The Vital Relation: What Vivian Gornick Got Right About the History of American Communism

LATE IN THE SPRING of 1974, a soon-to-be-famous writer reads the words she has written: “Selma’s experience is a piece of testimony to the longing for oneness that the political emotion arouses. […] All that matters is the act of struggle. She cannot concentrate on the politics, the Soviet betrayal, the fall of the party etc. as much as she does on the memory of engagement.” The writer stops, underlines the last few words in brown pen, drops an asterisk into the margins.

The passage never made it into the book, but its message can be found on every page. In 1977, Basic Books published Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism. Gornick had spent the end of her 30s crisscrossing the United States, interviewing dozens of former communists: an early childhood educator in Manhattan; a surgeon in Phoenix; a dress factory machine operator in Los Angeles; and so on. As I would learn from her research notes, she gave each person a pseudonym (Selma Knobler would become the ebullient Sarah Gordon) and shifted the specifics of their lives just enough to nudge the book outside the realm of the scholarly. Romance, she explained one afternoon in an interview, was not a work of history but literary journalism — “you push everything around to serve the theme.” The theme, in this case, was the irresistible feeling of politics, the invisible fuel that is so much part of a radical’s life, they may not even be able to name it.

Whatever its genre, Romance is, above all, a connective undertaking, seeking to close gaps in understanding between activist generations, particularly between American communists and American feminists of the second wave. The two literary strategies Gornick uses to achieve this bridging are personal essays that introduce and conclude the book — the most electric sections — and the interviews with former communists. The interviews are synthesized, dramatized, and divided into three parts mirroring the major arc of her interview questions: What was life like before, during, and after their time in the Communist Party? What, subjects were asked, did the experience do for them? What did it do to them? As Gornick noted in her introduction, Romance was an attempt “to put flesh on the skeleton […] to clarify political emotions which had the power, in the twentieth century, to change the shape of human expectation.”

Gornick’s desire to build a literary bridge between American communists and later generations of political radicals marked a sharp departure from most commentary. From the vantage point of the 1970s, with anticommunism still chilling the air, the vast majority of authors wrote about communism with their noses pinched. Men such as Arthur Koestler, Lionel Trilling, and Richard Crossman maintained, as Gornick observes in her introduction, “an oppressive distance between themselves and their subject,” an “abstract and alienating distance” which denies “the teeming, contradictory life” behind a word like communism. “[T]here is no vital relation” in such writing, no sympathy: “[W]hat is in us could never be in them.” Gornick faults anticommunist writers not for their analysis, but for their lack of emotional imagination: “For the purpose of humane thought, surely, is to close the gap of separating experience, not to widen it; to seek out those human elements which bind us to all experience, to make all that happens humanly understandable.”

She approached the subject as a journalist, which is what she then was. Born in New York City in 1935, Gornick grew up in the Bronx and graduated from City College in 1957. After abandoning graduate studies at Berkeley in the late 1960s, she returned home to New York City to cover the nascent radical feminist movement for the Village Voice. It was the height not only of women’s liberation but also of the New Journalism and its close cousin, personal journalism. Writers, among them Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion, were combining investigative journalism with the techniques of fiction writing, such as dialogue, vivid description, and richly developed characters. Elaine Blair has described Gornick’s first-person style of writing as personal criticism, highlighting the consistency of the “I.” Across subjects, the writing thrives on the immediacy of lived experience. Gornick spent the 1970s developing this style, not only through Romance but also in writing for the Voice.

Berkeley had shown Gornick she was not destined for academia. “I was never going to read the way they were reading. It didn’t make me feel good,” she explained to me, but her time away had made her see her origins differently. She described being in California, part of a group of “Jewish girls from New York — smart-ass, bold, sassy, irreverent, sexy — you can just imagine. And we were always provocative.” They used to amuse the other students and each other by telling stories. Whenever Gornick would mention that her parents were communists, she recalled that people “got round-eyed: a communist!” Most children of the ’50s, as this generation was, associated communism with pure evil; the nameless, faceless threat from across of the sea. “I realized that for many, many people in this country, people like my parents were demonized. A million Americans had been Communists at one point or another, and I suddenly had a passion to tell the real story.”

