Herbert Gold Essay - Gold, Herbert (Vol. 4)

Gold, Herbert (Vol. 4)

Gold, Herbert 1924–

Gold is an American novelist and short story writer concerned in his fiction with power, competition, sex, and love in America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

If we need to be reminded of the injustices and humiliations to which Negroes are subjected in our society, The Prospect Before Us does the job, and does it all the more effectively for its gentle air of objectivity….

And Gold makes us feel them as few novelists, white or black, have succeeded in doing. But they are not what the book is about.

The book is about the triumph-in-failure of Harry Bowers, and in order to make us feel that, in all its truly tragic implications, Gold must arouse in us a sense of Harry's greatness….

He is a man who knows on what terms he wants to live his life and is willing to pay the price for doing so. That his principles are tested by way of the Negro problem is an accident, though perhaps no other test could so well define his elements of greatness. What matters is the way he stands the test….

One of the important elements in Gold's success is his mastery of a colloquial style. The dialogue is so perfect that it seems artless, and, when it serves his purpose, he uses the same style in his narrative. The effect is to immerse the reader in the garish world of Harry Bowers.


Carnival jargon fills [The Man Who Was Not With It]. In the Prospect Before Us, Gold displayed his mastery of a vernacular style, but he has gone much farther in the new novel. Sometimes, perhaps, too far. There are passages in the beginning that leave an uninitiated reader baffled. "Marko" and "pitch" and "mainline" and "hay-rube" are familiar or explain themselves, but "countstore" and "skillo" and "patch" and "geek," for me at any rate, took some guessing. Basically, however, Gold places no great reliance on this exotic vocabulary. What he does depend on is the rhythms, the imagery, and the quick twists of everyday speech. Miraculously, in spite of tired journalese, the glib announcements on radio and TV, the hard-worked phrases of the advertising agencies, there persists, below the literary level, a creativeness in the use of words. This kind of talk Gold has attentively listened to, and he has made it the foundation of his style. He has adapted it so successfully that, when one comes to the last sentence of the novel, one knows what it means and knows that its meaning could not have been otherwise communicated. The last sentence reads: "There's a good and with it way to be not with it, too."


[The Optimist] is Burr Fuller's book, and everything hinges on whether or not the reader can really lay hold of this character. I find Burr elusive, and that is the basis of my dissatisfaction. In scene after scene he is perfectly real, but then he slips away from me, and, in the end, I cannot put my hands on him. In a way, I can see, this is all to Gold's credit, for he has refused to content himself and gratify us with a superficial view of Burr's character. Burr is no more elusive than I am to you or you are to me. We never really know anyone, either in life or in fiction. But in a successful novel one feels, not that the mystery of personality has been solved once and for all, but that a precious secret has been revealed. For me the moment of revelation never comes in The Optimist.

I have another ground for complaint. In its latter half this is the story of the disintegration of a marriage, and a powerful account it is that Gold gives. But the failure of the marriage tells us little about Burr. I think it was Gold's intention to show that Burr and Laura are both responsible for the collapse of the marriage and that behind their short-comings lie faults of the society in which they have grown up. What the reader is made to feel, however, is that, Laura being what she is, the marriage could not possibly have succeeded….

After these negative remarks, it seems almost offensive to mention again the many fine scenes or to point out that Gold's mastery of the vernacular is now complete, but something must be said to make it clear that Gold is just as much as ever a first-rate novelist. If this novel is in some sense a failure, it is the kind of failure only a first-rate man could produce.


Therefore Be Bold continues the study of love, and this time Gold is scrutinizing the love of adolescents. It is a theme that often has been treated humorously though sometimes with morbid seriousness. Gold is serious enough but a long way from being morbid. There are comic episodes in the book, and the narrator, who is looking back over twenty years, knows as well as anyone that he and his boyhood friends were making fools of themselves in a variety of ways. But at the same time he feels both tenderness and respect, and he has a sense that anything is possible for these boys and girls….

