Reflections on Party Lines, Party Lives, American Tragedy

Against the Current, No. 215, November/December 2021

Paula Rabinowitz

Michael Gold:
The People’s Writer
By Patrick Chura
Albany: SUNY Press, 2020, 354 pages, $26.95 paperback.

Ethel Rosenberg:
An American Tragedy
By Anne Sebba
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021, 304 pages, $17.50 hardcover.

OKAY, I ADMIT it: I am an inveterate gossip, a sucker for memoirs. However, I dislike biographies. I rarely read them and when I do, it is more for some juicy detail, on the one hand, or the cultural milieu of the subject, the times, than the life, on the other.

It’s not the narration of a life that bothers me about biography; perhaps instead, it is the gap I often find when a third person attempts to tell another’s story and set it in history. How much life, how much history, how much subject’s voice, how much teller’s?

Two recent biographies of American communists make clear the limitations of narrating another’s life story, especially one that tries to make sense of a life lived within the confines of the virulent anti-communism of mid-20th century America, even as each offers insights into how working-class Jewish radicals lived through the turmoil of those decades. It’s difficult to place oneself into another time, another culture, another place.

Readers of Against the Current probably know the outlines of the Rosenbergs’ story. The name Ethel Rosenberg is among the most recognized Cold War identities. She and her husband Julius were arrested, jailed, tried and executed for the crime of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States. In the popular imagination, they stole the secrets of the A-bomb and delivered them to the Soviet Union.

Until last year, when Donald Trump’s Attorney General William Barr authorized the execution of federal prisoner Lisa Montgomery, no woman had been executed by the U.S. government in the 70 years since Ethel Rosenberg’s murder by electrocution at Sing Sing prison in New York — a travesty, or as British journalist and biographer Anne Sebba calls it, “an American tragedy.”

This story is part of the sensational lore of Cold War America, one of the numerous “crimes of the century” titillating and inspiring fear among everyday citizens of the United States and the world.

Contrasts and Memories

By contrast, outside the small circle of scholars of the literary left, Michael Gold is hardly a household name. But during the 1930s, among the Left, his presence was widely recognized as “the people’s writer,” according to his biographer, literary critic Patrick Chura.

Almost everyone who works in the area of communist literary studies has a Mike Gold story. Mine: my late mother-in-law babysat for his sons in the late-’30s and early-’40s when she was a communist and labor organizer.

Usually, the image of Gold gleaned from these tales is of a wildly intense and sweet man; his reputation as a critic in the pages of the Daily Worker and the New Masses, and especially his infamous essay on Thornton Wilder for the New Republic, or his screed The Hollow Men, is of a taciturn and vicious upholder of a Stalinist party-line who regularly branded writers, even friends and comrades, as political apostates.

Patrick Chura, a scholar of class and labor within American literature, seeks to make sense of this contradictory portrait of Gold for us, those few scholars working on literary radicalism, but also to enable scholars of modernism to appreciate his contributions to 20th-century American literature tout court.

When it comes to the Rosenbergs, the collective stories are far grimmer and extend beyond the small circle of left-wingers in New York. Almost everyone born since 1950 to even liberal (usually Jewish) parents recalls how they learned of Julius and Ethel’s deaths. My girlhood was haunted by them as my artist mother felt it to be the last gesture of the Holocaust come home to America and my engineer father sneered at the charges, claiming any scientist who read the New York Times could know how to produce a bomb. In the 1970s, I worked at the Cookery, co-owned by Barney Josephson and Gloria Agrin, one of Ethel’s lawyers.

Anne Sebba, a British biographer of eccentric women — from Wallace Simpson to French members of the Résistance — seeks to make sense of the obscenity of Ethel Rosenberg’s state-sponsored murder as new material about the grand jury testimony preceding her and Julius Rosenberg’s trial has been made public.

Retrieving Michael Gold

As I said, I am prone to gossiping. Both books deliver enticing details about their subjects, but something is missing from each. I’m not sure I can discern what that is.

As Chura notes, although others have attempted to write a biography of Gold, nobody before him has succeeded. Chura’s unrivaled accomplishment relies on the research of earlier scholars, but he pushes past their stumbling blocks, mining interviews with family members, archival materials, FBI files, and a close reading of the hundreds of columns Gold wrote over the course of his decades as “the people’s writer,” primarily in his “Change the World” pieces for the Daily Worker.

