Herbert Gold

Start Free Trial

Judith Sklar (review date 28 July 1967)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Fathers, in Commonweal, Vol. 86, No. 17, July 28, 1967, p. 474.

[In the following negative review, Sklar argues that the father-son relationship is not fully developed in Fathers.]

Fathers really defies criticism, for who, when you get right down to it, can say anything bad about fathers? And especially about good fathers, who give their sons love, education, freedom, money, and the independence of mind to use them? And more especially, about good fathers who are interesting, forthright men in themselves?

In this “novel in the form of a memoir,” Herbert Gold's father Sam Gold is a mentsch: he has all the right virtues. At twelve, in Kamenets-Podolsk, Russia, he wanted to ride away to America and pick up the gold in the streets; at thirteen he crossed the ocean alone. He saved his money to bring his brothers and sister over one by one. He learned English and moved to Ohio, which vaguely resembled his native Ukraine. He learned to pay the gangsters for the protection of his fruits and vegetables; he wore green shoes, rode a motorcycle, and found a sweet little slightly Americanized wife and had many sons. He later cheated on his wife just a bit—with Myrna, his chief clerk—but that too was a good act. It made him more human. Energy, decision, and will characterized his life. He was never satisfied, he was always moving on, forever willing to take a reasonable risk, because “today a man is never secure.”

All this for his children, “for the future.” But Herb, his skinny son with American ideas of football games on Saturday afternoons, nature walks with Pattie Donahue, and fathers who commute from, instead of working in, a Cleveland suburb, is an unwilling recipient. He must work in the store—“to learn the value of a dollar,” “to learn what's what in life,” “to find which it's like something to be a man.” From Herb's rebellion, fatherhood and Fathers are made. The story is familiar, in fiction and in life. The son becomes a man, leaves his father's family to make his own. At eighteen, in 1943, Herb enlists in the U.S. Army. When he returns, he just wants to get married on the G.I. Bill. His father says, “That's right. I cockameemied around too. That's just what I did, only I did it altogether different.”

But as true and as familiar as this story is, it is also somehow fake, unsettling, and altogether too easy. It stands for things it does not say. It calls into play feelings which it has not actually evoked of itself. It uses all of our good will toward our own fathers, washes us of our resentments and quarrels by proving, by example, that they are a natural part of life, and makes us feel fond and slightly superior.

There is (or should be) something else going on in Fathers. Beneath the nostalgia and the scrupulous detailing of the generations, there should be something hard, something real. Instead the hardness fizzles out, dissipates. The eleven-year-old Herb, a man among men in the Russian steam baths, comes upon his father and his cronies looking at girlie pictures. Herb throws a tantrum and wants to go home. This, as far as the reader knows, is the end of the episode in Herb's mind. It seems in no way to have damaged or altered his relationship with his father, in no way to have changed his thinking about men and himself. It is simply a fact, even for an eleven-year-old.

And what of his father's famous indiscretion...

(This entire section contains 817 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

with Myrna? Although he was too young to understand it at the time, he obviously caught on later—yet we have no sense of how he came to understand, of what he thought and felt, of how he reacted to father, mother, and Myrna. He flinches and shirks; he does not confront the acts he describes, and he certainly does not face their consequences. As a result, most of the time, the real interaction between father and son is missing. Gold just gets on with the story, forgetting that its real value lies in his reactions to it.

As it stands, Fathers is held together only by the vigor of its main character, Sam Gold. He is an unusual figure in the literature of American Jewish immigrants, a tough and successful man (a role usually reserved for mothers). He looks for risks, and when he gambles, he wins. He has vitality and dignity. Next to his father, author Gold seems rather dull. He inspires a grudging, rational admiration, but no real sympathy. Hence the shortcomings of his book. If he had written it as a memoir, Sam could happily sustain it; but since it is supposed to be a novel, we are owed something more. Somewhere in Fathers that novel exists, but Gold hasn't had the strength to find it.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Herbert Gold 1924-

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Gold's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 7, 14, and 42.

