Life of the Party

‘The Romance of American Communism’
Demonstration of the Communist Party in Boston, 1933 (Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo)

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.

The Herculean balancing act of Gornick’s prose has something to do with her desire to stay in the story, a desire furiously weighed against her longing for narrative absence.

That Romance was a work of sensitive ethnography did not mean it could be mistaken for an exhaustive academic book—freighted with dates and opposition research—but it was an astoundingly good one, which tempted lofty critiques from the time of its release. When Irving Howe reviewed it for the Nation in 1978, he declared the work lacked discipline, that Gornick had relented to idealism and nostalgia in overidentifying with her subjects’ plight. “It could have been a first-rate book,” Howe wrote. “Alas, where her book should be dry, it is damp; where hard, soft.” What the dry, hard part of him was ill-equipped to say is that the book was designed for Gornick’s satisfaction, not his own. And, really, in some crucial respects she tells the story straight, as straight as one can without being dry. Romance is organized into three main sections: her subjects’ early experience that precipitated party membership, their years in the Communist Party, and who they became after its dissolution—or as she puts it in her introduction, “encounter, performance, and consequence.” (A rare moment where she does sound like a milquetoast professor.) Any history book might progress chronologically, but the slicing and dicing of her subjects’ interviews into a single “life” of the party highlights the art, rather than the inevitability, of piecing together the story of a movement after the fact. Romance more closely resembles a novel told from multiple perspectives, like a game of telephone. The message first intended—of a glorious revolution just around the corner—gets lost, but the language of comradery becomes more layered and intense.

As for the prose that binds these accounts, it is forcibly balanced, like a slap on each cheek to set your whole head buzzing. It’s not balanced in its politics or pitch, but rather in its preoccupation with sentences that repeat with variation, keeping the scale of the feeling wide and grand. Gornick will write this sort of thing about her Communists: “the gift for political emotion highly developed; the gift for individual empathy neglected, atrophied” or “just as they came from everywhere…so they have gone back into everywhere” or “Being and becoming. At the heart of the Communist experience is always the question of being and becoming.” They’re loud, persistent sentences engineered to be spoken before a crowd, or to sell out a show that’s already left town. With diametrically clashing adjectives she can even make Communism sound like a trip to Cirque du Soleil: “The passionate experience had streamed through the Communists, like fire and ice, burning and freezing, permanently altering.”

 

But I suspect balance affects the text at a more profound level, too. Speaking of her days covering radical feminism for the Village Voice in the 1970s, Gornick recently told Affidavit of her early reporting work:

The task for me was to decide on the proportions, the degree to which I was in the story. Most personal journalists failed at this because they started writing about themselves, confessionally or therapeutically. That was the fashion of the time, and still is. They didn’t realize that the game was that you use yourself just enough to tell the story.

This suggests to me that the Herculean balancing act of Gornick’s prose has something to do with her desire to stay in the story, a desire furiously weighed against her longing for narrative absence. It’s the quandary of the organizer, who wishes to mobilize the masses, as well as the author who writes to move and woo them: how to rarify and promote one’s self enough to redescribe the world in one’s own terms, yet remain generous and self-effacing enough to let someone else inhabit it. So she’ll use a cogent, demanding word that everyone knows and reads differently—like “passion,” “adventure,” “romance”—and bravely stitch it through many personal narratives like a flag that waves only for her comrades. She’ll tell her own story just the same, in a voice that breezily permits accounts to vary and conflict while still remaining integral to the whole. If she doesn’t strike the most delicate balance in Romance, I tend to prefer what she comes up with instead, the broad strokes with which she renders the manic sprint to romantic maturity folded and stored neatly away behind the soulful eyes of an ex-Communist, prolonged (or set right again) by the recognition of someone raised in that fold, one of their own.

A reigning imperative of Gornick’s writing is to explore what it means to retread old ground. She’s done it with her own life, producing excellent memoirs like Fierce Attachments, but also one I enormously disliked, The Odd Woman and the City. (Unfortunately that was the first book of hers I read, putting me off the rest of her work for a while.) She did it again in February when she released a book of essays, Unfinished Business, comprised of literary re-readings (Lawrence, Bowen, Colette). Writing savagely of James Salter in her review of All That Is for Bookforum, Gornick posits that, “Certainly, it is true that most writers have only one story in them—that is, as Flannery O’Connor put it, only one they can make come alive. Then again, it is also true that it is the writer’s obligation to make the story tell more the third or fourth time around than it did the first.” I doubt many writers would agree with this assertion—there are the maximalists, the satirists, the self-tinkerers—but it’s Gornick’s way. Each book in its unspooling tells of passion turned on by engagement with family, text, bodies. It’s her coming-of-age story, into every age one might venture. The radical subjects that populate her writing don’t tell stories merely to live, but to change their lives forever. In Fierce Attachments she writes about one of her mother’s stories, a fairytale of sorts. A girl of seventeen, the daughter of a neighbor, came down with pneumonia. In accordance with an old superstition, her mother agreed to ritualistically buy the child from her family to expunge the illness. “Jews believed that if someone you loved was in danger you sold them and that warded off the evil eye,” her mother said. “If they weren’t yours what could happen to them?” The girl recovered and afterward always referred to Bess Gornick as “Mama.” Decades later, Gornick reproaches her mother:

“Ma,” I say, “you knew this was a peasant superstition, an old wives’ tale, and still you took part in it? You agreed to buy her?”

“Of course I did.”

“But, Ma! You were both communists.”

“Well, listen,” she says, “We had to save her life.”

As the epidemic and its pageant of unbearable inequality demonstrates again, fantasies of possession can do nothing for us, neither save our lives nor give them meaning. The distance between dailiness and wanting something that seems nearly impossible is still the field of struggle where hearts and movements grow. Gornick’s distillation of this perfervid psychic territory over decades of writing about radicals, and literature, and daughters, serves as a reminder of what can be awakened there. Of what simply must be awakened. A lifetime of talking and thinking will necessitate its own story; through Gornick, it transmits a dream.

 

The Romance of American Communism 
Vivian Gornick
Verso, $13.96, 288 pp.

Published in the July / August 2020 issue: 

Hannah Gold is a writer for The Cut at New York Magazine. Her criticism has been published by the Nation, the New Republic, Jezebel, and others.

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