Through mini-biographies of many others with whom Gold worked on politics and art — John Reed, Eugene O’Neill, Pete Seeger, W.E.B. Du Bois among them — Chura rightly articulates the central place Gold, and more so his 1930 novel Jews Without Money, holds in American literature.

This novel essentially demarked the subgenre of urban, immigrant Bildungsroman that Michael Denning dubbed “ghetto pastoral” by inserting a critique of capitalism into the immigrant tale etched by Abraham Cahan in 1917 with The Rise of David Levinsky. Along with Henry Roth’s 1934 Call It Sleep, Jews Without Money called attention to the psychological alienation in second-generation immigrant children who were (and still are) called upon by parents, schools, police and neighbors to negotiate among competing social forces and languages.

These two novels, along with Daniel Fuchs’ trilogy, served as a gateway for a generation of postwar baby boomers trying to make sense of their families’ untold stories. And like Tillie Olsen’s novel from the 1930s Yonnondio (unpublished until the 1970s), they showed that proletarian literature was as modernist and experimental as O’Neill’s plays or William Faulkner’s novels. Gold’s episodic story of New York’s Lower East Side echoed the construction of Dublin locales through which Leopold Bloom wandered one day in June.

In short, Chura reinforces arguments made by many scholars of 1930s literary radicalism that proletarian literature was more complex than either a simplistic social realism or smarmy popular front singalongs would imply.

Chura follows critic Michael Folsom’s assessment that 1950s New Criticism, on the one hand, and the emergence of the anti-Stalinist left (and its complex rejection of 1930s literary radicalism, as Alan Wald has shown), on the other, were responsible for the dismissal of Gold as a serious American writer.

Gold was a popular writer, as Chura argues, and for this perhaps left out of the canon being developed in the 1950s; he was a communist writer, and for this he was surely subject to a kind of intellectual, if not actual blacklist during the Cold War; he was a Jewish writer and subject to the subtle and not-so-subtle anti-Semitism of postwar American publishing and academia.

But, and I would have liked to hear about more about this, Gold was, as so many working-class writers (cf. Henry Roth until the final decades of his life, and Tillie Olsen), a one-book novelist. He got stuck, even if he continued to write biting commentary and a few experimental plays and recitatifs.

Chura’s biography gets around this critical obsession with the novel as the ultimate emblem of literary expression, by focusing on other aspects of Gold’s writings. These include his literary criticism, which has been dissected before, but Chura also takes seriously the various Daily Worker columns as venues where Gold explored intersections of aesthetic, politics and personal life (as his novel had), his plays and his poetry.

Chura shows that Gold spent his lifetime railing against racism and anti-Semitism in all their facets — genteel literary works, on the one hand, vicious state-sanctioned organized violence, on the other. Moreover, by looking at the various figures with whom Gold spent time — Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, Reed and O’Neill of the Province­town Playhouse, Pete Seeger of People’s Song — he stresses that Gold was a serious playwright and (folk) music critic as well.

Life in Perpetual Motion

Gold’s peripatetic life — roaming from the Lower East Side to Harvard and then Mexico, the Soviet Union and France to settle uneasily in San Francisco, often going incognito as many communist organizers did — matches his evolving names: Itzhok Isaac to Irwin Granich to Mike/Michael Gold and the ever-changing little left-wing publications for which he wrote and served as editor.

Chura gamely tries to bring order to this disorderly conduct as he moves chronologically through a life lived outside mainstream society. There is much to be grateful for in this book, which unfortunately is marred, as so many academic publications are these days, by shoddy editing, replete with many typos and misspellings and errors.

Chura brings theater and music into the drama of Gold’s life in compelling ways, but occasionally he downplays politics — much more might have been said of the ricocheting positions Jewish Communists found themselves in between 1940 and 1941, for example — which sometimes become mere backdrop.

For instance, his engagement with Peter Cacchione, a communist city councilperson from Brooklyn, led to Gold’s last play, The Honorable Pete, completed in the midst of the Cold War. According to his unpublished memoir, Gold routinely appeared at the campaign and council headquarters, which was a hotbed of CPUSA organizing under the tutelage of Spanish Civil War veteran Eddie Bender (not mentioned by Chura nor perhaps by Gold), giving readings and discussing literature with the unemployed hunger marchers hanging out there.

