Reading Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism for the second time in a little more than a year, I noticed that the same lines jumped out at me. They’re all from the interviews she conducted with dozens of former Communist Party (CP) members, whose recurring roll call is her oral history’s very flesh. Diana Michaels, a lawyer in Philadelphia, says, “being a Communist made me better than I was. It was the great moral adventure of my life.” Paul Levinson, decades after struggling with anxiety over dating and paying a visit to the “party psychoanalyst” (I want to read that book, too), is working as a copywriter in the suburbs, where he’s taken up analysis again, plus canoeing. Inevitably, he has some insights, the most striking of which is, “I couldn’t tell [people in the party] anything about what we call my ‘personal life,’ but I felt an intimacy with them I also know I’ll never feel again with anyone else.” Marian Moran, well-preserved in Los Angeles with her two thousand books, says that the years she spent as a CP member organizing farm workers in California “were the very best years of my life. Nothing since has even remotely touched them.” And then, “That’s not exactly true, is it? The dailiness is what you are, and there is always the danger that you will become what you are…isn’t there?”
Each of these comments carries in it the seed of a shared romantic idea (and it’s also an artistic one): that a life contains many versions of itself, brandished for a time, then put away. Gornick’s subjects are both the people they are (average, alienated, rote) and the people they dream themselves to be (the intuitionist, the adventurer, the comrade). It’s the expression of this tension rather than its resolution that characterizes The Romance of American Communism, the tension of stories stretched thin over so much hope and disappointment they’re longing to break. And then something else will happen.
Becoming what you are—the dailiness—is the line that gnaws at me. The phrase recalls a fate so solidly packed nothing can grow in it, or ambition hardening into ambivalence. Surely Gornick, who spent much of 1974 crossing the country collecting interviews for her monumental work—first published in 1977 and reissued by Verso in April—could not withstand its connotations, even as she drove her reporting project to the precipice of ecstatic disappointment. The Communist Party USA, as anyone in her book will tell you, was formed in 1919, attracted seventy-five thousand members in its prime (the ’30s and ’40s), was worn down in the McCarthy era, and virtually neutralized in 1956, the year Nikita Khrushchev denounced Joseph Stalin and detailed for the world the extent of his predecessor’s crimes. Within weeks of the speech, thirty thousand people had left the party and, as Gornick puts it, “the affective life of the Communist Party in this country came to an end.”
Suspicions had already alighted upon party practice by that time, many of them frenzied reactions to Cold War anti-Communist sentiment in America. Internal tribunals excommunicated many members from their political community on the flimsiest of charges. Gornick interviews several people linked to those trials in some capacity: defendants, prosecutors, passive witnesses, and people who claim not to remember. Arnold Richman did not protest his own mother’s expulsion from the party (against his wife’s objections) on charges of “white chauvinism.” Later in his interview he reveals to Gornick something of the filial logic that led to those actions:
You ask me how I feel about the Communist Party. Do I love it? Do I hate it? Am I anti-communist? That’s like asking me do I love my mother, do I hate my mother. What’s the difference whether I love or hate her? She’s my mother. I am bound to her by ties stronger than love or hate.
Others were forced so deep inside the delusion (the sordid underside of hope) that they accepted orders from above to go underground, leading fictional lives in strange towns for months, even years. Nettie Posin tells Gornick she went into hiding in 1951 trusting the party’s line that “fascism was coming, and that we—certainly as a party and most of us individually—would be wiped out.” The set-up has the makings of a torrid affair carried out under cover of night, yet in those four secretive years, Posin says, “my life, and the purpose of what I was doing became a dark and mysterious burden.” The remark intimates Gornick’s own words of caution that she saves for the end of her book: “To see that the self is in fact not developing, but rather is being stifled? When it feels exactly the opposite? That takes a lot of living, a lot of living.”
Gornick herself was raised a Red Diaper Baby in working-class, cooperative Jewish housing in the Bronx. Her father worked in a dress factory; her mother ran their local Tenants’ Council until 1935, when Gornick was born. She was at least a decade or two younger than her interview subjects in Romance, or the age many of them were when they were active in the CP. (She writes in her superb 1987 memoir, Fierce Attachments, that her mother would tell her stories about going down to the Communist Party headquarters in Union Square “the way other mothers told their children Mary had a little lamb.”) Gornick’s exploration of these ex-Communists’ psychic dramas never springs from a cold eye, but from sympathy, even intimacy, with her subjects.