Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
Counterintuitively, the hardest to write book reviews are for ones you most admire. And Patrick Chura’s biography, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer is one such book.
Reading Chura’s text has been an intimate labor of love for me. In the very last pages of his story of the life of Michael Gold a sentence stood out to describe my deep attachment. “. . . (Michael) Gold managed the challenge of proving the existence of another America, and how difficult it made his life.”
In writing of Michael Gold, an avowed and uncompromising Marxist, a man who has fallen out of the literary canon, out of the political history of America, despite his major contributions and successes, Chura has told the story of my parents and people like them, who dedicated their lives to making a better, more equitable nation, and suffered as a result of their beliefs and actions.
Chura brings to light, as Gold did, an insidious, anti-democratic thread in America. Chura implicitly confronts the notion, an au courant well-meaning trope of President Biden’s, that “this is not America,” in reference to right wing, white supremacy, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Masterfully intertwining Gold’s life with the radical history of cultural activism Chura exposes contradictory evidence; that a long historical strain of racism, classism, and anti-Semitism is extant in America, lying in wait for a leader to tap into that vein of ugliness.
Michael Gold, was born in 1893, into that “other America,” as Itzok Isaac Granich (aka Irwin Granich), destined to become a literary and political force. In his own words that give evidence of his authorial power, he wrote: “I was born in a tenement…It was in a tenement that I first heard the sad music of humanity rise to the stars. The sky above the airshafts was all my sky, and the voices of the tenement neighbors in the airshaft were the voices of all my world. There in my suffering youth, I feverishly sought God and found Man.”
In order to become Michael Gold, the author, Irwin Granich, had to break with that old culture. In Chura’s profound discussion of what it takes to become a writer of significance, he describes how it felt like a suicide for Gold to separate himself from his parents and their assimilationist desires for prosperity, while still holding on to his knowledge of poverty. He chose his own path, his “synthesis for life,” as an author and activist. This was his talent and his undoing. His major literary gift to the American canon was Jews without Money, (New York: Horace Liveright, 1930) an autobiographical, proletarian novel about growing up in that world. It was enormously successful and translated into over a dozen languages at the time. His only novel served as a model for political fiction and the touchstone and source of strength for his own critical writing and editorial influence in progressive and Marxist periodicals of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, including The Masses, The New Masses, and The Liberator.
Gold’s strong views on political literature gained followers, but as time went on, the strength and some would say rigidity of his beliefs undercut his standing in that intellectual world. Chura doesn’t shrink from showing how Gold could turn against his fellow authors, even those whose work he had lauded on first encounter, like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, whom he later determined didn’t live up to his notions of true proletarian and anti-racist writing, when during the McCarthy Red Scares, they retreated to safer ground. He deemed them mere visitors to the life of the poor and underprivileged. In Faulkner’s case, Gold’s aggrievement seems especially justified by our current standards. In 1956, when Autherine Lucy attempted to integrate the University of Alabama, Faulkner, the liberal southerner walked back his support of Blacks, retreating to a stance against “forced integration,” saying he would join with “that embattled white minority who are our blood and kin.” Shocked, Gold responded, “This surely is thinking with the blood…the sort of ‘thinking’ that loomed large in Nazi ideology, and has long kept the South in pauperism.” In this stand, he linked racism, anti-Semitism, capitalism, and classism as the greatest of political evils.
Gold’s criticisms and journalistic opinion pieces also foretold of a progressive rigidity in promulgating what is correct and non-correct in proletariat storytelling, morphing into our current conundrum of demanding authenticity of class and racial credentials.
By the end of his life, his strongest remaining loyalties were to the sometimes class-based work of Eugene O’Neill, and the African American literature of Richard Wright and W.E.B Du Bois.
A surprise in Chura’s book is the influence Michael Gold brought to bear on popular activist music. In a confrontation with Charles Seeger—Pete Seeger’s father—he took a position against elitist, European-based political music, promulgated by Charles Seeger’s liberal Composer’s Collective, saying essentially that it wasn’t singable by ordinary workers and protesters and thus failed as an organizing tool. His passionate advocacy of the indigenous music of Ray and Lida Auville forced a turning point in political music, bringing to the fore the vernacular American songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, and Earl Robison. We still see this influence today in the tributes of Bruce Springsteen to Guthrie and Seeger, and even closer, to Jennifer Lopez belting out Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” at the Biden/Harris Inauguration.
Nearer to my own life and family was the support Gold gave to the cooperative movement, which was thought of as a subversive, socialist concept in the 1930s and 40s. My father, an economist, was a strong believer in and promulgator of the co-ops as giving an economic power base for the “little guy” against the cooperate state. So, it was with great surprise that upon entering the Peace Corps I found myself in Puerto Rico in 1963 with a group training to work in Ecuador as specialists in Co-operative Movement Credit Unions. Gold might have been even more astonished to learn that this once-thought radical movement was being used in the fight against Communist inroads in Latin America.
My parents became a perfect example of those progressive commitments when they decided to spend their honeymoon and first year of marriage in 1938, working in the Farm Security camp which John Steinbeck used as research for The Grapes of Wrath. And when they later went to work in the Tule Lake Japanese American High Security Camp to try to make an intolerable situation, tolerable for those who had been imprisoned there. But they, along with many progressives of their generation, like Gold, were punished during the McCarthy period, accused of being Communists, resulting in their loss of livelihood and vocation.
Signing up for the Peace Corps in 1963, brought it home to me. I remember my father’s distress when the FBI walked from house to house in our neighborhood, asking about our family, in preparation for deciding whether the Peace Corps would accept my application for service. He feared that the attacks on him during the McCarthy witch hunts would ruin my possibility of following my dream. It’s a tribute to the Peace Corps they judged me solely on my accomplishments.
I’ve come full circle in this review, to what I appreciate in addition to Patrick Chura’s mastery of research, synthesis, analysis, compassion, and fluid prose in vividly bringing to us the life and struggles of Michael Gold. He has also told the inside story of “another America” where those of us who grew up in the forties and fifties, were fearful that the political secrets of our parents would be revealed to our more conventional playmates and the surrounding community. In introducing Gold’s family life into the narrative, he’s let the reader see that political activists of that time, again, like Gold and like my parents, loved their children, and tried to protect us, with as much commitment as they invested in making our country a better place for all Americans.
Born in the Tule Lake Japanese American High Security camp to Caucasian parents, Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65) is the author of three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island, published by Curbstone Press, and currently in-print with Northwestern University Press. She is a winner of the Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, an American Book Award, The New York Times New and Noteworthy in Paperback, and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers, the Marian Haley Beil Award for Best Book Review, among many awards. She is on the steering committee of Women Writing Women’s Lives, a professional biography association.