Vivian Gornick is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. She is the author of an iconic feminist memoir, Fierce Attachments, which I’ve read many times. Her books of essays on the writing life are wonderful. She’s so intense; her soul is on the page with you, for better or for worse. Romance of American Communism, published in 1977, was re-issued this year. Everything Gornick writes creates a literary tempest and this book is no exception, in 1977 and now. Gornick interviewed people who were members of the Communist Party in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Her goal was to find out how they became communists, what their experience of life in the movement was like, why they left, and how they view that part of their life now.
Years ago I read several books about the Communist Party in America, both fiction and nonfiction, most notably Diana Trilling’s memoir The Beginning of the Journey, Philip Roth’s novel I Married a Communist, and The God That Failed. My constant question was why people were drawn to an authoritarian organization that was directed from Moscow and repeatedly betrayed the trust of its members. Diana Trilling’s memoir came close to giving me an answer, but I needed to know more, so when I saw the re-issue of Romance, I decided to read it, or at least start it. I couldn’t put it down.
In 1977 the book was panned as “overwritten,” and Gornick herself, in a new introduction, says as much. There are too many nouns and adjectives and lots of intrusive descriptive material about the weatherworn but still striking faces of her interviewees. Her psychological analyses of people’s lives is also a bit much. You can ignore all of that or just appreciate that it’s Gornick’s passionate style. The voices of the former communists are the real thing, filled with the emotion of commitment to a movement and ideology that they believed would change the world for the better. They believed that change was just around the corner. Remember, this was the 1930s; something had to change and communism offered a complete worldview. It was a vision of equality. Party members joined an all-encompassing battle; it gave their lives purpose.
Over and over again, these former communists tell Gornick how they were searching for meaning in their lives. They regale her with stories about the sense of community and the sense of mission, the belief that capitalism was the source of inequality and oppression. Group experiences are very powerful; we know from our own experiences just how formative and memorable they can be. You commit wholeheartedly to something you believe in and everyone around you feels the same way. Suddenly you can’t understand other people who aren’t part of that worldview: they lack access to what you know is true. They’re lost and misguided. Your social life becomes limited to the people who believe as you do; the ideology becomes the focus of your life.
Members married other Party members, were assigned by the Party to work in factories as union organizers, and some went underground for years on Party orders. Dissent from any part of the Party program meant expulsion and isolation. The show trials in the late 1930s, the non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939, and the HUAC investigations in the early 1950s were all tests of loyalty. Some members dropped off at each of those points. For many, 1956, when Khrushchev revealed the extent of Stalin’s murderous crimes was the end, and the Party in the U.S. was fatally weakened.
Romance of American Communism is a look back at a time when people were searching for solutions to serious social ills. There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that it was re-issued now. Communism is long discredited, but the intensity of feelings in the strident opinions and controversies that currently divide us is a reminder of those days when the Party held so many in thrall.