An earlier play from the 1930s, Moscow Love, derives from his time in the USSR when he attended the Kharkov conference sponsored by the International Union of Revolutionary Writers. This play revisits themes of sexual tensions emerging among the new post-revolutionary that had animated the fiction of Alexandra Kollantai and the filmmaker Abram Room’s 1927 Bed and Sofa. The play’s theme of feminist critique of the male workers’ zeal for Five-Year Plans at the expense of women’s freedom echoed American proletarian novelist Myra Page’s 1935 Moscow Yankee. It would have enriched our sense of Gold as being alive to the debates — political and aesthetic — raging among communists during his heyday to hear about this context.

Gold sat for painter Alice Neel, who in addition to painting two portraits contributed illustrations to most of the periodicals he edited. Gold wrote a pamphlet for the A.C.A. Gallery on Russian Futurism and the work of David Buriuk, but this side of Gold’s biography — his engagement with the visual arts — is elided.

While Chura introduces material on the Composers’ Collective, he neglects to mention that composer Elie Siegmeister (of the Composers’ Collective) set Gold’s 1920s poem “A Strange Funeral in Braddock” to dissonant music in 1936; recent performances of it can be found on YouTube.

Gold’s scathing critique of Gertrude Stein was mentioned as one reason Richard Wright became disillusioned with the John Reed Clubs and the Party in general; Wright found voice for Black vernacular in Stein’s novella “Melanctha.” More attention to the varied contradictions of Gold’s wider cultural associations would have strengthened the case that Gold had an influence on mid-century modern American arts and letters.

To right the record of someone who appears as sorely misunderstood as this unrepentant Jewish communist agitator was, a scholar must be alive to complexity. For the most part, Patrick Chura does an admirable job of encapsulating Gold’s weird story without simplifying it into a tale of “on the one hand, on the other hand.”

One limitation of a 350-page critical biography is that its author must frequently bounce between criticism and biography; it is not an easy task. Chura carefully reads Gold’s diffuse writings while trying to piece together a coherent life story about someone who, like most American communists, purposely worked to evade detection despite a lifetime under FBI surveillance.

Gold’s life represents a crucial avatar of 20th-century America, as smart and daring sons (and a few daughters) of impoverished immigrants were able to move in and out of working-class jobs and labor struggles, as well as Ivy League colleges (Gold briefly attended Harvard) and bohemian artists’ circles.

All this was achieved in part because of the role that communism played, ironically, in Americanizing Jews.

Gold’s work is so diffuse, in terms of genre and subject matter, that it also maps the ad hoc methods left-wing intellectuals from the working class used to forge a career as something we now wistfully call public intellectuals.

With the exception of Jews Without Money, most of what Gold wrote remained unpublished or unperformed, or else appeared in the myriad small-press journals and newspapers surrounding the CPUSA. His writings were everywhere and nowhere, in a way, a fitting instantiation of the mid-20th-century literary left.

Ethel Rosenberg’s Tragic Saga

Very likely Ethel Rosenberg read Gold’s columns in the Daily Worker, which as a dedicated party member, she and Julius sold on the streets of the Lower East Side. After helping to lead a strike as a member of the Shipping Clerks’ Union, she was active in the Worker’s Alliance and the Unemployed Councils that had inspired Gold’s play The Honorable Pete.

Ethel possessed a beautiful singing voice and by the mid-1930s was often singing at various picket lines and workers’ meetings — again, part of an emerging left-wing culture nurtured within the amorphous boundaries of the Jewish Lower East Side that shaped Gold. She too escaped it by being admitted to the Schola Cantorium, the chorus of Carnegie Hall, and performing with the Clark Players, an amateur theater attached to the Clark Settlement House.

Born a generation after Gold, she shared the squalid living conditions of Mikey Gold; unlike Mikey, her relationship with her mother would prove fatal. In Gold’s telling his mother, Katey, figures as the Ur-Jewish mother: defiant, protective, loving. While Tessie Greenglass doted on her sons, especially her youngest David, she ignored, almost scorned, Ethel. By all accounts she never heard Ethel sing or watched her act.

Thus, as with Gold, it was the communist Jewish culture of the immigrant working class that at first saved her and where she met her deep love, Julius.

Sebba’s new biography shows the pull of the Cold War, and thus of the 1930s, on current consciousness. It seems we cannot stop fiddling with this unholy past of McCarthyist suppression of leftist activism.