Gornick’s instinct was to use her own experience to illuminate the truth as she saw it — that, while it operated, communism allowed people to become more than the sum of their life’s parts. In one of the book’s most memorable passages, Gornick writes of pulling her mother aside to ask about the visitors constantly gathered in the kitchen:

I would point to one or another and whisper to her: Who is this one? Who is that one? My mother would reply in Yiddish: “He is a writer. She is a poet. He is a thinker.” Oh, I would nod, perfectly satisfied with these identifications[.] […] He, of course, drove a bakery truck. She was a sewing-machine operator. […] So powerful was the life inside their minds that sitting there, drinking tea and talking issues, these people ceased to be what they objectively were — immigrant Jews, disenfranchised workers — and, indeed, they became thinkers, writers, poets.

In the introductory chapter, Gornick describes her “red diaper” childhood and her later break with her family’s support for the Soviet Union following Khrushchev’s 1956 speech. In the concluding chapter, she reprises the method of personal essay to link together generations of radicals, observing to Elaine Blair that many of her subjects had been “waiting somewhere within themselves for some comprehensive explanation of their own lives, and communism had been it. That’s what feminism was for me.” She describes toward the end of Romance the second wave of American feminism as “breaking over my head,” recalling with sudden resonance Arthur Koestler’s words upon experiencing Marxism for the first time: “To say one had ‘seen the light’ is a poor description of the intellectual rapture which only the convert knows[.] […] The new light seems to pour from all directions across the skull.”

Radical feminism did many things to and for Gornick, but most importantly, it bestowed upon her the psychological insight that women as well as men had internalized women’s second-class status in society. From this, Gornick became convinced of the necessity of “squeezing the slave out of oneself, drop by drop” (this from Chekhov) conceiving of self-possession as a political act. This revelation helped her see connections between political repression, cultural anxiety, and existential terror that applied to her life and to those of the women she knew. Initially, the “renewed sense of the politicalness of life,” as she put it, lightened her heart. But before long, trouble began. Rapidly, alarmingly, feminist consciousness yielded to feminist dogma. Before her very eyes, “correct” and “incorrect” attitudes emerged, hard-edged theories developed and calcified, and factional schisms sent former sisters careening in all directions.

Matters came to a head at a meeting in Boston in the early 1970s, when some women denounced her suggestion that calling men oppressors “by nature” was an unproductive substitute for staying focused on “the ever-accumulating details of a system of relationships that was the true cause of our oppression.” When she was called “in a voice blazing with scorn” an “intellectual and a revisionist,”

the memory of the Old Left surfaced like an underground spring bursting through encrusted earth […] I felt for the communists what I had not felt in twenty years: compassion. “So this is how it all happened,” I thought. “This is how all that treachery came about. Who on earth can deal with all this fear and anger?”

The situation was heartbreaking and familiar. Instead of meeting fire with fire, Gornick stares into her detractor’s eyes and sees, behind the anger, an agony of confusion: “I understood why this was happening. I saw daily the fear, rage, and frustration of women beginning to grasp the political meaning of their lives. I knew that a subjected people didn’t emerge into clarity with proportion and generosity.” Feminists’ descent into dogma and the strong emotion it evoked gave Gornick the empathic pivot she needed to be able to understand this earlier generation of radicals.

For Vivian Gornick, writing a book that is driven by sensibility rather than polemics is a badge of honor. But the decision to tell the story of American communism through a history of emotion was not to everyone’s taste. Her critics echoed her own early observations of Selma Knobler: that she could not “concentrate on the politics.” Commentary editor Marion Magid dismissed the opening chapter that so gripped me as a “mawkish prelude,” called attention to Gornick’s dubious conflation of socialism and communism, and accused her of cashing in on contemporary ignorance of the Jewish immigrant world as a whole — a world that was, for the most part, critical of communists because of their support for Stalin and the Party’s destruction of Soviet Jewish life. Writer Ronald Radosh, former member of the Communist Party and a later partisan of the New Left, quarreled with the project itself, deeming it inappropriate to treat such a politicized movement in purely personal terms. His review in The Nation condemned Gornick’s implication that the Party declined because of the extremity of human passion, rather than because of mistaken policies and failed programs. Finally, he accused Gornick of treating Party politics as “simply window dressing for those seeking fraternity,” and (justifiably) called her statement that communists “feared, hungered, and cared more” than other people “ludicrous.”

