Saturday, January 31, 2015

MIKE GOLD AND "JEWS WITHOUT MONEY"




Harry Targ

Jews Without Money, Mike Gold's 1930 novel was perhaps his most literary work. A somewhat fictionalized account of a little boy growing up in the Jewish section of the Lower East Side in New York around the turn of the century, the novel became a model for the "proletarian literature" for which Gold was a central advocate. While not the first, Jews Without Money preceded numerous novels that portrayed the lives, pleasures and struggles, of the U.S. working class. Many would be more "political" in that they pointed the reader more directly than Gold would in the direction of joining the Socialist movement.

The power of Gold's work was its vivid portrait of the difficulties of immigrants to adjust to the “new world” and the efforts of their children to establish themselves in ways that conform to the demands of the new place, rather than the world of their fathers and mothers. Gold described the survival strategies of the immigrants and the quest for new lives of their children through one year in the life of a Jewish boy-the year divided into spring, summer, fall, and winter.

Several interconnected themes are examined through the eyes of the boy. First, Gold describes the teeming tenements-overcrowded housing units, roaming crowds on the major streets, peddlers and pushcarts everywhere, horses slogging across the streets amidst the people, the markets, the kids running to and fro, and garbage strewn across the sidewalks after being thrown from five story walkup apartment buildings.

Second, along with the immediate and extended families of immigrants, thousands  of children making their ways through the packed streets, Orthodox Jews, and men and women coming and going from 12 and 14 hour work days, Gold's narrator points out that the neighborhood was always a major red light district. Young women, compelled to prostitution by economic destitution, hang out along the major thoroughfares looking for business. The kids tease the young prostitutes without fully understanding what the prostitutes were doing. Many compassionate souls empathetic with their plight, like Mike Gold, befriend the prostitutes.

Third, Gold's description of the injustices of the capitalist system permeate the volume, but usually in an oblique way. Remembering the ubiquity of bedbugs reminds Gold of poverty, the root cause of these obnoxious creatures. "Did God make bedbugs? One steaming hot night I couldn't sleep for the bedbugs. They have a peculiar nauseating smell of their own; it is the smell of poverty...Bedbugs are what people mean when they say: Poverty. There are enough pleasant superficial liars writing in America. I will write a truthful book of Poverty: I will mention bedbugs."[1]

Fourth, poverty related to crime. Prostitution was institutionalized and controlled by pimps. The Jewish tenements had its collection of petty gangsters who engaged in theft, physical intimidation, protection rackets, and other activities characteristic of an emerging system of organized criminality. This system of criminality was also a system of sexual exploitation and violence against women. The children of Jewish immigrants were represented in all of these activities but for Gold the explanation for their participation had more to do with America's avaricious capitalism and exploitation than anything in the Jewish tradition. "Ku Klux moralizers say the gangster system is not American. They say it was brought here by `low-class' European immigrants. What nonsense! There never were any Jewish gangsters in Europe. The Jews there were a timid bookish lot. The Jews have done no killing since Jerusalem fell. That's why the Christians have called us the `peculiar people.' But it is America that has taught the sons of tubercular Jewish tailors how to kill."[2]

Fifth, Gold's portrait of the Lower East Side is a portrait of hopeful, bewildered, and increasingly disenchanted immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe who find a new world vastly different from their expectations. Most of them strive to maintain their roots-in religion, in communal folkways, and in economic sustenance derived from the use of craft-based working skills learned in Europe. Tenements had dense concentrations of individual ethnic groups; in relative proximity to the Jewish neighborhood were Italians, Slavic peoples, Irish, Chinese people, and coming and going nomadic populations. While the Lower East Side was heterogeneous in its representation of various immigrant populations, it was relatively homogeneous within its individual neighborhoods. Consequently, the children of immigrants began to develop a territorial sensibility which led to border disputes and fights between gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. Each block was a separate nation, Gold reports.

Sixth, Jews Without Money is about the little boy’s parents, a father and mother each a metaphor for the immigrant experience in America. Mike Gold’s young father starts his life in America with hope, with a zest for life, with the firm belief he would become an economic success in his adopted land. A wild youth, Gold's father left Rumania to find a new world of economic advancement within a secular culture. Father tells the children folk tales from the old country, and entertains neighborhood friends with these renditions from the past. His religious practices in the “new world” are more limited in keeping with the vision of assimilation into American culture. But Gold's father becomes an economic failure-cheated by business partners and hustled by Jewish Tammany Hall businessmen/politicians. Finally as house painter he falls ill (broken legs, permanent lung disease) and spends his last years as a despondent invalid.

