soviet Constructivists, particularly theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, whose dramaturgical theories and skills had impressed him on a visit to the Soviet Union in 1924. Meyerhold might have been a major influence, but it was Mayakovsky, Twain, Sandburg, and, most of all, Whitman, who served as Gold’s main sources of inspiration.
Described by fellow Marxist playwright and novelist Philip Stevenson as a “kind of cheeky Krazy Kat bouncing rocks off the crania of his adversaries,” Gold counted among his friends a wide range of stone-throwing progressives, including Eugene O’Neill — their plays were performed on the same Provincetown Players bill — as well as Hemingway, with whom he often went fishing. Though when the going got rough and some of those friends abandoned the cause, Gold wasn’t one to refrain from tearing strips off them in his column. Not only did his old comrade John Dos Passos feel the sharp end of Gold’s pen, but so did Thornton Wilder and William Faulkner, whose writing Gold admired but whose statements on race he despised. Likewise, he carried on a long-running feud with the poet Archibald MacLeish. One week Gold might be railing against Theodore Dreiser, the next week it would be the New Critics or Gertrude Stein. Yet he always remained loyal to his truest comrades, among them W. E. B. and Shirley Du Bois — the latter of whom said that Gold “perfectly symbolized the fact that I was not struggling alone” — as well as Claude McKay, with whom, as co-editor of New Masses, he conducted a friendly rivalry. In his bohemian days, Gold had vied with O’Neill for the affection of Dorothy Day, a fellow radical who, even after she converted to Catholicism, remained a lifelong friend to the non-believing Gold. In fact, Gold stayed close to various women in the movement, including Josephine Herbst, Le Sueur, and Christina Stead, who based the character Jean Frere on him in her 1938 House of All Nations. Surrounded by such women, not to mention his French-born wife Elizabeth, it’s hardly surprising that Gold, in one of his columns, warned male readers that the time had come for them to “revise their patriarchal attitudes.”
However, it might be in the field of music that Gold’s influence has been most deeply felt. It goes back to those same New Deal years when Gold was spending a considerable amount of ink pushing for proletarian music. What constituted such a music remained a matter of contention — for the most part between Gold and the composer and musicologist Charles Seeger, a member of the European-oriented Composers Collective. The debate, detailed by Chura, focused on whether the future of proletarian music would rest with committed composers schooled in Europe, such as Hanns Eisler, Earl Robinson, George Antheil, and Marc Blitzstein, or, as Gold would have it, with home-grown working-class musicians like Aunt Molly Jackson, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie. Eventually, Gold was able to win over the truculent Seeger, himself no stranger to controversy and debate, having years before been fired from his teaching job at Berkeley for his opposition to World War I. Yet in discussing Seeger’s conversion, Chura neglects to mention the role of Seeger’s wife, the formidable composer and folk music collector Ruth Crawford Seeger, whose sympathies coincided more with Gold’s than with her husband’s. Nor, for that matter, does he emphasize the role of Seeger’s son, Pete, who in years to come would acknowledge Gold, along with Guthrie and Ernest Thompson Seton, as a major influence in his life.
Pete Seeger’s regard for Gold was reciprocal. The proletarian author became a major supporter not only of Guthrie, but also of the Almanac Singers, of which Pete was a member. Beyond that, Gold also acknowledged the importance of Lead Belly, Sonny Terry, and others who would go on to affect the direction of American folk and popular music. But most of all it was Guthrie that Gold wrote about in the Daily Worker, kick-starting the latter’s career and turning him into a key figure for folk and agitprop music. In Gold’s opinion, Guthrie embodied the Party’s notion that communism was “20th-century Americanism,” and considered the singer-songwriter from Oklahoma a “proletarian symbol” around which a “people’s theatre in America could be built.”
Not only would few today have heard of Guthrie had it not been for Gold, but, if not for Guthrie, a 19-year-old Bob Dylan would have had no one to draw him to the folk scene. It’s no overstatement, therefore, to say that, without Gold’s support for Guthrie, there might never have been a Bob Dylan, or at least not the Dylan that we have come know. To complete that circle, Gold was prescient enough to pen a People’s World article in the early 1960s entitled “Bob Dylan — Voice of America’s Youth.” It might even be said that Dylan songs like “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “North Country Blues,” and “Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” are, in terms of content, as Gold-like as they are Guthrie-like. Be that as it may, without Gold, music from the mid-’60s onward might have ended up sounding quite differently.