Gold is considered one of the foremost chroniclers of middle-class, contemporary life in modern America. Much of his fiction focuses on examinations of human relationships within twentieth-century American settings. Recurring themes in his works include the nature of love, self-discovery, and the celebration of human potential. Critics have often noted Gold's distinct use of language in his prose. His skillful reproduction of colloquial speech underscores the realistic portrayals of his characters' lives, transforming typically mundane experiences into drama. Gold works also address the problems inherent in family situations and urban environments, and frequently satirize middle-aged, professional characters. Although best known for his novels, Gold is an accomplished journalist, short story writer, and editor.

Biographical Information

Gold was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1924 to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a grocery store owner, and during his youth Gold worked in his father's store. His family was not overly religious, but Gold's Jewish heritage was important to him, and he later explored his relationship to Jewish history in several works, particularly in My Last Two Thousand Years (1972). Gold began writing in elementary school and wrote for his high school newspaper. After he graduated high school in 1942, Gold left Cleveland to study philosophy at Columbia University in New York. Shortly after enrolling at Columbia, Gold decided to enlist in the army and served until 1946. He returned to Columbia to earn a B.A. and eventually an M.A. in philosophy. He then attended graduate school in philosophy as a Fulbright fellow at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was during this period that Gold wrote and published his first novel, Birth of a Hero (1951). In the late 1960s, Gold moved to California, a region that would be featured greatly in many of his later works. Gold taught at several American universities, including Harvard, Cornell, and the University of California, Berkeley. He also worked as a journalist, publishing articles in the San Francisco Chronicle and several travel magazines. In addition to his novels and short stories, Gold has published several nonfiction works, including travel books and collections of essays. He has received a Hudson Review fellowship in 1956, a Guggenheim fellowship in 1957, a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1958, a Longview Foundation Award in 1959, and a Ford Theater fellowship in 1960.

Major Works

Gold's earliest fiction is set in the Midwest and is influenced by his Jewish heritage and his experiences as a youth in Cleveland, Ohio. His first novel, Birth of a Hero, profiles the mid-life crisis of an unremarkable, conservative lawyer named Reuben Flair. Reuben becomes dissatisfied with his married life on his forty-fifty birthday and begins an affair with Lydia, a widowed neighbor. The affair brings out a reckless side in the once-responsible Reuben, but his secret life comes to a quick end when Larry, a man who had claimed to be Lydia’s brother, reveals himself to be her husband. Larry commits suicide and Reuben returns to his wife and his mundane nine-to-five world. The Prospect before Us (1954) is a pessimistic and stylized account of two outsiders—Harry and Claire—who experience racism and rejection in a seedy downtown hotel. Salt (1963) explores themes of commitment and loyalty between friends, focusing on three contemporary New Yorkers. The novel is divided into three parts, with each section narrated by a different character. In his later works, Gold began using California as his primary setting. The Great American Jackpot (1969), Swiftie the Magician (1974), and Waiting for Cordelia (1977) each satirize the people, culture, and lifestyles of Gold’s adopted region. With Slave Trade (1979) and He/She (1980), however, Gold moved away from satire and California locales. Slave Trade is a detective story set in Haiti, while He/She is a clinical delineation of the disintegration of a marriage. True Love (1982) and Mister White Eyes (1984) both portray aging protagonists, alternately searching for and avoiding love, who eventually make discoveries about what they really want from the world. Gold returned to his satirization of the California lifestyle with A Girl of Forty (1986), which examines the tempestuous relationship between a woman, her unstable son, and a San Francisco journalism professor. Dreaming (1988) explores the underbelly of life in San Francisco and the complicated relationship between two brothers—one a womanizing street hustler, and the other, a stable family man. In Fathers: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (1967) and Family: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (1981), Gold blends fact and fiction to create an examination of his relationship with his parents and their continuing influence on his life and work. In a related nonfiction work, My Last Two Thousand Years, Gold discusses his Jewish background and analyzes its impact on his perspective as a writer in the United States. In addition to his novels and memoirs, Gold has written several collections of stories and essays. Love and Like (1960) and Lovers & Cohorts: Twenty-Seven Stories (1986) collect many of Gold's short stories and essays. Gold has also written travel books, including Best Nightmare on Earth (1991) which describes his travels throughout the island nation of Haiti.