Gold's mother, more traditional in religion, less hopeful about America, and more a pessimist about the future, counterbalances the excesses of the vision of the father. Gold's mother represents the "realist" perspective about immigrant possibilities in the new land.

Finally, the characters in the Gold novel are always grappling with their Jewish identity. At one point the author reports about the enduring puzzle about God. "My mother was very pious. Her face darkened solemnly and mysteriously when she talked about her God. Every one argued about God. Mendel Bum, and Fyfka the Miser, and my Aunt Lena, and Jake Wolf, the saloonkeeper, and the fat janitor woman, and Mrs. Ashkenazi, of the umbrella store, and Mottke Blinder, and Harry the Pimp-all were interested in God. It was an important subject. When I discovered this, it became important for me, too."[3]

Gold presents Jewish practitioners in an ambiguous light. He registers scorn for the bearded, physically repulsive, nasty Hebrew school teacher who makes a living off of the desires of Jewish parents to educate their children on the Torah. He presents a vignette about a Rabbi who is hired from Europe to lead a Chassidic synagogue. This rabbi extorts huge sums of scarce money from the community to buy a house in the suburbs and maintain a bloated salary. When this new rabbi gets a better financial offer from elsewhere, he precipitously announces his resignation.

However, Gold presents a few very pious Jews who are deeply committed to their traditions and their values.  Reb Samuel gives of his life and treasure to hire the distinguished rabbi from Europe only to have his dreams dashed by the rabbi's desertion. At some point in the telling of the story of the Chassidic Shul and the development of the Reb Samuel character, the Reb is quoted linking religious vision to politics which may ultimately be the vision that Gold carried with him to the world of class struggle. Reb Samuel is explaining Chassidic Judaism to the young Mike. “You must learn to do good deeds, for every good deed hastens the coming of the Messiah. You want Him to look like Buffalo Bill. I tell you. He will not look like Buffalo Bill, nor will He kill any one. He will come to save the world, not to destroy it, like the false Messiah of the Christians. First He will redeem the Jews, then the other nations. This is why we now must suffer more than the rest of humanity. This is why Chassidim rejoice in the midst of suffering. We Jews have been chosen; we are fortunate. Do you understand what I am teaching you my child?"[4]

In 1959, Gold wrote a series of articles in the Peoples World, the west coast newspaper of the Communist Party. They were reprinted and entitled "A Jewish Childhood in the New York slums."[5] These essays elaborated on the experiences of the Jewish tenements-on the attraction of youth to sports, the love of Yiddish Theatre, the admiration for Mark Twain, Jewish gangsters, more experiences of mother and father, and weakening ties to Jewish rituals. These reflections were an extension of rather than a revision of the original novel. Not much had changed in his thinking about those experiences, between the novel's publication and the issuance of the essays, even after 29 years of Communist politics 

Gold's political vision remained the same in 1959 as that expressed in the last lines of  Jews Without Money. For its author they express what it meant to be a Jewish man of the Left.

"A man on an East Side soap-box, one night, proclaimed that out of the despair, melancholy and helpless rage of millions, a world movement had been born to abolish poverty.

I listened to him.

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!"[6]


(This is the second of three essays on Mike Gold to appear in Diary of a Heartland Radical).


    [1]Mike Gold, Jews Without Money, Avon, 1972, 47-48.
    [2]Gold, 23.
    [3]Gold 45.
    [4]Gold, 138.
    [5]In Michael Folsom, Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, International Publishers, New York, 1972, 292-319.
    [6]Gold, 224.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

PETE SEEGER IS STILL WITH US




Harry Targ

(A presentation made at the Midwest Peace and Justice Summit, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 13, 2007)

Pete Seeger is a renowned folksinger and political activist who was born in New York on May 3, 1919 to musicologist Charles Seeger and classical musician Constance Seeger. He was exposed to the music of the rural South on tours with his parents. Seeger began to play the banjo as a teenager. After two-years of study at Harvard, Seeger began a lifetime career studying and singing the folk music of people from all over the world.