[Gold] has been working steadily towards greater freedom and freshness in the use of words, not for the sake of shocking the reader but in order to rouse him out of lethargy, in order to compel him to see more clearly and feel more strongly. One may feel that he is not always successful and yet respond sharply to the total effect. The book vibrates with energy. It is full of the hopefulness and courage of the young, full of belief in love, full of the sense of human possibility.

Granville Hicks, with Jack Alan Robbins, selections from four essays (originally published in 1954, 1956, 1959, and 1960, respectively), in their Literary Horizons: A Quarter Century of American Fiction (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1970 by New York University Press), New York University Press, 1970, pp. 153-54, 160, 162-64, 165-67.

Witty, vital, and prolific—he can be slick too—Herbert Gold has published five novels to date [1961], and written a large number of stories and essays. The latter, crowded as they are with insight and prejudice, jubilantly express his views on fiction…. The need to bounce with life, to take risks with its incompleteness, to celebrate the "tin and hope" of human existence, knowing all the while that reality may be its own end (the mode of comedy) or, less frequently, that ambition contains its own death (the manner of tragedy)—these are the primary concerns of Herbert Gold when craft and vision meet in the felicity of a fictional moment. When craft and vision fall asunder, the style of Gold crackles with forced gaiety, and his wisdom degenerates into a knowing wink, a mere knack for poetic sapience. The writing, it then seems, gets ahead of itself; the author strives to attain his goal too easily or too fast….

The Optimist is a parable of man refusing to accept less than his full share of life. The limit is death, and death, as everyone knows, throbs in the heart and courses in the blood. For the time being, however, why not ask for more of everything? This is the question which Burr Fuller must constantly answer—and learn to ask.

Ihab Hassan, in his Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel (copyright © 1961 by Princeton University Press; Princeton Paperback, 1971; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1961, pp. 180-81.

Herbert Gold is a neat stylist, sometimes too neat. He can upon occasion master words, use them to bring out exactly what he needs to say about people and incidents; but he often slips too easily into rhetoric. He has a sensitivity for the nuances of speech and can frequently catch the precise accent, rhythm, and tone of dialogue and dialect. But here too he can slip, simply by making the characters themselves speak a little too brightly, as for example in Salt. On the other hand, in The Man Who Was Not With It, Gold's use of carnival idiom is exactly in key. He shows its tricks of insincerity, an important part of the story, but also displays its force in expressing the deepest feelings of the people who speak it….

Burr Fuller, the center of attention in The Optimist (1959), is one of today's schizoid Americans who at mid-life find themselves split between an urge to make slow but steady progress and a compulsion to keep speeding frantically ahead. This kind of American futility has so often been presented that it can now be taken as a basis for serious literature only when the treatment of it sounds new depths. The Optimist doesn't do that; it is mostly a skillful reflection of surfaces….

In describing Burr's army years, Gold's gift of realistic observation is given full play. In his use of dialogue here he shows that he has an eager and expert ear for regional varieties of speech, and among his characters in that first part of the book he includes some out-of-the-way personalities of the kind that appeared so zestfully in his first three novels….

[The] last part of the book, with its suburban agonizings and all too sketchily presented picture of politics, fails to fulfill the promise of the first part. These later sections fail to bring to the hackneyed themes the freshness they need.

Little can be said about Gold's next novel, Therefore Be Bold (1960), except that it is charming. It is also unambitious and indeed hardly seems to be a novel at all, but rather a memoir of what it was like to be adolescent in Cleveland in the 1930s…. This book, which took its author more than ten years to write its less than two hundred and fifty pages, is an attempt to see life through the hot-eyed innocence of youth. The vision may not be deep, but the picture of adolescent, depression-era morals is vital and attractive.

Salt (1963) is highly ambitious and, except for a surprisingly strong conclusion, seems to me somewhat of a failure, at least in not realizing all the ambitions it implicitly announces….

