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Originally published in JSTOR DAILY on January 23, 2023
The author of Jews Without Money, a proletarian lit best-seller, was ostracized for his Communism and derided for his prose. Today he is all but forgotten.
If Michael Gold is remembered at all, it is as an authoritarian propagandist.
His actual life, seldom observed, was rather one of passion, activism, and optimism and he was in fact a foremost producer of proletarian literature in America. A humble individual, Gold was also a militant labor advocate, seen both as a Whitmaneqsue humanist and an unapologetic Stalinist. Born Itzok Isaac Granich in 1893 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he grew up impoverished in the neighborhood’s tenements—specifically on Chrystie Street, home to a lively community of foreigners who formed the subject of his 1930 novel, Jews Without Money.
His father, Chaim (Anglicized to Charles) Granich, was a passionate story-teller and a devotee of Yiddish theater, who came to the United States from Romania partly to escape antisemitism. He imparted both his literary values and a distaste for tomatoes to his son—Charles joked that the real reason he immigrated was to avoid being hit by the fruit hatefully flung at Jews back home. Granich started working at the age of 12 after Charles fell ill; his jobs included helping a wagon driver who rained hateful slurs upon the boy before finally firing him.
The day before his 21st birthday in 1914, Granich was radicalized politically at a rally for the unemployed where police brutalized him; he managed, he wrote, to escape to the hospital “by sheer luck.” Soon thereafter he began submitting articles to radical publications, charged by the injustices he’d witnessed and experienced.
He wrote poems and articles for the socialist magazine The Masses and dramas for the Provincetown Players, a collective that included Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell. Before long, Gold was working full-time as a writer and editor. During the tyrannical Palmer Raids of 1919 he changed his name to Michael Gold, after a Jewish abolitionist Civil War veteran, and later became the editor of New Masses, a leftist publication.
Jews Without Money is a semi-autobiographical tale of events that unfold through the eyes of young Mikey. Gold’s sole novel, it is considered his best work of fiction. Written during his New Masses editorship, it’s a modest chronicle of cruel realities, the bleakness of poverty, and the sketches of an instinctive provocateur. An unprecedented exposé of tenement life in the Lower East Side, the novel features the neighborhood youth as scavengers, thieves, and explorers. Children die young, fathers work tirelessly for decades only to end up selling bananas on the street, young women resort to prostitution, and the Lower East Side’s working-class immigrant Jewish community defeatedly “shrugged their shoulders and murmured: ‘This is America.’”
Mikey’s father loses his promising position running a suspender business and takes up house painting. When he becomes ill, Mikey must leave school and go to work. Beauty and the grotesque coexist in Gold’s meditations. There is both a faith in the poor and the helplessness of those who never escape it, the loathsome dialectics of industrialization, urban space, and the Jewish immigrant experience. Through it all, the book ends hopefully with its most contentious and polemic lines
“O workers’ Revolution, you brought hope to me, a lonely, suicidal boy. You are the true Messiah. You will destroy the East Side when you come, and build there a garden for the human spirit.
O Revolution, that forced me to think, to struggle and to live.
O great Beginning!”
According to the scholar Allen Guttmann, Jews Without Money is the “first important document of proletarian literature.” The novel was the first book to consider the Jewish ghetto of the Lower East Side not solely as vile premises, but as a battleground for the future, a fight against cynicism in the face of capitalism’s bloody exploits. Eric Homberger has observed that for “many writers in the Progressive era, all influences in the ghetto made for evil. Gold suggests that there was something akin to a struggle over the soul of his younger self.”
The book’s controversial splintered style has been both criticized and praised. “Jews Without Money is not a series of roughhewn memoirs,” critic Richard Tuerk has written “but a carefully worked, unified piece of art.” Its mix of autobiography and fiction, he continues, is “reminiscent of some of Mark Twain’s works.” Bettina Hofmann has compared the story’s fragmented structure to Hemingway’s In Our Time (1925), arguing that “the sketches in Jews Without Money are not isolated but constitute a whole.”
No less than Sinclair Lewis, the US’s first Nobel laureate for literature, praised Jews Without Money in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, calling it “passionate” and “authentic” in revealing “the new frontier of the Jewish East Side.” He said, Gold’s work, among others, was leading American literature out from “the stuffiness of safe, sane and incredibly dull provincialism.”
Jews Without Money was a best-seller, reprinted 25 times by 1950, translated into 16 languages, and spread underground throughout Nazi Germany to combat antisemitic propaganda. Gold became a respected cultural figure. In 1941, 35 hundred people, including the Communist labor organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and writer Richard Wright, packed the Manhattan Center to celebrate Gold and his commitment to revolutionary activity over the course of a quarter century. The Communist screenwriter Albert Maltz asked, “What progressive writer in America is there who has not been influenced by [Mike Gold]?” But such celebrity quickly faded with the coming Red Scare.
In addition to Jews Without Money, Gold’s daily column “Change the World!” in the Daily Worker, his work at New Masses, and his activism resulted in the addition of his name to the Blacklist. “Writers are being sent to prison for their opinions,” he wrote in 1951 after being visited by two FBI agents. “Such visits are becoming terribly commonplace in the land of Walt Whitman.” McCarthyism had a chilling effect on all aspects of free expression. Something as seemingly minor as a subscription to a Communist newspaper or attendance at an anti-fascist rally could draw the attention of the FBI. The Daily Worker laid off staff, and Gold lost work. His career slid into disarray, and he was forced to take odd jobs throughout the 1950s. His gigs included work in a print shop, at a summer camp, and as a janitor. He flirted with opening a coin laundry. Moreover, being blacklisted was a family affair. Elizabeth Granich, Gold’s wife, a Sorbonne-trained lawyer, could only get custodial and factory work. The financial strain on the couple and their two boys was tremendous.