During his early years of exposure to and adaptation of what he regarded as people's music, Seeger was influenced by musicians who created an enduring genre of musical culture that would flower and grow in post-war America. These included Woody Guthrie, Hudie Leadbetter (Leadbelly), Lee Hayes, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Aunt Molly Jackson, and the folk archivist Alan Lomax. Before embracing a career as a solo performer, Seeger organized and played with the Almanac Singers, during World War II, and the Weavers from 1948 until the 1960s. In later years, Seeger would perform with many folk artists and activists, including the Freedom Singers, civil rights activists, and Woody's son, Arlo Guthrie. Over the years Seeger has written hundreds of songs and performed them at over a thousand concerts.

After recording popular songs such as "On Top of Old Smoky" and "Good Night Irene", he and the Weavers were blacklisted in the 1950s for their leftwing connections. Seeger was called to testify before the red-baiting House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1955 and cited for contempt of Congress when he refused to answer their questions, on first amendment grounds, about his political beliefs. Seven years later, a Federal Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and a one-year sentence on a technicality.

For much of the 1960s Seeger was prohibited from performing on network television. In January, 1968, after much conflict between the CBS network and comedians Tommy and Dick Smothers, Seeger was allowed to sing his anti-Vietnam war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" before a nationwide audience. With passion, Seeger chanted: "We are waist deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on."

While Seeger's music and politics has reflected virtually every progressive cause from the late 1930s until the present, his work was influenced by the variety of social movements current during different historical periods. In the late 1930s, as Seeger was learning his craft and experiencing rural life, he and Woody Guthrie performed songs about the working class and trade union organizing. Many performances were in solidarity with efforts to organize factory workers into the Congress of lndustrial Organizations (CIO). Seeger and his friends sang songs about anti-imperialism as well: for the democratic forces fighting fascism in Spain, and opposing war in Europe. After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union and World War II ensued, he and the rest of the folk left began singing songs in support of a popular front against fascism.

After the war, and for another 25 years, Seeger composed and sang songs opposing the Cold War, nuclear war, and later the Vietnam War. Visiting the South in the early sixties, he put his talent behind the southern freedom movement. He helped transform an old spiritual into the anthem of the civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome" and brought the Freedom Singers, young civil rights activists from the South, to folk concert audiences in the North in 1963. He exhorted his audiences to join the struggle for civil rights and he particularly applauded young people who, he said, had taken the lead in fighting for civil rights.

As sixties movements diversified, Seeger's music did as well. He began to sing songs about women's rights, “I'm Gonna Be An Engineer," and the environment, "Sailing Down This Golden River."

Seeger has written extensively over the years, for example in the folk magazine Sing Out, and in books about folk music and has been interviewed from time to time in magazines.

However, his political philosophy is best reflected in his music. Shaped by the Marxist lens and popular front politics characteristic of the era when he began performing, four key concepts inform his music.

First, his songs reflect historical context, the material conditions of peoples' lives, and the contradictory character of the lives of his subjects.

Second, much of his work revolves around class, race, and, more recently, gender. The folk genre as it evolved celebrated the lives of workers and down-and-out men and women who struggle in the face of economic and political adversity. Seeger took the admonition of his comrade Woody Guthrie seriously when Woody wrote that he hates songs that put people down and make them feel that they are no good.

Third, Seeger's music since the onset of the Cold War in the late 1940s has been
informed by opposition to war and U.S. imperialism (although his lyrics might not use the word). "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?'' is one of many songs performed by Seeger that articulates the belief that war is futile and destructive of the human community. During the most recent phase of his career, his songs have conceptualized how a materialistic economy has made war on the environment.

Finally, much of Seeger's work offers an alternative vision of society that emphasizes simplicity, harmony between people and between people and nature, equality, and freedom from class exploitation, racism, and sexism. While his work sometimes emphasizes how economic and political systems and dogmatic ideologies threaten the human condition, he also sings about a better tomorrow; "It's Darkest Before the Dawn," and of course, Woody Guthrie's anthem, "This Land is Your Land."

Looking at the corpus of folk music in the twentieth century, particularly a folk music that links culture and politics, Pete Seeger perhaps is the most seminal artist/activist. He popularized rural southern music, working class music, the artistry of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, and was the link in the chain between these figures and Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Bob Dylan of the 1960s.

(Pete Seeger died January 27, 2014).