Yet, whether writing about Guthrie or the cause du jour, Gold’s optimism could, if not for his wit and intelligence, be taken as disingenuous, always putting forward the correct line and never taking a retrograde step. In truth, writing through the Depression, Gold was giving readers what they wanted to see: a measure of direction and support. As the cliché goes, if Gold had not existed, someone would have had to invent him. To some extent that inventor was Gold himself, something alluded to by Chura as well as by Alan Wald in his Exiles from a Future Time (2002), a book Chura draws on liberally and cites accordingly. Few others at the time had Gold’s ability to address the common reader as clearly and directly as he did, without ideological jargon, so it’s not surprising that there should have developed something of a personality cult around him. Perhaps that’s why, despite his admirable faith in ordinary people, at some moments when reading this biography one finds oneself yearning for Gold to return to his anarchist roots and reveal, if not his inner Abbie Hoffman, at least a slight pessimism of the intellect.
As McCarthyism gained momentum, Gold’s career, like that of so many others, went into a tailspin. Sensing the political climate could only worsen as early as spring 1947, Gold packed his bags and took his family to his wife’s native land, only to return to America some three years later. Once back, he continued to write for the usual periodicals, though he found it difficult to make a living in an increasingly hostile environment; he had to take a series of menial jobs. Somehow Gold scraped by, and was still at it in the ’60s, living in an apartment in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, a couple of blocks in one direction from that famous intersection and a couple in another from what would soon be the home of San Francisco’s Diggers, whose politics, a new kind of anarcho-communism, would surely have made Gold smile. Coincidentally, Gold’s apartment was also just a further few blocks from another exile from the future, Kay Boyle. Perhaps they knew one another, or at least occasionally passed each other on strolls through nearby Buena Vista Park or the Panhandle. However, by this time, it’s likely that Gold wasn’t getting out much. Suffering from diabetes and nearly blind, he had to dictate the articles he was sending out to what remained of the old left-wing press, such as People’s World and the Jewish communist paper Morgen Freiheit.
Given that we’re still, to some extent, living under the sign of the Cold War and McCarthyism, it’s understandable that Gold, who died in 1967, is barely known or appreciated. Chura does his best to rectify this, and at the same time ensures that his book is no hagiography. He isn’t interested in excusing Gold’s excesses and miscalculations, admitting his subject could sometimes be “crass and philistine.” We learn of Gold’s heavy-handed response to novelist and Hollywood screenwriter Albert Maltz’s call for the Party to allow members greater artistic freedom, as well as of his reaction to James T. Farrell’s Trotskyism, which he compared to the fascism espoused by Ezra Pound and Knut Hamsun. Then there was Gold’s inexcusable, even for its time, anti-gay rhetoric. Though worst of all was his failure to acknowledge the death cult that was Stalin’s regime and the Soviet Union’s antisemitism. Admittedly, Gold’s truculence was not uncommon at the time among progressives, who were loath to publicly criticize the USSR as long as US policies abroad and inequalities at home left so much to be desired. Nor does Chura stint when it comes to revealing personal regrets, like Gold’s touching realization late in life that, with all the words he had produced, he had never written a love poem.
Chura’s biography succeeds in introducing readers to a panoply of interesting, and mostly forgotten, people. Particularly conspicuous by his absence is poet and novelist Maxwell Bodenheim. This “King of Greenwich Village Bohemians,” author of a dozen novels and eight books of poetry, was certainly part of Gold’s orbit. He contributed to periodicals Gold was involved in, and, at times, edited, such as New Masses and the Daily Worker. Some leftists at the time no doubt considered Bodenheim an embarrassment, his public displays an indication he was not to be trusted. After all, Bodenheim was an alcoholic, and his precarious mental state led to scandalous behavior, usually involving women. At times destitute with occasional spells of drying out in Bellevue, Bodenheim wound up hawking his poems for a quarter each in Greenwich Village bars, only to be killed by a transient he had invited up to his room.
Bodenheim was well aware of own marginality. In fact, he embraced it:
I am a distinguished outcast in American letters — a renegade and recalcitrant, hated and feared by all cliques and snoring phantom celebrities, from ultra-radical to ultra-conservative — an isolated wanderer in the realm of the intellect and lithely fantastic emotion, hemmed in by gnawing hostilities and blandly simulating venoms.
For a time, Bodenheim wanted to be a sans-culotte writer. He was far too literary and too wordy, however, to compete with tough guys like Jim Tully, Edward Anderson, and Jack Conroy, whose sparse prose reflected the harsh environments they wrote about. Nevertheless, Bodenheim remained a man of the left who, during the 1930s, was a Party member, no matter how difficult it might be to envision this poète maudit accepting anyone’s discipline, much less that of the Communist Party.