The consensus of critics who detest Gold is a reflection of a concerted effort of the McCarthy era. In the 1940s and 1950s, Jews Without Money “lapsed into underground and subcultural circulation,” says Corinna K. Lee. What people who learn about the novel see—what, through layers of historical revisionism, their understanding of Gold is—is narrow and submissive. Mike Gold is an extreme and exemplary victim of American censorship, “erased,” his reputation muddied, He is a figure now described as a “megalomaniac,” a sectarian “literary czar,” and a “not very bright […] political propagandist in dreamland.”
Nowadays Jews Without Money is criticized, as Tuerk, points out for “lacking unity and artistry.” Its simplistic style is frowned upon, the fragmented sketches derided, and its optimistic ending abhorred. This understanding influences research and publishing and has, in fact, for decades. Walter Rideout wrote that Gold lacked “the capacity for sustained artistic vision,” and contrasted his novel unfavorably with Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep from 1934. In the 1996 introduction to a reissue of Gold’s novel, critic Alfred Kazin attacked the book as “the work of a man without the slightest literary finesse, without second thoughts on anything he believes, without any knowledge of Jewish life from the Lower East Side.” Kazin accused him of class-reductionism and of being a political propagandist, though he conceded that his style was notable.
Tuerk himself likewise criticized Gold’s politics, viewing the revolutionary Messiah at the end of the novel as “definitely not one of love.” Elsewhere Tuerk argued that Gold’s love of Thoreau, like his love for other American thinkers of the 19th century, wouldn’t have been reciprocated, as Thoreau “placed faith in the individual, not the group,” and therefore would have rejected Gold’s politics.
Yet the book’s contentious reputation is no match for the financial promise publishers see in reprints of it, even while it is diminished as a relic. Avon’s reissue of the first edition of Jews Without Money from 1965 notably omitted its powerful ending, those lines that imbue the rest of the volume with meaning and hope. It was published, Lee argues, to “capitalize on the book’s East Side setting, following the spectacular commercial success of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, which it had reissued in paperback the year prior.” For decades, even attempts to write a biography of Gold were shot down, until Patrick Chura’s Michael Gold: The People’s Writer was finally released in 2020.
Bettina Hofmann argues that Gold’s political aspirations with his work were unsuccessful. “Since neither Nazism was to be thwarted off nor the envisioned socialism to become reality, Jews Without Money solely appears as a document of bygone days conjuring up past radical visions of maybe nostalgic value,” Hofmann argues.
The downplaying of Gold’s politics is ironic given the FBI’s tyrannical assault on artists and activists just like Mike Gold. In fact, he was followed by agents who staked his whereabouts, took note of his friends, family, and his work, from 1922 until his death in 1967. Indeed, to claim after WWII, that proletarian culture was ineffective at combating fascism or working towards socialism is ahistorical. While critics promote the idea that Communists were ineffective politically, the FBI had their hands full stifling the rise of the Communist Party USA and their influence on progressive politics.
Gold advocated for civil rights, labor power, and a more democratic society—ideals anathema to the United States government during the Cold War. These ideals were downplayed by the literary critics who subscribed to the hysteria of the Red Scare and helped obscure Gold’s place in literary history. The critics appear to prefer literature that ignores the material realities of society and focuses solely on the subjectivity of the individual. That is, the antithesis of Mike Gold.
In his biography, Patrick Chura observed that Gold “practically invented the genre of ’proletarian’ literature and fiercely advocated socially conscious protest art….” He defends Gold’s politics against Tuerk’s characterization of it, suggesting Tuerk’s critique “reflected a Cold-War era tendency to define communism solely as an economic theory rather than as a liberation movement. We might now acknowledge that Gold’s special enthusiasm for Thoreau was not based on economics or even politics, but on humanity.”
Gold hardly reduced all of humanity’s woes to issues of class. He argued, Chura says, “that figures such as Shelley, Victor Hugo, Whitman, and Thoreau ‘belong in the natural program of Communism because they help to cultivate the best human beings.’” He believed in the power of telling stories strategically, on a cultural foundation with a rich history.
Of course, all culture is propaganda for something. The question is: what? Edmund Wilson sided with Gold in 1932, arguing that “nine-tenths of our writers would be much better off writing propaganda for Communism than doing what they are at present: that is, writing propaganda for capitalism under the impression that they are liberals or disinterested minds.” Gold mentioned in an author’s note in his novel that Jews Without Money, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a “form of propaganda against the Nazi anti-Semitic lies.” In the 1935 edition of Jews Without Money, the preface described the arrest of a German radical caught while translating the book. The Nazis laughed, howling, “So there are Jews without money!” Jews Without Money was also used to counter antisemitic propaganda in the US. Art Shields recalled in On the Battle Lines how the company running a factory in rural Maryland claimed in a negotiating session that they lacked funds because “the Jews have the money.” The workers got copies of Jews Without Money which were “read to pieces” And then went on to end the seven-day work week.
Having grown up in the immigrant slums of New York City, Mike Gold became a radical literary figure who was then written out of literary history altogether. Though his reputation remains tarnished, a new generation of readers is beginning to find inspiration in his prose and his politics. Despite the efforts to minimize and diminish Gold’s beliefs, there are still those who follow Gold’s lead, hoping, imagining, fighting, as his daily column was titled, to Change the World!
Taylor Dorrell is a freelance writer and photographer based in Columbus, Ohio. He’s a contributing writer at the Cleveland Review of Books, columnist at Matter News, and reporter for the Columbus Free Press.
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