Further Readings and References

Dunaway, David King, How Can I Keep From Singing, McGraw·Hill, 1983.
Seeger, Pete, The Incompleat Folksinger, Simon and Schuster, 1972.
Seeger, Pete and Bob Reiser, Carry It On! A History of Song and Picture of the Working Men
and Women of America, Simon and Schuster, 1985

Thursday, January 22, 2015

BECOMING A LEFTIST: LEARNING FROM THE LIFE AND WORK OF MIKE GOLD



Harry R. Targ

Mike Gold, was a literary critic, novelist, playwright, journalist, who learned his politics in the era of the construction of various radical movements-anarchist, socialist, syndicalist, and communist. His lifelong activism was shaped growing up in impoverished tenements in the Jewish sector of the Lower East Side in New York City. In his twenties he became a member of the Communist Party USA and served as editor of the New Masses and a columnist in the Daily Worker. During this period he developed and articulated a critical stance and an analysis of the relationship between politics and art. He is credited with initiating an artistic genre he called "proletarian literature."

Gold was born as Itzok Granich in 1893 in New York City. He attended school until the eighth grade, took one year of journalism courses at New York University and spent one year as a special student at Harvard University in 1914. He published in the political magazine edited by Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, The Masses, and in the newspaper, The New York Call between 1914 and 1920. Also he wrote three one-act plays that were performed by the Provincetown Players in 1916, 1917, and 1920.

He spent time in Mexico during World War One to avoid the draft and upon return and in the atmosphere of the Red Scare of the early 1920s changed his name to Mike Gold. In 1920 he became the editor of The Liberator after The Masses was closed down by the government. In 1926 he became editor of the successor of The Liberator, The New Masses (in the literary orbit of the Communist Party) which he edited for twenty years. In 1933 be began writing a column for the Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, and continued to contribute to it until his death in 1967. Perhaps, most significant in Mike Gold's left literary career was the publication of his partially fictionalized account of growing up in the poverty of the Jewish tenements at the dawn of the twentieth century, Jews Without Money.

Michael Folsom, editor of one of three anthologies of Gold’s essays and columns, wrote that Gold was a man who

"....spent his literary life, as a Communist and a revolutionary, working to build socialism in America. There were lots of people who did that, once upon a time. But Gold stuck it out. He died a little tired after the ravages of the McCarthy period, and a little cynical after many a disappointment, like the truth about Stalin, the ‘Moscow trials,’ the defection of so many old comrades. But he died still holding to the dream of his youth."[1]

On Proletarian Literature

When political partisans and analysts alike reflect on the Marxian idea of "class struggle," they work from mental images of militant contestation on the factory floor, or at the factory gates, or they construct images of armed workers storming the seats of political power. Most anti-Marxists read Marx in a reductionist way claiming that he and his followers were "economic determinists." They claim that Marx believed that ideas did not matter.  However, a careful reading of Marx clearly demonstrates that ideas were terribly important for understanding and changing the world. Marxists have argued that oppressed people have to reflect self-critically about their economic and political circumstance; they must know their history as a people, and they must develop the capacity to create images of their future, as well as their past, and present.
           
But as fashioning a commodity takes the right tools, fashioning consciousness takes the right intellectual tools. Gold believed that the great political battles in the United States before World War One and World War Two had to be fought over culture as well as who controls the factories and the state. While the products of culture flowed from the apex of economic, political, and theological institutions, they also were generated by people at the base of economic and political structures as well. Class struggle for Communists like Mike Gold involved the development and dissemination of a workers’ culture. Class struggle was just as much about what constitutes good art as good economic practice.

So Mike Gold spent a career in class struggle and in contestation about what was "good art." In 1921 Mike Gold published an essay in The Liberator called "Towards Proletarian Art." In 1930, Gold published a series of remarks in The New Masses elaborating on the themes of the earlier article. Folsom complied them as an article entitled "Proletarian Realism."

In the 1921 essay, Gold presents a world in turmoil, one in which the demise of capitalism seemed imminent. While this prediction in retrospect was wrong, Gold identified how pervasive the resistance to change was. "We have been bred in the old capitalist planet, and its stuff is in our very bones. Its ideals, mutilated and poor, were yet the precious stays of our lives. Its art, its science, its philosophy and metaphysics are deeper in us than logic or will....We cling to the old culture, and fight for it against ourselves." [2] Then, Gold offered a project for the artist, to produce works that help people see the possibilities of the new in the bedrock of the old. And he said that the old includes vivid renditions of the reality of human existence not some abstractions about "human nature," "good and evil," "the nature of beauty and love" or other images so common to artistic creation.