Unfortunately,… the author, in attempting to show the falsity of New York existence, is too often too slick. The people he introduces are mostly fringe types of journalism, television, and show business, and far too epigrammatically clever. Some of their behavior reflects the results of the author's shrewd observation, but their speech is always sprinkled with verbal gold dust; the people talk like characters put forth by Scott Fitzgerald before he matured. That this level of New York social existence is glittering and brittle, the reader would hardly dispute, but the total effect of its representation here is one of a high artificiality, in which the dialogue makes the purposeful artificiality of the characters into something not always believable. That is, if one may use the expression, they are often just too artificially artificial. In these passages the author is of course trying for satire, and while he occasionally succeeds—once again, through the actions rather than the speech of his people—the satire is not sharply enough fanged to bite very deep.

Salt nevertheless shows Herbert Gold as still a writer of more than promise…. The Man Who Was Not With It [is] evidence of what Gold can accomplish when he brings together his varied gifts—observation, comedy, and ear for dialogue. And the moral implications usually found in Gold's fiction are all emphatically present in this book….

In having Bud tell the story in carnie slang, Gold makes full use of his own ability to handle colorful idiom. It crackles. But the language isn't flashed just for its own sake; it is organic. Through it, the author is able to present nuances of character and investigate the depths of his particular kind of people in a way which would have been less intimate with straight language. Herbert Gold's tendency toward the bizarre in style exactly matches the subject matter in this book.

Let me say once again that the whole novel needs to be read for its story to be appreciated. And it is a good story, one of a redemption or partial redemption, and of a failing attempt at redemption. To use this last word is to oversimplify, something which Herbert Gold avoids doing in this story. But the word is a kind of semaphore to indicate partially what happens in the novel. And such matters, involving important changes in character, are never simple, as Bud carefully suggests at the end of the book.

Harry T. Moore, "The Fiction of Herbert Gold," in Contemporary American Novelists, edited by Harry T. Moore (copyright © 1964 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964, pp. 170-81.

The attempt to poeticize the wandering naturalistic American Joe and give him moralistic resolution takes [various] forms. In the quite over-written but best novel of Herbert Gold, The Man Who Was Not With It, Bud Williams, a young carnival barker and part-orphan, gains his education into moral identity on the road and in the lovingly elaborated underside of life. The wandering, father-defying, drug addiction, sexual voyeurism, crime and varied gross experiences elucidate such aphorisms as "You drink from the cup of wisdom? I fell into it."… The wisdom, however, is that the ordinary American Joe learns the hard way back to being the urban worker and family man that he originally rebelled against being. Degradation and the road, not convention and culture, provide the truest way to adaption and acceptance. "Down is the long way up." Slanged-over Heraclitean wisdom summarizes the traditional violations and final affirmations of monogamy, loyalty, honesty, filial acceptance, forgiveness and going back home again. The road through extremity provides the leap of faith into ordinary moral life by which the con-man can, once again, become an authentic "mark." "There's a good and with it way to be not with it, too"—which means that you can be a rebel without being rebellious.

Kingsley Widmer, in his The Literary Rebel (copyright © 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, p. 126.

Herbert Gold's open feeling and generous sympathy in Fathers are initially appealing …; and I admired the self-criticism apparent in Mr. Gold's new quieter style: the strenuous lyricism, the boastful emotionality of the earlier work have been subdued. But to my taste they have not been transmuted into the genuinely imaginative love and insight that Fathers needs. I wish I could feel more enthusiastic about a novel so humane in intention and so courageously direct in its approach to large simple feelings. But sympathy and piety can be willful too; quiet acceptance can be only an assertion, though it may be the right assertion. Mr. Gold wants to honor his father in honest terms, to bridge by faith the "abyss" of incommunicability between paternal and filial love, to express filial love by imagining what can never be experienced—the sufficiency of paternal love. And he fashions a highly attractive image of his father's energy and freedom, above all of his father's charm. But in so doing he makes himself too small—or so it seems to me, and Mr. Gold's frank autobiographical novel seems to ask for a similarly frank response from his reader. The father is a man of fact and commercial action, of will and property, the son's values are opposed, and this opposition is meant to be important. But Mr. Gold underplays his own values to protect his father. This seems to me false piety to begin with, and it badly upsets the balance of the book: it makes the son's imagination of his father's virtues too fluent.