Critical Reception

Many reviewers have praised Gold's skill with satire and his ability to evoke the peculiarities of a particular landscape, especially with his work set in California. Critics have noted a preoccupation in Gold's work with both family relationships and his Jewish heritage. In addition to praising the complicated family relationships that Gold creates, critics have also lauded his ability to portray difficult relationships between men and women. Herbert Mitgang felt that the dialogue and scenes in A Girl of Forty were “so accurate and, at the same time, satirical that at first a reader tends to overlook the depths of Mr. Gold's brilliant portrait of certain members of a generation that never had it so good.” Some reviewers, however, have complained that Gold's characters are flat and that he leaves too much unsaid in his writing. In her discussion of Lovers & Cohorts, Bette Pesetsky asserted, “Gold offers us familiar assumptions about life's experiences, and we need more than the touch of recognition for the Jewish experience, the domestic disruption, the suburban malaise. We want to be pushed to an imaginative limit past the numbed hearts of Gold's men, to the point of passion where craftsmanship alone will not suffice.” Although Gold has received the most praise for his work as a novelist, reviewers have also reacted favorably to his travel writing, complimenting his ability to accurately delineate a sense of time and place.

Anne Bernays (review date 22 May 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Waiting for Cordelia, in Washington Post Book World, May 22, 1977, p. 4.

[In the following mixed review, Bernays asserts that while Gold exhibits some of his considerable talents in Waiting for Cordelia, ultimately, the novel fails to deliver.]

There are few writers around as much admired by other writers as Herbert Gold. Which only intensifies the disappointment with [Waiting for Cordelia], his tenth novel. For, despite a feeling for the bizarrely comic and a masterly hold on the English language, Gold fails to deliver. The protagonist here is Cordelia, a whore with a classic case of heart-of-gold (no pun on my part intended.) The “voice” is that of Al Dooley, self-styled “snotty but intense sociologist.” The setting is San Francisco, top to bottom.

Written with a relentless cool, fired by an urgency to be culturally with-it, Gold's book—while undeniably brilliant in short takes—doesn't do justice to his considerable talents and intelligence. Briefly the story, what there is of it, centers around Cordelia, keeper of the House of Ho, her girls, the men they service singly and sometimes in gangs, and the attempts of a villainous female pol to shut down Cordelia's shop and keep her from organizing San Francisco's hooker population. Dooley hangs out at Cordelia's because, as a Berkeley professor, he is writing a book on victimless crime. He finds in Cordelia the very breath of love and compassion. Gold wants Dooley's Cordelia to be our Cordelia, but somehow he never convinces. If he tells us often enough that she is specially, perhaps even divinely endowed, are we necessarily going to believe it? At the end we are still “waiting” for Gold's Cordelia.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Birth of a Hero (novel) 1951

The Prospect before Us (novel) 1954 [also published as Room Clerk 1955]

The Man Who Was Not with It (novel) 1956 [also published as The Wild Life 1957]

Fiction of the Fifties: A Decade of American Writing (nonfiction) 1959

The Optimist (novel) 1959

Love and Like (short stories) 1960

Therefore Be Bold (short stories) 1960

First Person Singular: Essays for the Sixties (nonfiction) 1963

Salt (novel) 1963

Fathers: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (novel) 1967

The Great American Jackpot (novel) 1969

Biafra Goodbye (novel) 1970

The Magic Will: Stories and Essays of a Decade (short stories) 1971

My Last Two Thousand Years (novel) 1972

Swiftie the Magician (novel) 1974

Waiting for Cordelia (novel) 1977

Slave Trade (novel) 1979

He/She (novel) 1980

Family: A Novel in the Form of a Memoir (novel) 1981

A Walk on the West Side: California on the Brink (nonfiction) 1981

True Love (novel) 1982

Mister White Eyes (novel) 1984

A Girl of Forty (novel) 1986

Lovers & Cohorts: Twenty-Seven Stories (short stories) 1986

Dreaming (novel) 1988

Travels in San Francisco (memoirs) 1990

Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti [introduction by Jan Morris] (nonfiction) 1991

Bohemia: Where Art, Angst, Love and Strong Coffee Meet (nonfiction) 1993

She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me (novel) 1997

Daughter Mine (novel) 2000

John Rechy (review date 5 December 1982)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Brazen Hilarity of Modern Heresies,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 5, 1982, p. 1.

