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How Vivian Gornick Reinvigorated Political Writing

Her most criticized book, “The Romance of American Communism,” has become a modern classic.

The Communist Party’s National Convention, with dwindling numbers, in 1966. Over 80 percent of its members left in the late 1950s.

Vivian Gornick specializes in personal narrative. Sometimes this means artful memoir: Her most admired book is 1987’s Fierce Attachments, about her relationship with her mother, and she sat for The Paris Review’s second-ever “Art of Memoir” interview in 2014. But over the course of her long career—she’s now 84—Gornick has applied her personal method to reportage, literary criticism, biography, and even oral history. In warm, intimate prose, she has addressed questions of selfhood, writing, and politics from many angles, alternating ardent sincerity with self-deprecating humor.

by Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176 pp., $25.00

by Vivian Gornick

Verso, 288 pp., $19.95

This year sees the release of two very different examples of her approach. In her new essay collection, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader, she retells and reinterprets much of her own life story—her feminist awakening, her discovery of her vocation as a writer, her initiation into psychoanalysis, her embrace of her identity as an “odd woman” living alone—by revisiting favorite works of literature. In her newly reissued oral history, The Romance of American Communism, first published in 1977, the personal narratives of ordinary American Communist Party members are bookended by Gornick’s own disillusionment, first with socialism and then, in the 1970s, with the women’s liberation movement. The result is a kind of collective memoir of falling in and out of love with a political movement, of losing faith in the vindicating power of ideology.

Unfinished Business and Romance are an apt pair, since Romance is itself an example of the changes in reception a book can go through over time. Widely criticized upon its appearance (Irving Howe deemed it undisciplined and badly written) and accused of excessive sympathy for the disgraced Communists, Romance fell out of print for many years. The book has recently found a new currency, anticipated in The Cut and New Yorker profiles of Gornick and warmly endorsed by political theorist Corey Robin as “the best book ever written” about the inner life of socialists on a “Best Books for Understanding Socialism” list on New York magazine’s shopping vertical. (These are strange times.) Romance holds a fresh appeal for readers who came of age in a post–Cold War world in which socialism has lost much of its stigma, and who perceive a newly urgent connection between ideology and inner life.

Gornick is mystified by this enthusiasm. “I don’t know why they want to read it,” she told New York earlier this year. Indeed, she’s a surprising choice of socialist icon. Though she’s sympathetic to the longing for equality, she’s skeptical of movements, because of the way they threaten to quash individual thinking and consciousness. One of the primary themes in her work has been the insufficiency of love and sex as governing motivations, whether in fiction or in life. The central contention of her 1997 set of essays, The End of the Novel of Love, was that love’s promise to “put us at the center of our own experience” is an illusion. The “romance” of communism is, for Gornick, just as misleading as romantic love, just as likely to delude and trap you. The only way through “the drama of the self” lies in individual effort, however wrenching that may be.

Romance begins with the memorable line, “Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl I knew that I was a member of the working class.” Born in the Bronx in 1935, Gornick grew up in a family of fellow travelers. Her father worked a grueling job in a dress factory while her mother moonlighted as a socialist orator, regretting that household obligations had prevented her from developing her skill as a public speaker. As a small child, Vivian nestled beside her father, listening “wide-eyed” to his “passionate, transforming talk” with his friends. They were talking about politics. “I understood nothing of what they were saying,” she remembers, “but I was excited beyond words by the richness of their rhetoric, the intensity of their arguments, the urgency and longing behind that hot river of words.” Their poverty didn’t matter when they were rich in ideas. In the warm confines of the Gornick apartment, her parents’ friends became writers, poets, and thinkers rather than truck drivers, sewing machine operators, and plumbers. The idea of communism granted them a dignity denied them by the outside world. It also gave Jewish immigrants a sense of belonging: They became members of “the nationhood of the international working class.”

In the mid-1970s, Gornick embarked on an intimate oral history of these figures. As she traveled around the country doing interviews, she learned that Communists were not always Jewish immigrants. In fact, they “were every kind of American: white, black, rich, poor, Jew, Gentile, American-born, foreign-born.” There was enormous variety to their experiences. But above all, she was interested in the relationship of ideology to inner life, and in how this relationship fit into the life stories she collected. What had led her interview subjects to join the party? How had the party changed them? Why had they left? She also had a political agenda. She was deeply frustrated by the contempt and dismissiveness with which writers from both right and left—including ex-Communists turned ferocious anti-Communists—wrote about Communist Americans. By documenting the existential search for meaning and purpose that lay at the heart of many Communists’ political commitment, she aimed to create a more nuanced portrait, and to show that Communists were people, too—noble people with an outsize longing for justice, even if it led them into error.

