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Remembering ‘America’s Most Hated Critic’

Mike Gold was once one of America’s best-known writers, but his refusal to knuckle down in the McCarthy era saw him written out of history.

Author Mike Gold (born Itzok Isaac Granich), photographed in front of a New York crowd in the 1930s. (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1946, Ernest Hemingway visited the New York offices of the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker. The famous, towering author walked up to the receptionist and asked to speak to a columnist who happened to be out at the time. ‘Ok,’ he said, ‘tell Mike Gold that Ernest Hemingway says he should go fuck himself.’

The best-selling proletarian author, columnist, and critic Mike Gold was, at one point, one of the most famous American radical writers of his time. The author of the best-selling novel Jews Without Money (1930), Gold was well-known to writers and artists across the world as a champion of proletarian culture. Hemingway, only a decade prior to his combative message, wrote a recommendation for Gold to receive the Gugenheim: ‘I have known Mike Gold personally since 1928… [and] have been an admirer of his work for many years,’ he wrote. But history had changed, and Gold began heavily criticising middle-class writers who abandoned their formerly radical politics. The Hemingway-Gold conflict was, in many ways, a representation of a political divide that would stretch much wider in the following decades, with those who retreated to liberalism finding shelter from the HUAC purges while the Communists were sentenced to prison, deportation, and poverty.

Gold’s brave proletarian literature garnered him, at one point, fame and notoriety, but later, infamy and ruin. He, along with many other radicals, was buried in the McCarthy era. Only in recent years has his legacy been carefully revived from the dark depths of the blacklists, a resuscitation that’s built on decades of censored academic study. The story of Mike Gold, the most famous American writer you’ve never heard of, is a painfully American chronicle of poverty, fame, authoritarianism, and struggle for a socialist future.

Born Itzok Isaac Granich to Jewish immigrant parents in 1894 in the slums of the Lower East Side, Gold endured a cruel subsistence in the Christie Street tenements. His father’s small suspender business failed and he fell ill, forcing a twelve-year-old Gold into gruesome factory jobs where ‘Little Jewish and Italian girls dipped racks of mantles in chemical tanks. Boys stood before a series of ovens in which sixty gas jets blazed.’

Gold was beaten into radical movements at the receiving end of police repression and starvation. After being beaten bloody at an unemployment protest, he began writing; submitting poems and articles to the socialist magazine The Masses, and writing plays with the Provincetown Players, a collective of artists that included Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell.

Gold became one of the most famous writers of the 1930s, helping to spark a movement of proletarian culture across the US that’s gone unparalleled since. His 1930 book, Jews Without Money, was reprinted twenty-five times by 1950, translated into sixteen languages, and spread underground throughout Nazi Germany to combat antisemitic propaganda. The novel focuses on Gold’s grueling childhood in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, exposing the harsh realities of that stage of capitalism in early twentieth century America, and all of the racism, starvation, and death that accompanied it. The book was credited with paving the way to write about life in America’s ghettos. And his daily column, Change the World in The Daily Worker, which focused on a variety of cultural, political, and personal topics, inspired a generation of radical cultural figures. Gold’s work was centered on working-class narratives, his vocabulary was modest, his stories properly readable. His work was, by all means, by and for the working class.

Gold influenced figures like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, screenwriter Albert Maltz, author Richard Wright, and countless others. Sinclair Lewis praised Gold’s work in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech as one of the few young writers leading American literature out from ‘the stuffiness of safe, sane and incredibly dull provincialism.’ In 1941, 3,500 people crowded the Manhattan Center to celebrate Gold’s twenty-five-years of revolutionary activity. Speakers included the famous labour organiser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, famous Communist writer Richard Wright, and Benjamin Davis, the Communist lawyer who was later elected to New York City Council. The Communist screenwriter Albert Maltz, asked, ‘What progressive writer in America is there who has not been influenced by [Mike Gold]?’

But like most radicals living in the US, his fame could only last so long. In the late thirties, facing news of the trials in the USSR and the Soviet non-aggression pact, many Communists and sympathisers grew confused, abandoning the ideology and the Party. Gold watched as some of the most famous radical writers of the time, once great friends of the Party or members themselves, backtracked into liberalism and cynicism. In his column, he called out these individuals, many of whom had been personal friends or acquaintances: ‘The Hemingways are running away from something—not going to something,’ he claimed. Gold argued, rather convincingly, although controversially, that ‘the liberal and opportunist roads seem smoother and fairer, but they lead nowhere.’

While some of his criticisms went a bit far, most were grounded in valid analyses. Gold never claimed that Hemingway was a bad writer, in fact declared him as one of the greatest, but he also saw him as an ideologically hollow writer—for example, Hemingway was just as, if not more, critical of the Republican resistance fighters in Spain as he was the fascists. It was not entirely unusual to poke at the middle-class authors who flirted with radicals when it was fashionable, only to flee when the tide changed. Gold also fittingly called out Theodore Dreiser after he made his antisemitic views known in the thirties and later, the racism of Faulkner after he defended segregation in 1956. Nonetheless, Gold’s occasionally vicious attacks alienated him from some of his readers and other literary figures.

When Gold and his family came back from briefly living in France in 1950, the impact of the blacklist, loyalty oaths, and arrests of Communist Party leaders had completely transformed the atmosphere of the country. All of a sudden, children at school wouldn’t talk to Gold’s kids about his columns, writers and artists feared arrest, tens of millions of citizens at every level were spied on by America’s secret police, the FBI, while labour and Party organisers were rounded up, many imprisoned, which, due to prison conditions, could amount to a death sentence. ‘It is obviously dangerous to think,’ Gold reflected of the McCarthy era. It was the peak of repressive terror, but only the beginning of an historical purge.

Due to the tyranny of this period, Gold remained unemployed for much of the rest of his life. That he was once considered a major literary figure was erased by anti-communist fear and suppression. The once famous proletarian writer, at one point compared to Walt Whitman, had been purged from literary history. Over the decades, attempts at writing biographies and dissertations about Gold have been blocked by academia and publishers, while his legacy has continued to be slandered. Prominent anti-communist academics have labelled him as a ‘megalomaniac’, a sectarian ‘literary czar’, and a ‘not very bright […] political propagandist in dreamland.’ His legacy was not simply erased, but re-constructed. The name ‘Mike Gold’, if it were to be mentioned at all, had to be synonymous with all of the evils that were stapled to the word ‘Communist’.

In his controversial piece titled ‘Renegades’, Gold observed that writers had made a choice, ‘not between two political parties, but between communism and cynicism’.  The latter had won the twentieth century, but recently there’s been a shift as the anti-communist left, liberals, and the far-right have finally lost their stranglehold on Gold’s legacy.

In 2020, SUNY Press published a biography of Mike Gold by Patrick Chura, breaking with decades of historical revisionism and ideological purification. In a review of the biography in The Nation, J. Hoberman asks: ‘Is it time to release Michael Gold from his personal gulag to range free in the pastures of twentieth-century American literature?’ It’s an open-ended question, but the very fact that it’s being asked shows that the battle between communism and cynicism has shifted, however slightly, towards the former. The censorship of Gold has been burst asunder and now, there’s a slow movement to reveal Michael Gold’s story, to tell those who have fallen in line to purge Mike Gold to go fuck themselves.