[In the following positive review, Rechy lauds Gold's True Love for its comedic appeal and well-written prose.]

This superbly written, defiantly hilarious, insidiously entertaining novel [True Love] deserves all the anger it will draw. Brazenly, it shouts a litany of contemporary heresies in its portrayal of an intelligent, educated man damned if he'll cope with the changing reality of women.

His lover, Bethany—star of “over-30 tennis”—decides to end their affair, return to “being a good mother and loving wife,” and accuses Watkins of wanting “true love” while only pretending “superficial feelings.” “Are you dumb and pitiful … smart and pitiful … or just being silly?” she asks him.

She has a point. At the autumn of middle age, Watkins is in the throes of that silliest of all emotions, romantic love, with its symptoms of terminal disease, its history of excess; because of it, people have fought windmills and built giant wooden horses; even noble Hamlet offered to “eat a crocodile” to prove his true love.

More sensibly—and to “ease the transition” from her—Bethany has inserted an ad on Watkins' behalf in the personal column of a local newspaper: “BAY AREA PROF., high IQ, healthy, unhappy, mild-mannered. …” The ad has drawn eight “eligibles” and Bethany arranges them in order of interest. With a “white smile,” she leaves.

Watkins' arranged quest takes him from a woman lawyer on through a female blackjack dealer. But each of these candidates has been done in by modern times.

There's no solace in Watkins' past: His first wife had “greed plus a small amount of intelligent calculation—finally all those choked, gasping cries had painful implications when property settlement time came along.” His second wife was “a sunset-loving esthetical skinny.”

Watkins' credo emerges: “Bad news from to many women causes some men to decide enough is enough.” He sees women everywhere “suing for love”—not true love—“or they're hurt and they give it up absolutely, or they're hurt and this is worse—twist around like snakes and bite everything in sight, including their own tails.”

Obviously, he is now ready for “a little brother hate.” Colleague Pete Positano invites him to join a group of “fellow sufferers” who meet at “HumanHouse,” formerly the 4-H Club. Even the garden there has “gone apocalyptic,” with “velvety wolf-headed violets … shriveled vines … footprints hardened into Paleolithic relics of scampering nonsexist ravagers.”

Among the men who come to exchange “bad news about wives,” Watkins hopes to become “more contented with his lot with women.” He's assaulted by Pete's abominable babble—“get into grief,” “shed character armor,” “center yourself.” Watkins, calling this “jargonism,” deals a commendable blow against psycho-jibberish. Pete accuses him of being “into life-size sex aids.” Many will agree, but Watkins does not. Inevitably finding Pete “womanish,” Watkins declares: “I know these are changing times, but I want the old rules back.”

But those tyrannical rules won't—and shouldn't—come back. Because Watkins knows this, he swims deliriously in pools of self-pity, unabashedly appreciating “his own regrets, griefs and losses to excess.” He is like a “mild-mannered” dinosaur on the brink of extinction and ruing the lost fun of devastating the jungle.

When Bethany offers another sexual joust—“with Old California courtesy we seek to end your mumbles and bumbles,”—Watkins thinks: “Mumbles and Bumbles was her name for suffering, sorrow, mourning and grief.”

Gold has rendered Watkins naked and vulnerable, revealing all his “suffering, sorrow, mourning and grief.” But only his. And there's the book's enormous flaw. When one of the women he meets announces, “I'm like a tidy, pretty woman who knows she's ugly inside … soon as a man looks at me, I'm messy,” Watkins does not respond to her sheer pain, nor to any other's. Ignoring the brutish outrages against women, and sulking because women seem to exist now only to deprive him of his version of “true love,” he reduces their “suffering, sorrow, mourning and grief” to “mumbles and bumbles.”