Romance is a color portrait against the black-and-white rhetoric of the Cold War, and Gornick’s thoughtful criticisms have nothing in common with the invective of professional anti-Communists. Still, she depicts a party that was disturbingly authoritarian. Why were thousands of Americans seduced by an organization that took orders from remote Moscow? Why were so many people willing to join a group that would ask members to give up their spouses or siblings or friends if the party deemed them unfit? That would send a writer to work in a factory for years, without any good reason?

For Gornick, the answer lies with communism’s ability to explain the whole world, and with its promise of progress. Communist faith gave meaning to the suffering and indignity of poverty and exploitation. Gornick is sympathetic to this because she understands life itself as a search for a greater pattern, though she has concluded that such patterns are better sought in art than in politics. Then there’s her other great theme, loneliness and belonging. Like love, communism gave a home to the lost—at least for a while.

Romance has three acts: falling in love, “living it out,” and the end of the affair. Even subjects who had left the party long ago, usually under painful circumstances, and who bore permanent scars, remembered their entry into the party like first love or religious conversion. Many became Communists during the “emotional recklessness” of the Depression, when the old structures seemed to be disintegrating, when traditional careers seemed pointless, and “to work for the future was to be at the center of things.” To see, all of a sudden, that “Here you were hungry and unemployed, and it wasn’t your fault,” as one interviewee told Gornick, was itself something like an epiphany. (Many Americans, I would argue, are having a similar epiphany today, which helps explain the rising popularity of democratic socialism.)

Gornick’s interviewees describe how communism saved them from despair, the rut of ill-paid, precarious work in bad conditions, the absence of hope for the future. It also introduced some of them to the joys of intellectual life, a transformative gift in itself. “God, I have never felt so free in my life as I did in those first days when I discovered Marx and the existence of my own mind at the same time,” says a Polish slaughterhouse worker who spent his workdays knee-deep in animal blood and shit. There could be a sense of victory and power, too: Several interviewees describe their participation in successful strikes and labor organizing—one of the most important achievements of the American Communist Party—as the highlight of their lives.

Romance is heavily seasoned with psychoanalysis. As one might expect from a person who wrote an entire book, Fierce Attachments, about her enduringly close relationship with a difficult, love-obsessed, widowed mother, Gornick is especially interested in the role of parent-child relations in the conversion to communism. Sometimes it’s a desire to vindicate a working-class father’s suffering, to feel that his pain had meaning: The drudgery of everyday organizing becomes bearable because it is dedicated to his memory. Some subjects are drawn to communism because it compensates for inadequate parents. In other cases, Communist commitment stems from a Freudian excess of filial devotion, as in the case of Belle Rothman:

Belle was the daughter of Max Rothman: cigar-maker and Communist. (Oh, these Communist women and their fathers!) Max looked like Trotsky, only better. Max thought like Lenin, only not quite so good. The passion of Max’s life was Communism. The passion of Belle’s life was Max.

Here we encounter one of the weaknesses of Romance: Gornick’s insistence that she understands her subjects better than they do, that she can expose their false consciousness. “She hardly knows,” Gornick writes pityingly of Belle, “that the ‘we’ of her speech is not her husband and herself but her father and herself. Max and the Communist Party: that piercing, glowing rapture from which she would never recover and whose sources she would never uncover. Like Teresa penetrated by her angel’s arrow, Belle penetrated by Papa’s revolution.” Belle is cheated of the opportunity to be judged on her own words; a more skillful oral historian could have made insight about Belle’s daddy issues available without indulging in such clumsy editorializing. Here and elsewhere in Romance, Gornick’s intrusive narrative approach reminded me of a heavy-handed psychoanalyst who brings everything, relentlessly, back to the Freudian menu, denying the possibility—the freedom—of speaking about big ideas without relating them to the specifics of childhood. Sometimes a cigar-maker is just a cigar-maker.

Romance shows that psychoanalysis and political history don’t always mix well. The psychoanalytic focus on drives tends to empty the content from political commitment. Gornick suggests that Marxism was to Communists what Helen was to Paris, awakening an all-consuming passion, setting in motion “the most intense longings, longings buried in the unknowing self, longings that pierced to the mysterious, vulnerable heart at the center of that incoherent life within us, longings that had to do with the need to live a life of meaning.” Personal relationships certainly do play a substantial role in political commitment, and the search for meaning is a crucial part of the story, but it’s unfair to reduce political convictions to inchoate longings. Misguided though the Communist Party of the USA may have been, communism was a complex ideology with roots in substantive criticisms of capitalism. Besides, Paris’s longing was not mysterious: He wanted the most beautiful woman in the world.