But the harshest and most hard-hitting critique came from the literary critic Irving Howe. Born a dozen years earlier than Gornick, Howe was a lifelong socialist, which meant he was in lifelong conflict with communists. When Romance came out, he had recently published World of Our Fathers, a well-received book about the socialist visions of his father’s and grandfather’s generations. He acknowledged that although Romance took on “[a] good subject with large possibilities,” it failed to problematize ideological purity, failed to critically analyze the desire to surrender to an absolute “we,” and failed to grapple with the attendant horrors of Stalinism. But Howe’s real complaint, the one that cut Gornick the deepest, charged Romance with needing “strict discipline of mind and language.” That is, she failed to safeguard against the self-justifications and nostalgia of her subjects. She should have questioned “the worth of resummoned emotions. Alas, where her book should be dry, it is damp. Where hard, soft.”

“I went to bed for a week after that review,” Gornick exclaimed, “it was painful!”

It seemed to me that Howe had missed the point. Plenty of ink had been spilled covering Stalinist atrocities and railing against authoritarian politics. He just didn’t like the project. And I smiled to read how, a few years later, Gornick got back at him on her own terms. Reviewing Howe’s intellectual autobiography, A Margin of Hope, for The Nation, she deemed the “aggressive absence of all ‘personal’ information […] an embarrassment. It’s as though Howe thinks that confession is revelation, when in fact revelation is to be had in every sentence of the flat, withholding prose.” She remarked how every hundred or so pages, Howe would reference “my wife.” Having been married several times throughout this period, his lack of distinction about which wife stood out. What kind of an intellectual life can be written about without one’s wife? was the cutting feminist question raised. The “sharp inner divisions” that characterized Howe’s life did not do him any favors as an intellectual, Gornick argued. What was best in him came through in his discussions of literature: affection, humor, love of life, intellectual generosity all became visible. When it came to writing about politics, especially about Stalinism, his prose became relentlessly “dense, obsessive, unyielding, and belligerent,” shaded by an anger “so disproportionate as to be psychologically suspect.” For Gornick, the ability to fuse the personal with the political is essential to intellectual depth.

Gornick is one writer who knows — indeed, who has made a career out of knowing — that truly sophisticated sensibility confronts the complexities of emotion head-on. As a critic, she reserves her condemnation for the emotionally flat, the emotionally uncurious, and the emotionally dishonest, charting a short course over to literary flatness, artistic dullness, and intellectual dishonesty.

Influenced as much by psychoanalysis as by feminism, Gornick aphoristically summed up this view in a later essay about Hannah Arendt: “What it comes down to is this. If you don’t understand your feelings, you’re pulled around by them all your life. If you understand but are unable to integrate them, you’re destined for years of pain. If you deny and despise their power, you are lost.” Gornick’s imperative to not only understand one’s feelings but to show evidence of having integrated their meaning bears strongly on those of us who write. It means we have a responsibility to narrate beyond the limits of our subjects’ consciousness. Put differently, as she wrote elsewhere, “the accumulated surfaces [of a text] must ‘know’ more, must reveal the character in spite of herself.”

Does Vivian Gornick achieve this with Romance? I have to admit she does not. The communists who she interviews sound too much at Gornick’s own pitch — the emotional brightness, curiosity, and honesty are present, but they’re all hers. It is Gornick’s energy, not that of her subjects, suffused within the pages. The kind of critical distance that better informs Gornick’s later work might have helped to strategically distribute the passion that is also the book’s strength, allowing it to pool and pocket in places where empathatic insights about her subjects could land with stronger effect. Nevertheless, I am grateful to Gornick for taking seriously the place of emotion in political life. Her unrepentant belief in strong feeling as the heartbeat of any political approach to the world explains why, though many good histories of American communism have appeared since Romance, none have captured, elevated, and lit up the experience in quite the same way.


Lana Dee Povitz is the author of Stirrings: How Activist New Yorkers Ignited a Movement for Food Justice (2019).



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