Mike Gold, Avant-Garde Bard of Proletarian New York
Is it time to release Michael Gold from his personal gulag to range free in the pastures of 20th-century American literature?
Gold—“Mike” to his comrades—was a key figure in American letters from the mid-1920s well into the Great Depression. A leading advocate and practitioner of “proletarian literature,” he was also the editor of New Masses, perhaps the most important left-wing periodical of the 1930s. A committed, vociferous revolutionary, he joined the Communist Party in the 1920s and then stuck with it for life. Neither purges nor pacts nor the 1956 invasion of Hungary would cause Gold to renounce his faith. On the contrary. A columnist for the Daily Worker for a quarter century or more, Gold also served as the party’s preeminent cultural commentator—albeit less the voice of the leadership than of the rank and file. But what goes around comes around. Railing for decades against perceived “literary renegades,” he was, arguably, both an early adapter and a victim of cancel culture.
In his new biography, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer, Patrick Chura calls Gold “the best American writer that is still largely unknown to Americans” and makes it clear why he thinks Gold should finally be released from his political prison. True, Gold’s 1930 autobiographical novel, Jews Without Money, was republished in the mid-1960s and is now recognized as a landmark of Jewish American literature. But Chura argues that Gold’s journalism, plays, poems, and criticism deserve our attention as well. After all, the Gold that emerges from his book was not just a 1920s rebel and a 1930s radical but also a forerunner—more in his aesthetics than his politics—of the Beat 1950s and countercultural 1960s.
Born in 1893, the eldest son of impoverished Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Hungary and Romania, Itzhok Granich was raised in the squalid depths of the Jewish Lower East Side. At 12, he was forced to quit school to support his indigent family with menial jobs even as he nursed literary ambitions, publishing poems that denounced poverty in a settlement house newspaper.
By 20, Granich managed a few semesters of night school, studying journalism at New York University. A year later, he was submitting revolutionary verse to Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, editors of The Masses, an illustrated journal devoted to radical politics and bohemian culture, a forerunner of the underground press. Then, in a burst of heroic chutzpah, the young man, now Irwin Granich, managed to talk his way into Harvard as a “special student,” supporting himself with an anonymously written daily column in the Boston Journal, “A Freshman at Harvard,” for which he received $15 per week (the equivalent of $400 today).
The column was a blog avant la lettre; its attitude is strikingly contemporary. Whatever his editors might have wanted, Granich privileged his socialism over his social life and emphasized class consciousness above all. A Jew without money questioning Harvard’s social ideals, as well as his professors’ authority, proved more than the university or the newspaper could stomach. Among other things, Granich compared Harvard to Cooper Union, then the tuition-free jewel of the Lower East Side, praising the latter as a school “where knowledge and not marks are the real end sought.” (Having taught at both institutions, I can attest to the prescience of this critique.)
Granich’s foredoomed attempt to storm the Ivy League recalls the hero of Martin Eden, Jack London’s autobiographical novel about a self-made proletarian writer. The strain of studying and writing under deadline while living on a subsistence diet precipitated a nervous breakdown—both for Eden and for Granich. Remaining in Boston for a year, sometimes living on the street, other times crashing with an anarchist commune, Granich returned to New York in 1916. There, he embarked on an upward trajectory that zigzagged through radical politics and bohemian art. He also took on a new name: Michael Gold.
Writing for the socialist New York Call, Gold interviewed Leon Trotsky during his sojourn in the Bronx, reported on John Reed’s return from Russia, and took Theodore Dreiser on a tour of the Lower East Side. Having dodged the draft by living in Mexico, he began working on the book that became Jews Without Money. He also wrote one-act dramas for the Provincetown Players. One, titled Money, appeared on a bill with plays by Edna Ferber and Djuna Barnes.
Gold hung out with Eugene O’Neill, who advised him to lay off the propaganda, and became romantically involved with the Catholic radical Dorothy Day. (They were even briefly engaged.) Meanwhile, his journalism career took off. At one point, he shared editorship of The Liberator, Eastman’s successor to The Masses, with the West Indian poet Claude McKay, one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.
This short-lived partnership would be excoriated by Gold’s one-time Worker colleague Harold Cruse as an example of Gold’s bad faith in his relations with Black comrades as well as his bullheaded belief in the Soviet school of workers’ writing called Proletkult. Chura, who seldom finds fault with Gold, cites more recent research to suggest that the quarrel was more a matter of individual temperament than opposed ideology. Strong-willed, self-made outsiders, both Gold and McKay considered themselves proletarian writers and saw racism as a threat to the workers’ movement. But McKay was also the more refined stylist, and their differences may have had to do as well with Gold’s tolerance for rough-hewn worker prose.