Both books rely on pre­vious biographers — for Chura, however, it was the unpublished work of Michael Folsom. Sebba’s sanctioned biography is grounded in the deep psychological and political probings of Ilene Philipson’s 1988 Ethel Rosenberg: Beyond the Myths, which sparked controversy when it appeared because the Rosenberg’s sons, Michael and Robert Meeropol, rescinded permission to quote from or even paraphrase Ethel’s letters.

Each book has been augmented by new material: Chura has interviewed Gold’s sons, who gave him full access to their father’s papers beyond those held in the Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan.

Since Philipson’s biography, the entire terrain of Rosenberg studies has expanded exponentially: two generations of Meeropols have written memoirs or made documentary films; the VENONA cables have been declassified, pushing the Meeropols to acknowledge that Julius was a spy, which Morton Sobell, the Rosenbergs’ co-defendant, affirmed before his death.

Interviews that Ethel’s younger brother, David Greenglass, gave to Sam Roberts, his biographer, as well as unsealed Grand Jury testimony by him definitively reveal that he lied about Ethel’s involvement to save his wife and that his mother actively worked with the FBI to push Ethel into “confessing.”

So it is a welcome addition to the literature of leftist women to read anew of Ethel’s enormous commitments to her husband, her children and her principled position against naming names and for her freedom to associate as she pleased.

Sebba sees Ethel as an American Tragedy for both political and personal reasons:

• Politically, she was the victim of the Cold War hysteria about the Soviet Union’s 1949 detonation of an A-bomb, the Chinese Communisty Party’s revolution in 1949 and its Red Army’s 1950 entrance into the Korean War and the general postwar panic that goes by the name McCarthyism, not to mention the cruel careerism of prosecutor Roy Cohn and the timidity of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Supreme Court all responding to their unconscious or overt sexism and anti-Semitism.

• Personally, her natal family all but abandoned her to death, while she was tormented by fears that she was an inadequate mother at a time when women were being pushed back into intensive domesticity following World War II.

Ethel’s fate may have been sealed by her “dowdy clothes” and delinquent mothering in part because her case followed another sensational spy case involving a young Jewish woman, the 1949 trials of Judith Coplon, dubbed “whistle bait” by one reporter.

American Tragedies

Despite all the new material surrounding the case, however, Sebba offers almost nothing new and her interpretations of events seem slightly skewed by her approach to the saga through a rather conventional lens of 1950s domesticity.

Much of the information about Ethel’s personal relationships — with her husband, her children, her damaged and damaging mother, her cellmates, her prison guards, her psychologists and psychiatrists — were unearthed by Philipson, though Sebba was able to interview her cellmate and her son’s therapist.

Philipson’s book was first published by the obscure imprint Franklin Watts, and reissued in 1993 by Rutgers University Press; it was reviewed widely because fascination with the Rosenbergs is enduring, and at the time little had been written expressly about Ethel. However, Sebba’s publisher is St. Martin’s Press, which has assured its wide reviews.

The publisher’s press release stresses that “this is the first time Ethel’s story has been told with the full use of the dramatic and tragic prison letters she exchanged with her husband, her lawyer and her psychotherapist over a three-year period, two of them in solitary confinement,” including those published in 1953 by the Committee to Secure Justice for the Rosenbergs in Death House Letters as well as those held by her sons, implying that this is the definitive feminist investigation into Ethel’s American tragedy. It is not.

Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy also took the story of a sensational New York trial as the basis for a deep investigation into working-class family dysfunction, intense desire to escape the degradations of poverty, and the misplaced dreams and desires of young people wishing for a new kind of life in the modern world.

Patrick Chura tells of Michael Gold’s ambivalent relationship to Dreiser: his admiration for this committed writer’s realism; his disdain for his anti-Semitism. It’s not clear if Anne Sebba sees Dreiser’s story of Clyde Griffiths, and his doomed pregnant girlfriend and his delusional desire for a beautiful girl far above his class as a template for understanding Ethel’s terrible plight.

It is worth remembering, though, that the amazing George Stevens movie A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters and Montgomery Clift — George Stevens, the same director who had filmed the liberation of Dachau as a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army, as Jean-Luc Godard reminds us in L’Histoire(s) du Cinéma — was released in July 1951, a few months after Ethel was sentenced to death and entered solitary confinement in the Death House at Sing Sing, where Dreiser had done research for his novel.

Clearly, in America, unlike Louis Napoleon’s France in Karl Marx’s famous phrase, tragedy repeats itself not as farce but as even greater tragedy. Change the World.

November-December 2021, ATC 215

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