Robert Garis, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1967 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XX, No. 2, Summer, 1967, pp. 329-30.

The … flexibility of tone [in Fathers] is astonishing. A prevailing buoyancy—sustained by the fact that the action, even when painful, is always safely recollected—can modulate rapidly into poignance, satire, or sententiousness. This provides a good deal of reading pleasure but it also raises a problem. The writing is often too obviously a performance, a striving for effect. Gold juggles his feelings. The breathless speed of his style at first lulls, then irritates our critical faculties, and we find ourselves asking if this or that really happened, a question which ought not to arise. The writer's virtues slide into vices: exuberance into overheartiness, wit into flippancy, shrewdness into smugness, poignance into corniness. The problem is one of sincerity.

Gold's sincerity seems most questionable in three aspects of his novel. Least disturbingly, because most openly, in the broadness of the satire, at times a sort of verbal slapstick: "'Your father earned his own living when he was twelve,' Mother remarked contentedly in explanation, 'and he is proud of it. Proud of it.' 'Thirteen he said,' I said. 'Proud he said,' she said." (His handling of the Jewish Mother is often scarcely above the level of stand-up comedy routines. Women in general come off rather badly in Fathers, partly because of the thematic emphasis on masculine love of risk in defiance of feminine craving for security: "When the banks closed in '33, my mother said 'We've lost everything'; my father said 'We'll start again.'") The problem of sincerity also arises in connection with Gold's awkward reticence about the failure of Herbert's marriage; one suspects that Herbert understood manhood more surely than he achieved it. Finally I distrust the frequently facile idealizations of the father. In fact what is presented as the father's style, his living "in a fury of using himself," seemed really the writer's need. (One or two passages actually suggest such a connection, but it is not clearly worked out.)

Yet Gold's virtues are more solidly present here than in his earlier novels. One reason may be that the constantly colorful idiom he seems to require is, in part, justified dramatically by the Yiddish-English speech of the parents. Another reason may be that his subject touches a deeper layer of feeling—feeling that is most sincere, most authentic, when he links the hurtling energy of father and son to an underlying sense of loss, when he both defies and admits his dread of the irreversibility of time.

David J. Gordon, in The Yale Review (© 1967 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1967, pp. 106-07.

In writing about the by now tattered fringes of hippy-yippy life in San Francisco in [The Great American Jackpot] Mr. Gold by his very choice of locale and subject matter gives his new book a faintly old-fashioned air. Few observers deny the fact that Haight-Ashbury, Berkeley, and related areas are dying phenomena, barely surviving that time in the early sixties when the "beat" movement largely flourished, out of which all the rest followed. Thus when the author might have aroused susceptible readers with a parade of eccentric characters intent on doing their "thing" he is apt today to encounter only boredom; where his curiously plotted novel with its emphasis on improbabilities might once have brought approving smiles and some words of commendation there can today be nothing more than polite toleration. In the past Mr. Gold has given us good journeyman performances. All hope must not be abandoned for so fluent and facile a writer.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Summer, 1970), p. lxxxix.

Herbert Gold, through his theoretical essays and fictional practice,… [has] shown [his] intention of writing metaphysical novels in the activist mode; and if the metaphysical activist novel indeed has a uniqueness—a spiritual emphasis suggested by K.'s quest in The Castle—which defines its particular excellences, then Gold … [produces] inferior work in that mode.

The world is, perhaps, too much with [him], and [he], like [his] heroes, [seems] to cherish experience for its own sake….

We can tell from the surface of Gold's novels, by the philosophical interjections and dialogues which he supplies, that Gold intends to give us in The Optimist and in Salt the presentation of a metaphysical quest beyond the limits of the worldly environment which his hero—usually a well-brushed lawyer, like Burr Fuller in The Optimist, or a well-brushed advertising man, like Dan Berman in Salt—inhabits; but we cannot tell this from a level other than the surface. The Optimist, Gold's first novel in the activist mode, and Salt, a more recent novel, also in this mode, are not informed by [an] … urgent sense of self or separation (not necessarily alienation) of self from the masses.

