Comparisons between the Great Depression and current economic conditions "remain relevant," says the financial columnist Robert Samuelson—"and unsettling." Economic growth for this year's second quarter was a paltry 1.6 percent; unemployment hovers above 9.5 percent; sales of existing homes have fallen to their lowest rate in more than a decade; consumers show little sign of having recovered their confidence.
At such a moment, American literature must surely be ripe for a revival of the Marxist-inspired "proletarian novel": a genre that deploys fiction as a weapon in the struggle against capitalism, big business, Wall Street, and the rich. The form emerged in the 1930s in response to a call by Michael Gold, the editor of the radical Left magazine New Masses. There, Gold explained that the literature of the future must "not believe in literature for its own sake, but in literature that is useful, has a social function. Every major writer has always done this in the past; but it is necessary to fight the battle constantly, for there are more intellectuals than ever who are trying to make literature a plaything. Every [novel] must have a social theme, or it is merely confectionary."
Are today's American novelists likely to answer Gold's summons? It hardly seems so—and not only because they have passed almost their entire adult lives in creative-writing programs and have small interest in the lives of ordinary, "proletarian" men and women. The sad truth is that the novel-with-a-social-function is a guaranteed failure. There is no better proof of this than Gold's own Jews Without Money, the best proletarian novel ever written.
Published by Horace Liveright in 1930, the novel was an immediate critical and popular success, and has remained in print ever since. It is considered the exemplary "Depression novel," an authentic contemporary expression of anger and disgust with capitalism. But the true power of the novel—its true greatness as a novel—has little or nothing to do with its "social theme," which in fact weakens it. Jews Without Money is worth reading for the same reason that most great novels are worth reading: for its intimate knowledge of and brilliant rendering of the people whose lives it chronicles.
Michael Gold was a second-generation American named Itzok Granich, the first of three sons born in 1893 to Rumanian Jewish parents on New York's Lower East Side. By the time he had published his first piece of writing at the age of twenty-one, he was already a member of the Communist party, and he would remain in the party until his death in 1967, far beyond the point where most had jettisoned their allegiance to it. The very model of a party hack, Gold wrote a regular column for the Daily Worker where he dutifully propagated the Moscow line, turning wrathfully against old comrades at the time of Stalin's Great Purge, and again in the late 1930's during the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, and again and again as the party demanded that its members change their convictions without notice.
Critics assume that Jews Without Money issued directly from Gold's radical ideology. In an essay reprinted in the latest edition of the novel, Alfred Kazin writes that it is distinguished by "Gold's unrelenting unstoppable insistence that every misfortune in life, every distortion of character, everything we vainly want, is due to poverty and nothing else." Without question, this is indeed Gold's explicit theme. "There can be no freedom in the world while men must beg for jobs," he laments. "Poverty makes some people insane," his narrator observes. According to the narrator's father, "It's better to be dead in this country than not to have money."
But remarks like these have the specific weight of political slogans, tacked on to the end of Gold's fictional vignettes like detachable and easy-to-memorize lessons. Consider the following passage, in which the narrator, "Mechel," recalls his boyhood:
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. They crawl slowly and pompously, bloated with blood, and the touch and smell of these parasites wakens every nerve to disgust.
As is suggested by the recent invasion of New York City by these same noxious insects, bedbugs manifestly do not discriminate between wealth and poverty. But Gold is not content to let things rest with his otherwise unforgettable evocation of sleeping with foul-smelling and blood-sucking parasites. In a manic imitation of Walt Whitman, he drives home the doctrinaire point:
Bedbugs are what people mean when they say: Poverty. There are enough pleasant superficial liars writing in America. I will write a truthful book about Poverty; I will mention bedbugs.
After a while, Gold's "unrelenting unstoppable insistence that every misfortune in life . . . is due to poverty" begins to seem more and more frantic and less and less convincing—even, perhaps, to him.
The greatness of this novel lies elsewhere. Told from the perspective of a young boy growing up among immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side, it plunges the reader into the thick of life:
The whole tenement was talking and eating its supper. The broken talk came through the airshaft window. The profound bass of the East Side traffic lay under this talk. Talk. Talk. Rattle of supper dishes, whining of babies, yowling of cats; counterpoint of men, women and children talking as if their hearts would break. Talk. Jewish talk.
The chattering of Mrs. Fingerman's parrot, who has been taught to curse in Yiddish, comes down the airshaft: "Thief! Bandit! Cossack! I spit on you! A black year on you!" The family laughs, the father praises the parrot as a good Jew and drinks another glass of beer, and the reader is reminded that much more than poverty shapes the lives of even the most impoverished among us.
For long stretches, mercifully, Gold altogether forgets to tie a Communist maxim to the tail of his human portraits. Far from standing outside the life he is describing, the better to frame a dialectical analysis of it, his young narrator describes that life entirely from within. He is part of the scene; he belongs to it. Any hint of a larger explanatory context falls away; there is only the world of the streets and tenements where fat, haughty prostitutes sprawl on the stoops in red kimonos, pimps scheme to entrap pretty girls, gangs of children steal fruit from pushcart vendors and scatter in all directions, mothers douse sheets with kerosene to rid them of bedbugs, gangsters reign on street corners, Jewish and Italian boys attack each other with rocks and fists as their mothers form cross-ethnic friendships in pidgin English, a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles beats a child molester nearly to death.
It is precisely this closeness to experience—sometimes, too close for comfort—that distinguishes Jews Without Money from the other classic accounts of poor Jewish immigrants in American fiction. Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky knows the Lower East Side firsthand, but even at its best that novel is written in the voice of a bystander, a keen-eyed observer. Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers is told from within an overcrowded tenement but focuses on a single family's flat, a single family's experience. By contrast, Gold tells the story of an entire class.
But it is not Marx's proletarian class. The characters who populate Jews Without Money are poor, but they are not defined by their poverty. They are defined by the strength that it takes to survive in an inhospitable world, and by the decency, imagination, and resourcefulness they manage against all odds to find within themselves. "They shrugged their shoulders, and murmured: ‘This is America.' They tried to live." Jews Without Money is a reminder that, in literature, it is not economic conditions but the moral effort to live that shapes human experience, and ultimately perhaps even nations. The novel also suggests that, during hard times, people may need more literary playthings and fewer propaganda machines.
D.G. Myers is a critic and literary historian and the author of A Commonplace Blog. His series for Jewish Ideas Daily on classics of American Jewish fiction has included pieces about Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska.
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