Vivian Gornick’s conversations with communists

How the American essayist captured the left’s awakening and disillusionment through the power of talk.

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Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism is a complex and rather magical object to encounter today. Reissued this year, the book was “attacked by the intellectual heavyweights on the left and on the right” when it first appeared in 1977. A history of the Communist Party USA in its heyday – from its ­founding in 1919 through to the early Fifties – ­Romance is told through the reminiscences of a cast of “ordinary American communists” whom Gornick travelled across the country to meet over the course of a year. It was conceived as a “corrective” to the “crushingly denunciatory” chronicles – Darkness at Noon, The God that Failed – that emphasised only communism’s “dehumanising” aspects.

Yet in her new foreword, Gornick, now 85, says that she “wrote it badly”, and agrees with her original critics who accused her of romanticising the communists: “When I reread the book this past year, I saw that they were absolutely right!” Gornick exclaimed in a recent interview.

Today, at a greater historical distance from the Cold War context in which such debates raged, one is struck less by the partiality of Gornick’s history than by the extraordinary vividness with which it conjures the small, but intense, world of the American communists nearly a century ago. For extended passages, Gornick casts herself as no more than a rapt listener, recording implausibly eloquent soliloquies in which her interviewees reflect on their childhoods and early adulthoods – the scenes of their first encounters with communism.

[see also: The return of American fascism]

A book that brings to life – that keeps present – a world now out of the earshot of memory is a source of historical value. The political value of Romance is more uncertain. The ostensible rationale for its reissue is the resurgence of socialism in the Anglosphere. Gornick’s new foreword concludes with the “hope that Romance, telling the story of how it was done some 60 or 70 years ago, can act as a guide to those similarly stirred today”.

There is much for today’s socialists to marvel at in Romance: the embeddedness of the Communist Party in social life, its definitive importance to members’ understanding of themselves. Being a communist “was the overriding element of identity, the one which subsumed all others”, Gornick writes. People joined “the Young Communist League because it was the centre of all social life in the neighbourhood”, where “Leninist-Marxist theory” was “all mixed up with baseball, screwing, dancing, selling the Daily Worker, bullshitting, and living the American-Jewish street life”.

Yet, though there is much about this ­integrated, all-encompassing vision of ­politics to collectively hanker for, there is little to meaningfully emulate. One of the lessons of the book is the importance of circumstance to political consciousness. This includes one’s immediate milieu – family, neighbourhood, workplace – as well as the wider historical context.

The Communist Party was at once ­global – with a socialist state at its centre – and thoroughly local, with a fine-grained organisational reach into everyday life. For communists, politics was not one activity or identity among others, but the central meaning and vocation of their lives: “It’s not like today, where the kids think they have the choice to be political or any other damn thing they want to be,” one former Communist Party member explains. “We had no choice.”

[see also: The struggle for America's soul]

This experience of politics was the outcome of its historical moment, Romance suggests, a moment that has passed. Indeed, Romance may resonate today not only as a model of political commitment but as a portrait of political disorientation. An ex-member named “Grace Lange” – all the names of Gornick’s interviewees are pseudonyms – who “can’t get a handle on” the new politics of the Sixties without the grounding structure of a party asks: “Where is this politics? Where and how does one begin to become political today?” This sense of lacking a foothold may be just as relevant to the new cohorts of self-described socialists coming of political age in a time of organisational weakness and institutional decline for the left. “Becoming political”, the testimonies in Romance imply, tends not to occur through force of will alone.

But Romance is more about “becoming” than politics. Self-realisation and the achievement of clarity – what Gornick elsewhere calls “the struggle in pursuit of conscious life” – is her abiding preoccupation. More than a political writer, Gornick is an intensely social writer: usually classified as an “oral history”, Romance can be described as a book of conversations that is also about conversation, and about the relationship between conversation and conversion.

Political awakenings in Romance almost always involve conversation. This is true for Gornick’s own introduction to radical politics, with which the book begins. She remembers sitting at the kitchen table of her family’s Bronx apartment, listening “wide-eyed” to her father – Jewish, working class and socialist – talking “issues” with like-minded workers:

Oh, that talk! That passionate, transforming talk! … Something important was happening here, I always felt, something that had to do with understanding things. And ‘to understand things’, I already knew, was the most exciting, the most important thing in life.

The radicalisation of “Dick Nikowsski”, a “lifelong Communist Party functionary” and “legendary organiser”, is similarly a continuous high of talk. Nikowsski, aged 70 when Gornick met him, recalls moving into a “roach-ridden cold-water flat” in his early twenties, “with three other guys who were also socialists” and talking “Marxism day and night”. “It was air, bread, light and warmth to us.” Romance is well-named ­because the arrival of clarity – ­Nikowsski ­describes the world as having been a “blurred photograph” and becoming “a clear print” – is as elating and transforming as falling in love: “And I loved everybody! God, how I loved those guys.”