At first, Communism gave ideas, inspiration, purpose, community, redemption. But Gornick’s subjects also detail everything they feel communism took from them: intimate relationships free of party influence, the pursuit of artistic vocations, daily work suited to their talents, fulfilling marriages, self-knowledge, and the ability to think and speak independently. In many cases, Gornick suggests, Communist ardor filled a hole in the lives of people who were unable or unwilling to engage in emotional self-examination and expression. Here I was a little skeptical. Plenty of people marry the wrong person and stay too long in bad relationships without party coercion, lots of talented people fail to realize their artistic dreams, and true self-knowledge is rare.

But Gornick makes a convincing case for the special gruesomeness of unhappy marriage in the Communist Party. She records several awkward conversations during which one spouse explains why they chose, or were prepared to choose, the party over their lawful spouse; in one case, their life partner listens sadly beside them. Many married people feel neglected, but it’s rare that an international organization has explicitly ordered that neglect. Gornick devotes special attention to women’s subordinate role in the American Communist Party, including in marriages that resulted from party pressure. As in the USSR, the Communist promise of equality of the sexes was ephemeral. Several of Gornick’s subjects eventually abandoned communism for feminism, though Gornick doesn’t see this as a necessarily positive development; she describes how one wife browbeats her husband about sexism just as he once tormented her with Communist doctrine.

The Communist Party didn’t countenance dissent, and members were often expelled for disagreeing with the party line: for example, for criticizing the party’s decision to endorse Progressive Party candidate and erstwhile New Republic editor Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign. Others left in protest of one or another of the party’s decisions—notably its support for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact—or got fed up with the stultifying jargon and authoritarian ambience.

Leaving the party couldn’t save you from McCarthyism, however, and even ex-Communists often found themselves blacklisted and virtually unemployable. Romance’s most dramatic tales of the McCarthy era come from mid-level American Communists who were ordered, after the arrests of high-ranking members, to go underground, to “become unavailable” in anticipation of government purges. In 1951 in Los Angeles, a Communist named Nettie received her instructions. “She said good-bye to no one, left her apartment as though she would be returning that night, and simply evaporated into the Los Angeles smog.” She lived in anonymity, moving from one town to another, essentially homeless and living hand to mouth, for four years, until she was told she could go home.

Splitting from the party liberated some ex-members to pursue other kinds of meaning and what Gornick calls “expressiveness.” One of Gornick’s most eloquent subjects is Grace Lange, an ex-Communist turned potter and quilt-maker. Lange explains why she was drawn to Marxism and the party: “The act of understanding was an act of creation. The discovery through new materials, so to speak, of the hidden content. Marxism was the transforming stuff, the new color, the new space, the new texture, the one that brought to the surface the life until then obscured.” She explains that, as time passed, the Communist Party was no longer an effective wheel on which to spin the clay of Marxism. She turned to literal clay and wheel, and used actual fabric to create exquisitely patterned quilts. This, for her, was a direct substitute for the satisfactions of communism, a master plan you could hold in your hands.

The true exodus from the American Communist Party came after Khrushchev’s 1956 speech acknowledging many of Stalin’s crimes at the party congress. Far from the cruelty and absurdity of life in the actually existing USSR, American Communists had hung on to a blind faith in Stalin and the revolution, which was expected any day. Now Stalin’s successor was denouncing him, and many American Communists lost their illusions for good. Between 1956 and 1958, about 80 percent of members left the party.

At 20 years old, nearly two decades before she wrote her book, Gornick herself had already been on the fence, finding socialist explanations increasingly inadequate to the task of interpreting the world. She was by then a student at City College, where she was studying literature. Khrushchev’s speech sent her into a rage. “A maniac has been sitting there in Moscow!” she screamed at her aunt. “In the name of socialism!” Her aunt, who remained “adamantly Stalinist,” called her a Red-baiter, but Gornick saw her aunt’s “strong peasant face ashen with grief and survival, the world inside her and all around her dissolving in a horror of confusion too great to bear, too annihilating to take in.”

Gornick converted to the religion of great literature, devouring Melville, Mann, Wolfe, and Dostoevsky. After many romantic adventures—detailed in her various books—and two unsuccessful experiments with married life, Gornick fell in love at first sight with the women’s liberation movement, which she was assigned to cover for The Village Voice. When feminism became too doctrinaire—too much like the Communist Party for Gornick’s taste—she turned to psychoanalysis, and back to literature.

This is the journey that Unfinished Business traces. Like Romance, it is about the search for meaning and wholeness, for structures that can bring order to messy lives. In Unfinished Business, Gornick explains that for as long as she can remember, books have been her beloved companions, because they are an “attempt at shaping the inchoate through words,” bringing “sheer relief from the chaos in the head.” Literature offers not only pleasure, but a way “to understand what I was living through, and what I was to make of it.”