For Gold, himself, it was most significant that "I was born in a tenement....It was in a tenement that I first heard the sad music of humanity rise to the stars...There, in suffering youth, I feverishly sought God and found Man....I saw him, not as he has been pictured by the elder poets, groveling or sinful or romantic or falsely god-like, but one sunk in a welter of humble, realistic cares; responsible, instinctive, long-suffering and loyal; sad and beaten yet reaching out beautifully and irresistibly like a natural force for the mystic food and freedom that are Man's."

Gold claimed that all he knew came from the tenements. He saw the compassion of mothers and fathers for their young, the courage of the sick factory worker, the children finding pleasure in the playing of fanciful games in the dark tenement hallways. Gold wrote: "The tenement is in my blood. When I think it is the tenement thinking. When I hope it is the tenement hoping. I am not an individual; I am all that the tenement group poured into me during those early years of my spiritual travail."[3]

 Gold argued that artists born in tenements should not have to apologize for it or go beyond the experience and indeed should not forget it. For what is art but "...the tenement pouring out its soul through us, its most sensitive and articulate sons and daughters." Because life for us, he said, "...has been the tenement that bore and molded us through years of meaningful pain."[4]

He contended that the artist had assumed the egoistic, solitary, and even competitive individual stance that comports with capitalism. As individual artist, she or he, combated with God, then Reason, then logic, so that now he wrote, "they have turned to the life of the moods... Most critically intellectuals have become contemptuous of the people...The people live, love, work, fight, pray, laugh; they accept all, they accept themselves, and the immortal urgings of Life within them. They know bread is necessary to them: they know love and hate. What do the intellectuals know?"[5] For Gold, the artist must root herself/himself in the life of the people.

Central to social ferment, is human solidarity. "Man turns bitter as a competitive animal…From the solidarity learned in the family group, they have learned the solidarity of the universe, and have created creeds that fill every device of the universe with the family love and trust."

The revolutionary project for Gold was the creation of the unity of humans. Its secular manifestation might be in strikes, revolutionary agitation and many other forms of particular struggle. But its ultimate goal was human oneness. And what was the place of the artist in the drama, he asked? "If he records the humblest moment of that drama in poem, story or picture or symphony, he is realizing Life more profoundly than if he had concerned himself with some transient personal mood."[6]

After offering Walt Whitman as an example of a proletarian artist, Gold ended his essay by criticizing writers whose audience is the "leisured class" and whose vehicle is the little magazine.

No Gold says; "It is not in that hot-house air that the lusty great tree             will grow. Its roots must be in the fields, factories and workshops of America-in the American life. When there is singing and music rising in every American street, when in        every American factory there is a drama group of the workers,            when mechanics paint in their leisure, and farmers write sonnets, the greater art will grow and only then. Only a creative nation understands creation. Only an artist understands art. The method must be the revolutionary method-from the deepest depths upward."[7]

Folsom assembled a variety of Gold's 1930 musings about "Proletarian Realism" which the editor viewed as a continuation of the arguments presented in the 1921 essay. First, culture did not emerge in a social vacuum; indeed culture was a social product. Intellectuals would acknowledge the existence of "nationalist cultures" but never a working class culture. Despite the protestations of bourgeois intellectuals, proletarian art was spreading all across the face of the globe.

About the method of writing proletarian fiction Gold counseled writers to describe what workers do “with technical precision. “Deal with the real conflicts and dramas of workers lives, not the isolated dilemmas of artists and other intellectuals. Only write fiction that makes a point. Use as few words as possible. Have the courage to draw upon your personal experience and background. Develop plots that are clear, direct, and fast moving or use ‘cinema in words.’ Do not just portray the drabness and sordidness in workers lives but portray the hope in such lives as well. Write about humans in all their complexity, framed neither by superficial notions of human evil or good. Finally, draw upon the drama of life without inventing ‘supreme melodrama.’"[8]

(This is the first of three essays on Mike Gold to appear in Diary of a Heartland Radical.)


    [1]Michael Folsom ed., Mike Gold: A Literary Anthology, International Publishers, 1972, 7-8.

    2.Folsom, 62
    [3]Folsom, 64-5.
    [4]Folsom 65.
    [5]Folsom, 66.
    [6]Folsom,67
    [7]Folsom, 70.
    [8]Folsom, 203-208.