All this feeds into what is arguably his best, though perhaps least read, novel. Slow Vision, published in 1934, is an evocative, poetic portrayal of the Depression era. What sets it apart from most Depression novels is not just its occasional baroque style, but also the manner in which Bodenheim charts the process of politicalization. Here it arrives gradually, reaching its resolution, and only a partial one at that, at the very close. Instead of a grand revolutionary finale of the sort one finds in Chester Himes’s Plan B, the appropriately named Slow Vision can only offer a portrayal of what might be possible, setting out the ingredients that might make a domestic popular front possible.
The novel centers on Ray, who either quits or is fired from a series of menial and humiliating jobs until he lands employment as a bus boy in a cafeteria and, finally, as an elevator operator. All the while, he and Allene, the daughter of his Jewish landlady, are trying to carve out a life together in cramped, impoverished quarters. A Depression everyman, Ray spends most of the novel believing those in power, from union leaders to President Roosevelt, have the finest intentions. Although he knows from firsthand experience that workers are exploited and need to be unionized, he is sure the system can work if only decent people are given the chance to put the right policies in place. Despite his liberalism, Ray suffers from the prevailing economic conditions which he is told by those around him are systemic in nature. It’s not that Ray is against mass action, but he abhors the thought of joining forces with militant unions like the International Workers of the World, or those he believes are taking orders from Moscow:
A gang of stinking Reds were lurking around the hotel, trying to poison the men and lure them into joining up. […] They’re paid by another country to stir up trouble over here, the whole crappy outfit of them. […] They tell you that decent, respectable men are no good, just because these men don’t want you to smash up the windows and ask for forty a week, right off the bat. We’ll have a union here sooner or later, sure, but it’s going to be a decent, law-abiding crowd, when we do put it over.
Yet his perspective changes as his circumstances worsen, both economically and romantically. Slow Vision isn’t only about how conditions can drive a person to take part in a possible revolutionary action, but how easily those conditions can destroy human relationships. It’s less ideology than Ray’s need for companionship and basic comfort that forces him into the street. Though he might not join the Communist Party, he does end up ready to stand alongside them. If Slow Vision is a product of Bodenheim’s commitment to the Party, that commitment appears, on a cursory reading, to be somewhat half-hearted. It might be better, though, to think of Bodenheim’s novel as Brechtian in nature, the equivalent of the German playwright’s “learning plays,” which relate the process one goes through to arrive at a position that is, as Lenin would say, as radical as reality. In the end, what makes this novel exceptional is its unrelenting focus on the intertwining of the political and the personal, on how poverty can breed alienation and lead to anger, jealousy, and violence in public and at home. This might very well be how capitalism sustains itself in such dire circumstances, while carrying within it the seeds of its demise. No doubt Ray would consider someone like Gold a dangerous radical, but push an Everyman to the end of his tether and anything might happen.
Slow Vision was the last novel to be published in Bodenheim’s lifetime — all thanks to newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who decided in 1935 to strike back at Bodenheim for the following diatribe:
This man, William Randolph Hearst, sitting in the hacienda of his vast ranch in California, sleekly entrenched, remote from the tortured needs of millions in factories, mines, mills, farms, and offices, pretends to be a staunch defender of American men and women — the very man who opposed the right of his own reporters to join a union advancing their interests, the man who spits sex-scandal and trivial divorce-cases into printed headlines throughout the land, the man who blazons the news of prize-fights and society-revels on his front pages and tucks the distorted report of a workers’ strike on page twenty-seven, bottom corner.
With Hearst effectively blackballing the novel, Slow Vision was ignored by his papers’ literary critics and barely survived a single print run. Suddenly Bodenheim could no longer obtain commissions, which meant his days of maintaining himself as a jobbing writer were over. By 1940, Bodenheim was no longer a Party member. Left to his own devices, worse was to come.
Published four years after Jews Without Money, Slow Vision was undoubtedly read by Gold who, at the time, was churning out his “Change the World” column for the Daily Worker. Leading Bodenheim authority Paul Maher Jr., who contributes an invaluable introduction to this Tough Poets edition of what has hitherto been a hard item to find on the secondhand book market, confirmed in an email that, of course, Gold and Bodenheim knew one another, but had, over the years, a fraught relationship. While they began more or less on the same wavelength, both co-signing the League of American Writers call, in spring 1935, for an American Writers Congress, they soon found themselves in different organizations. While Gold remained loyal to the Party, along with Dos Passos, Marianne Moore, James T. Farrell, Sinclair Lewis, Richard Wright, and Langston Hughes, Bodenheim had joined forces with those who had broken with it, such as his friend Edward Dahlberg, Dreiser, and Sherwood Anderson, to form the Unemployed Writers Association.