From the beginning, Gornick read literature through a political lens: “I read ever and only to feel the power of Life with a capital L as it manifested itself (thrillingly) through the protagonist’s engagement with those external forces beyond his or her control.” Her journalism career began after she attended a discussion of “Art and Politics” featuring the playwright LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka). Frustrated by Jones’s iconoclasm, she wrote her first piece of personal journalism, an explicitly subjective, first-person account of the event, and mailed it to The Village Voice, which published it. (Those were the days.) She joined the paper as a staff writer, and at first its polemical tone seemed a perfect fit. But as she honed her style, using herself as “the instrument of illumination,” she felt “a growing need to look inward as well as outward.”

The feminist movement allowed her to unite the personal and the political, the inner and the outer, in a way she never had before. Feminism also transformed her understanding of literature as she realized that many of the friends of her youth, her favorite novels, were riddled with sexism: “I saw for the first time,” she writes, “that most of the female characters in them were stick figures devoid of flesh and blood, there only to thwart or advance the fortunes of the protagonist whom I only just then realized was almost always male.” As a very young woman, she loved The VagabondThe Shackle, and the Chéri books, seeing Colette as a wise chronicler of female longing. But in later rereadings, she came to view Colette as a vain woman bereft of insight into the use of love as an antidote to anomie. Reading D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers when she was 20, she identified with Miriam, the farmer’s daughter, who is preoccupied with being desired. By her mid-thirties, Gornick identified with the novel’s hero, Paul Morel, who does the desiring. She had learned to recognize herself as the protagonist of her own life story.

Over time, feminist introspection led Gornick to “an unimagined universe of interiority … one equipped with its own theory, laws, and language.” She entered the psychoanalytic phase of her lifelong quest for order. Unlike some of her interviewees in Romance, she concluded that the trick was finding the right question, not the right answer. The journey not the arrival mattered, and teleology went out the window; the marriage plot was moot. Now, as she reread favorite novels, she found that “the central drama … was nearly always dependent on the perniciousness of the human self-divide.” Good books are the ones that imagine “human existence with the rift healed,” that allow the reader to imagine how she might heal the rifts within herself.

At the end of Romance, Gornick explains how women’s liberation was, for her, fundamentally about a change in consciousness. “Break the psychology, we posited, and the institutions would crumble. In short: In America in the second half of the twentieth century the power of feminism turned on the realization that social change had more to do with altered consciousness than with legislated law.” Today this declaration sounds quaint. One of the key flaws of second-wave feminism was its failure, on the whole, to grapple with questions of race and class, to fully grasp the force of entrenched power, and to reckon with the ways in which people are constrained by material as well as psychological forces.

With its concentric rings of self-scrutiny, Unfinished Business shows that Gornick’s commitment to altering consciousness—above all, her own—has only intensified with time. This is a largely solitary pursuit. A key passage describes her ecstatic discovery, in the 1970s, of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (She published a book-length biographical essay on Stanton in 2005.) In “The Solitude of Self,” an 1892 address delivered when she stepped down from the presidency of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the 76-year-old Stanton argued that solitude was the rule, not the exception. Women should not be dependent on men in part because “each soul must depend wholly on itself.… In the long, weary march, each one walks alone.”

Gornick had recently started to wonder whether women’s oppression was motivated by the fear of loneliness, and she was thinking about what it meant to reject marriage for good; soon she would step back from the women’s movement. Reading Stanton’s speech, Gornick was amazed to see that her own sense of incurable isolation—even from her fellow feminists—had already been articulated so perfectly. Stanton helped her understand that the strongest reason for “giving women every means of enlarging their sphere of action is the ultimate solitariness of every life.” To search for an escape from loneliness in politics, as the American Communists had, was misguided, as were attempts to evade loneliness through love. Enlightenment lay in the realization that loneliness was the essence of the human condition.

Read together, Romance and Unfinished Business tell a story about moving away from the collective and toward the individual, from action to introspection, from politics to art. They also tempt the reader to question some of Gornick’s own conclusions. In Unfinished Business, Gornick compares rereading a book important earlier in life to “lying on the analyst’s couch.” Seeing how much you’ve forgotten or misunderstood, you arrive at important realizations about the person you once were and the person you’ve become. But should we assume that our own final reading is the correct one? Among a literary work’s most remarkable powers, after all, is its ability to look different with every reading, like a lake over the course of a day in changing weather. Gornick told The New Yorker that she was persuaded to republish Romance against her better judgment. But if new readers, younger readers, find Romance compelling, fascinating, moving, who is Gornick to tell them they’re wrong?

Against the backdrop of a cascade of national and global emergencies, Gornick’s dedicated decades of self-scrutiny seem an almost impossible luxury. The American romance with communism was a failure. But today, the rift in the self seems less consequential than the rift between rich and poor, and our economic, political, and ecological crises cannot be confronted in solitude. Gornick writes that Stanton’s speech resonated with her because she felt “trapped both in nature and in history.” The newfound interest in Romance speaks to a growing, shared desire to work, together, to extricate humankind from the trap in which it is now caught.