Chura twins these two together: Gold’s artistic preferences and his political radicalism. The Gold of the 1920s drew inspiration from Carl Sandburg and Ernest Hemingway, both with roots in journalism, but he was also impressed by the Soviet avant-gardists Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky, not least for their fusion of artistic and political revolutionary esprit. In a paean to America’s Steel City, written after reporting on the 1922 United Mine Workers strike, Gold declared that “it was Pittsburgh that created Carl Sandburg and Eugene O’Neill, Dada, Futurism, Bolshevism, Capitalism, Gary and Lenin. Pittsburg is the material and spiritual capital of the twentieth century world.”
A futurist bard, Gold published short pieces—often reworked reportage—and “proletarian chants” in the Daily Worker and The Liberator. Some, a crude bridge from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg, compared America to a runaway freight train. Others despaired of Americans who worshipped a “Money God,” their hearts hardened by Ford motor cars and their brains transformed into a “cheap Hollywood movie.”
The Liberator became New Masses in 1926. A member of a contentious executive board, Gold was temporarily ousted as an editor, then restored, and in 1928 became editor in chief. His first issue included John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, Dorothy Day, and Louis Untermeyer as well as illustrations by Hugo Gellert, Louis Lozowick, and Otto Soglow. It was hailed by the Daily Worker, reviewed, Chura writes, as though it were “a novel, play, symphony, or other unified work of art.” Subsequent issues had contributions by Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Art Young, Tina Modotti, Diego Rivera, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and V.I. Lenin, along with much of Jews Without Money.
As much as he was a professional journalist, Gold was also a professional proletarian. Joseph Freeman, a fellow editor at New Masses whose background was similar, recalled that Gold “affected dirty shirts, a big, black uncleaned Stetson with the brim of a sombrero; smoked stinking, twisted, Italian three-cent cigars, and spat frequently and vigorously on the floor.” He was also a rising literary star who went fishing with Ernest Hemingway in Key West, was courted by Edmund Wilson (who commissioned his celebrated takedown of Thornton Wilder, “Prophet of the Genteel Christ,” in The New Republic), and was name-checked by Sinclair Lewis in his 1930 Nobel Prize speech.
“Mike Gold already has a place in American literature,” V.F. Calverton wrote in The Nation in 1929, comparing him favorably to London and Sinclair, two other “crude” writers. Indeed, Gold appeared as a character in Boston, Sinclair’s “documentary novel” of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, and with the publication of Jews Without Money, was even hailed as the new Sinclair.
Gold was not the first Jewish American novelist. Nor was he the first to write about the Lower East Side. Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky appeared in 1917. Anzia Yezierska’s books were so popular she was given a Hollywood contract. But no previous Jewish American writer, perhaps no other American Jew save Emma Goldman (whose influence Gold acknowledged and then strategically erased) had been so assertive a champion.
Jews Without Money (the very title is a statement) assaulted readers with a Boschian vision of rampant filth, disease, hunger, and criminality in a world where prostitution is ubiquitous, gangsters rule, and children are dismembered by horse-drawn carts. “A curse on Columbus,” the father of child narrator Michael cries more than once. Capitalism is a system where “kindness is a form of suicide.”
Set at the dawn of the 20th century, when the Lower East Side was the most densely populated urban area on earth, but published only months into the Depression, Jews Without Money landed among the literati with the impact that slum memoirs like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets would have 35 years later. Gold opens by describing the “tenement canyon” where he lived as a boy: “It roared like a sea. It exploded like fireworks. People pushed and wrangled in the street. There were armies of howling pushcart peddlers. Women screamed, dogs barked and copulated. Babies cried.”
The Lower East Side echoed with the sounds of “a great carnival or catastrophe.” Not without a certain dark humor, Gold chronicles a succession of neighborhood crimes and tragedies, the exploits of the local youth gangs, people crushed and deformed by poverty, as well as a dreamy excursion to a vast park in the Bronx, more or less through the age of 12, when Michael is obliged to quit school.
Compressing the next decade into a couple of pages, the novel caps its account of blighted lives and inhuman conditions with its protagonist’s abrupt revolutionary conversion. After depicting his endless childhood season in hell, populated by false messiahs ranging from the savior foretold by a neighborhood Chasid to Buffalo Bill, Gold concludes Jews Without Money with the revelation the child had been seeking: “O Revolution that forced me to think, to struggle, and to live. O great Beginning.” O sudden Ending that would dog Gold for the rest of his career.