Nevertheless, in December 1937, an article by Bodenheim appeared in the Daily Worker. Headlined “Answering Mike Gold: Bodenheim Hails Improved Daily Worker,” it responded to Gold’s statement that the Daily Worker was intended more for “advanced” readers. Six months later, in June 1938, Gold, in another “Change the World” column, was announcing a party to celebrate Bodenheim’s 50th birthday, with proceeds going to the Federal Arts Projects:
There were Bodenheim legends and a Bodenheim cult. He was the closest we had to a Verlaine in this country; and now he is 50 years old! Many of the Bohemians of yesteryear forgot all about their rebellion the first time somebody handed them a good job in an advertising agency. What they had really wanted was not a brave new world, but a personal penthouse. With Maxwell, however, it was always more than skin-deep. He just couldn’t fit into the commercial scheme. It was more than an eccentricity: and the moment came when he found his own rebellious life explained to him by the light of the class struggle. So he joined the workers’ side in that struggle, and at 50 he is writing poetry again — burning poems of a bigger revolt that that of the sons of Verlaine. Which is all to the good, and which means that Maxwell bears his half century lightly.
Maher maintains that Gold was quite likely the only one at the Daily Worker willing to speak up for Bodenheim and his writing. In September 1941, even though Bodenheim was no longer in the Party, Gold published one of his poems:
Another spring will clean these wasted lands,
Will mend and grow with smiling carelessness,
But other peasants frowning, linking hands,
Will stand in never-ending, clear-eyed stress,
To guard their peace against new bullets, swords,
And chain the old returning overlords.
In return, Bodenheim, already on his uppers, delivered a lecture advertised in the Daily Worker as “MAXWELL BODENHEIM will talk about his friend of 25 years — Mike Gold.” After that, according to Maher, Bodenheim, along with his wife Grace, who was gravely ill, drifted away and “lost touch with Gold.”
Bodenheim was such a notorious figure that he couldn’t help but have an effect on the Beat movement of the early 1950s, the leading lights of which — Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg — he met personally in September 1951 at the San Remo bar. Familiar with Bodenheim’s reputation — Ginsberg would call him “too beat” — the two younger writers noted Bodenheim’s deteriorating condition and took him to a local shop to record his poetry for posterity. Three years later, Bodenheim and his then-partner, Ruth Fagan, were found murdered. Bodenheim had been shot and Fagan had been stabbed to death. He was 61, she was 29. Their deaths, salacious and sleazy, made front-page news, and Bodenheim’s ghost haunted erstwhile bohemians for years to come. Six months after the double murder, Bodenheim’s memoirs, My Life and Loves in Greenwich Village, hit the shelves. The book was commissioned by the infamous publisher Samuel Roth, who paid a destitute Bodenheim a pittance to use his name and some cursory chapters, handing those on to a ghostwriter to do the lion’s share of the work. Bodenheim would have another post-mortem life in Ben Hecht’s 1958 play Winkelberg, which he based on his late friend’s life. The haunting continued in September 1962, with an episode of the TV program Naked City, written by Arnold Manoff, entitled “Hold for Gloria Christmas,” in which Burgess Meredith played a character based on Bodenheim. Unfortunately, Max wasn’t around to receive any of the resulting profits.
As for Gold, his influence on the Beats was more peripheral. According to Wald’s Exiles from a Future Time, Joseph Freeman, a former New Masses editor, happened to overhear poet Gregory Corso on a pay phone sometime in 1959 talking about someone called Ginsberg. Freeman thought he was hearing a reincarnation of Gold referring to his old friend Louis Ginsberg, who had contributed poems to the journal. He eventually ran into Allen Ginsberg and Corso. Having read their poetry, he told them that, back in the day, Gold would surely have published their work. When he learned Ginsberg and Corso were headed to San Francisco, Freeman told them to look up Mike Gold, that they would find him “a kindred spirit.” It’s unlikely the young Beats took Freeman’s advice. They were more intent on finding for their own kind of communalistic state, derived not so much from Marx as from Whitman’s vision of America.
Though Gold and Bodenheim did their part in preparing the ground, those following in their footsteps didn’t have any organized backing to support them. Nor did they seem to care, settling instead for a bohemia solely committed, as Amiri Baraka used to say, to function and drift. Gold was fortunate to have the Party behind him, until, of course, that was no longer possible. Bodenheim, out there on his own, was another matter. While Jews Without Money depicted a community living together under severe conditions, Slow Vision illustrates that those conditions can also tear the vulnerable apart. Looking back on the lives of Gold and Bodenheim, it’s easy to grow nostalgic about what might have been. Gold’s optimism may indeed have been misplaced, but, as always, our judgment depends not only on our knowledge of the past but also on our commitment to the future.
Woody Haut is the author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: the Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, all published by Serpent's Tail.
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