Conversation is so central to political epiphany because political movements – communism, and later second-wave feminism, with which Gornick became involved in the early Seventies after reporting on the “women’s libbers” for the Village Voice – are, in Gornick’s description, “social explanations”. They provide a novel, emancipating way of describing and making sense of the world and one’s place in it. If becoming politicised is discovering a language in the company of others, becoming disillusioned is growing tired of that language.

In Approaching Eye Level, Gornick’s 1996 collection of personal essays also reissued this year, she describes the unravelling of feminist solidarity at the end of the Seventies as the setting in of a kind of social ennui: “More and more we seemed to have less and less to say to one another. Personalities began to jar, conversations to bore, ideas to repeat themselves. Meetings became tiresome, parties less inviting.” Gornick’s disaffection from communism is likewise figured as an estrangement from its ­“language”, which “began to sound ­foreign to my ears: remote”, while “the language of the kitchen” was soon “replaced by the language of Melville, Mann, Wolfe and Dostoevsky”.

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Gornick celebrates human connection but is also drawn to its loss or absence (these seem related in Gornick’s work – as if her delight in good conversation depends on her willingness to acknowledge the unfulfilling forms in which it frequently comes). Romance is full of silences. Often, conversation falters in the presence of “dogma” – a “somewhat obsessive preoccupation of mine”.

When one former Communist Party member recalls an old sectarian quarrel, an “amazing change comes over” her: “The sentences come rushing out in a passion of certitude”; she will “make the unalterable, unopposable ‘rightness’ of her position so apparent that there will be not another thing left to say when she is done speaking”. Gornick remains “deeply silent”. The monologue over, “[we] do not speak for a very long while”. Dogma, for Gornick, is the will to exhaust conversation, to bring to a close what is by nature open-ended, improvisatory, expansive, reciprocal.

Approaching Eye Level is full of interpersonal dissonance, too. Gornick’s ability to face and dwell on “the failure of connection among like-minded people” – which is not only mysterious but can be frightening and painful – depends on a capacity to turn personal experience into parable; to avoid pathologising herself. Gornick’s cascading description of the breakdown of her first marriage in “On Living Alone” has this signature combination of emotional directness and generic abstraction: “Grieving over failed intimacy… our unhappiness seemed shameful… Shame isolates. The isolation was humiliating. Humiliation does not bear thinking about. We began to concentrate on not thinking.”

One of the pleasures, and comforts, of reading Gornick’s essays is the way social distress – feeling unwanted or misunderstood, the loss of solidarity, the fading of intimacy – is compressed into narratives that deliver a kind of moral. Writing is a “miserable daily effort” – Gornick has fought a lifelong battle with writer’s block – that eventually allows her to speak from the far side of experience, from a place where its chaos has been converted into meaning.

Gornick’s story-telling is consolingly funny, too. In “Tribute”, her riveting essay about her heady friendship with the brilliant, charismatic, troubled “Rhoda Munk” – another alias, ostensibly for Dorothy Dinnerstein, best known for her 1976 feminist classic The Mermaid and the Minotaur – Gornick writes about a summer she spent with Munk at her seaside cottage. The speed of the descent from tranquil paradise to hyper-social misery – their “shared solitude” of writing, reading, talking and swimming is punctured by a stream of unexplained guests – is comic, despite Gornick’s suspicion that Munk is avoiding her company, and the ensuing dissolution of their bond. “By Sunday morning the meals had become a burden. We, none of us, seemed able to remember why we were there. I was so depressed I began to feel unreal to myself.”

The impersonal and capacious way Gornick draws on her experience places her in a distinctly philosophical tradition of American literary soul-searching. Her style – which has a homely grandeur, a plainspoken abstraction – seems to bear some submerged relation to Emerson and Thoreau. “There are moments I awake and, somehow, I have more of myself.” Behind this phrase, which recurs in Approaching Eye Level, becoming a refrain, one can hear echoes of the opening of Emerson’s essay “Experience”: “Where do we find ourselves?”

After a bad dinner party, Gornick’s friend “Leonard” makes a wise remark. “[L]ife feels easier to bear for the clarity his words have imposed on an otherwise meaningless evening.” This is the kind of succour Gornick’s own words offer. Yet clarity has its limits. Insight is a matter of momentary illumination not a permanent possession: we are always forgetting what we know. Sitting down to write each morning in her Greenwich Village apartment – her Walden – Gornick finds she has “to clear out each day anew”. 

The Romance of American Communism
Vivian Gornick
Verso, 288pp, £14.99

Approaching Eye Level
Vivian Gornick
Daunt Books, 184pp, £9.99

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Lola Seaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman

This article appears in the 20 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Vaccine nation

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