Gold's Burr Fuller wants more of worldly experience; he loves life; he does not separate himself from this experience or from its worldly patterns. Although Gold satirizes ordinary middle-class life and ordinary sophisticated life, the comforts and the evils of the corrupt world from which the hero would disengage himself, nevertheless there is always the nagging suspicion that Gold is forced to satirize the world to keep himself, and his hero, from embracing it. Ordinary life is not nearly unpleasant enough…. [It] is pleasant; it is seductive….

It is enough, and yet not enough. It is enough for life, perhaps, but not enough for the novel. Each novel needs to define itself structurally, whether the structure be traditional or antitraditional and activist; and part of structural definition lies in theme. The theme of becoming in the successful activist novel demands a basically open structure to reveal the hero-in-process, but there must be something besides this openness to make the structure complex and to give it its narrative significance: some conflict, opposition, or tension is necessary. The process of becoming posed against a personal concept of ideal being, the existential fact against the awareness of possibilities, especially the transcendent possibility of the self—must be dramatized if the narrative of the activist hero's adventures is to be considered as more than picaresque, as a new pattern for modern man's metaphysical and spiritual investigation. K. is always a surveyor of the castle's land, never the Land-Surveyor. A continuing frustration of the will to ideality is coupled with an ironic realization of his ideal self in the process of his existence: this duality is at the root of the art of the activist novel. It is this duality which Gold does not achieve.

Helen Weinberg, in her The New Novel in America: The Kafkan Mode in Contemporary Fiction (copyright © 1970 by Cornell University; used by permission of Cornell University Press), Cornell University Press, 1970, pp. 179-82.

Perhaps the nicest thing about Herbert Gold's informal autobiography [My Last Two Thousand Years] is that it reminds one of Henry Miller without the sexual posturings. The two are similarly self-referential, bedeviled by the need to be more than America seems to allow, exhilarated by the hope of remaking the self through acts of exuberant storytelling. But where Miller's is an art of improvisational variety, Gold elects to pursue a Meaning, committing himself from his opening words to a kind of thematic overkill….

It would be stupid to blame a man because his life, in outline, sounds like someone's first novel—whose life wouldn't? But Gold's treatment, by insistently dwelling upon incidents that carry the theme of tribal discovery, doesn't sufficiently complicate and enliven the scenario. Time and again the necessary and interesting irrelevancies of a life seem to have been sacrificed for the sake of a "significant" experience….

Even so, his account of his youth and early manhood is often quite wonderfully funny and poignant. It's later, when his theme seems to demand heavy thinking and large conclusions, that the life goes most troublingly out of focus and the writing gets soft and woolly….

Gold makes sense of his life … by bringing to it a kind of tunnel vision. Where Henry Miller, for all his self-concern, remains fascinated by other existences and their own stories, the conditions, real or fictive, that have made them what he takes them to be, Gold has only one story to tell, his own, and the other people who figure in it seldom have much individuality apart from what that story requires of them.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 15, 1972, pp. 4, 18.

My Last Two Thousand Years [is] an autobiography-with-a-theme by Herbert Gold that is intelligent, lively, and provocative, and yet, in the end, a disappointment. I fear that Gold is too nice a man ever to write an autobiography in which heart and soul are laid bare, which is what the theme—a Jew's discovery of himself as a Jew—deserves at this point in history if it is to engage us at a level deeper than curiosity. However, in a novel, freed from the obligation to be factual on the one hand and discreet on the other and drawing upon his considerable gifts as a writer, he might have created out of the raw material of his experience a character who would endow the theme with a blazing, life-enhancing urgency it never quite achieves here….

[Many] of the episodes and their settings are by now traditional elements in any literary success story and would be just as likely to turn up if the tale were told by Herbert Gould, Unitarian.

William Abrahams, "Backgrounds," in Saturday Review of Education (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 11, 1972, pp. 69, 72.