Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jews Without Money

My critical essay on Michael Gold’s 1930 novel Jews Without Money is the main feature this morning at Jewish Ideas Daily.

My argument is that, although Jews Without Money is a “proletarian” novel—the best proletarian novel ever written—its greatness owes little to its proletarian (i.e. its Marxist) dimension. Instead, the novel is a testament to the ability of poor Jews to make a full life for themselves, even a crowded life, in desperate straits.

If any novel deserves to be known as a proletarian novel, Jews Without Money is it. Gold, a lifelong obedient member of the Communist Party, seems to have been the one who first called for a movement of proletarian literature, although his original term was “proletarian realism.” Writing in the New Masses, a radical magazine he co-founded in 1926 to “revive the spirit of the old Bohemian-left-liberal alliance,” Gold said that the literature of the future would be proletarian: that it would perform a “social function” rather than being written “for its own sake.”

Jews Without Money was written according to this formula. Gold uses the word proletarian self-consciously, repeatedly, to give the novel an identifying mark. A fictionalized account of his growing up on the Lower East Side, the novel ends with Gold’s vision of liberation from poverty and social injustice:

     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!
Everything about the preceding novel, though, gives the lie to this peroration. The “garden for the human spirit” has already been created—by young Mikey’s parents. His mother rushes upstairs to save an Irish child who is choking on a fishbone and later consoles a Italian neighbor whose husband is jailed for murder, leaving her with three children and no friends. “It was marvelous to hear my mother hold hour-long conversations with this woman,” Gold says, “in a polyglot jargon that was a mixture of Italian, Yiddish, Hungarian and English.” Mikey’s father spins outlandish tales for a “convention” of his friends and neighbors, who “held long debates after each story.” His son may dream of a better world achieved by revolution, but his father builds a better world by delighting his listeners with “the thousand-year-old fables of the Orient.”

If only for one book—he never wrote another novel, and descended into a Party hack very quickly after 1930—Gold establishes himself as his father’s son. The novel is not a single coherent narrative but a series of vignettes, each of which shows the spirit of poor Jews trying to live in an inhospi­table climate (“only children are hardy enough to grow on the East Side,” Gold remarks). The characters are poor, but they are not bounded by their poverty. Their unhappiness is caused, not by “America, the thief,” but by personal betrayal, desertion by a spouse, separation from family, the disappointment of children. Their triumphs are fueled by the help they offer one another, the decency they manage to find in mean surroundings.

What Jews Without Money proves is that it is not material conditions but their spirit that defines human beings.