Gold has presented a reliable witness to a controversial reality, at a time when too much of “sexual politics” demands self-damaging censorship. But he has turned away from a responsibility, on the highest moral level, to justice—at least to equal time. One longs for Bethany's version of this same story, or—much better—the account of marriage to Watkins by one of his wives. If their stories rendered views as one-sided, and even often-vindictive, as Gold's—but were as honest and finely written—then those versions should receive as much praise, and criticism, as this excellent, bold novel deserves.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Abeel, Erica. “Psycho-Dynamists and Others.” New York Times Book Review (10 August 1986): 11.

Abeel argues that Gold's prose style in A Girl of Forty undermines the novel's satire.

Harris, Michael. Review of Daughter Mine, by Herbert Gold. Los Angeles Times (1 August 2000): E4.

Harris offers a positive assessment of Daughter Mine, praising Gold's ability to create charismatic characters.

Mitgang, Herbert. Review of A Girl of Forty, by Herbert Gold. New York Times, 135 (23 July 1986) C18.

A positive review of A Girl of Forty in which Mitgang lauds Gold's descriptive writing abilities and skills with dialogue and scenery.

Review of A Girl of Forty, by Herbert Gold. New Yorker 62, No. 30 (15 September 1986): 199, 220.

The critics explores the virtues and faults of Gold's A Girl of Forty.

Newsham, Brad. “Life in San Francisco Spills Out from a Table at Enrico's.” San Francisco Chronicle (15 June 1997): 5.

Newsham offers a positive assessment of She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me.

Pearl, Nancy. Review of She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me, by Herbert Gold. Booklist 93, Nos. 19–20 (1 June 1997): 1656–658.

Pearl offers a mixed assessment of She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me, noting that the “weak plot” is strengthened by Gold's “terrific ear for dialogue.”

Review of She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me, by Herbert Gold. Publishers Weekly 244, No. 18 (5 May 1997): 198–200.

The critic offers a negative assessment of She Took My Arm as if She Loved Me, criticizing “the dearth of story and character development.”

Review of Daughter Mine, by Herbert Gold. Publishers Weekly 247, No. 22 (29 May 2000): 50–51.

The critic offers a mixed assessment of Daughter Mine.

Wolitzer, Hilma. “First Together, then Apart.” New York Times Book Review 91 (10 August 1986): 11.

A mixed review of the stories in Lovers & Cohorts, in which Wolitzer praises Gold's deft characterizations and skillful writing.

Additional coverage of Gold's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9–12R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 17 and 45; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981; and Literature Resource Center.

Dorothy H. Rochmis (review date January 1983)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of True Love, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, January, 1983, p. 32.

[In the following negative review, Rochmis criticizes Gold for failing to bring to life the characters and situations in True Love.]

As an avid follower of those “personal” ads in various rather prestigious publications, I've often thought that there's marvelous fodder in the words, behind the words and between the lines of those ads. Gold, in his current novel [True Love], offers a demi-hero whose first name is Watkins, a professor at a demi-prominent university, who is coming out of an adulterous love affair with Bethany, wife of a dentist. It's her choice, the “coming out” and in order to soften the blow, she puts an ad into one of those demi-prestigious publications in Wat's behalf. Then she receives some answers, rates and sorts them so that he will pursue the first (in her judgment) and most promising, then proceed to the second, etc. What's more, Wat follows through according to her plan, all the time inwardly moaning for his lost Bethany.

All of this which sounds so promising, lays like a hollow egg in Gold's novel. None of the characters emerge from the printed page as people and none of the action emerges as even probable. That novel or novels based on some of those delicious personal column ads is still to be written and mixed with the ink there must be some of the sweat, tears and even blood of people who are people in situations that are alive.

Dorothy H. Rochmis (review date May 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Mister White Eyes, in West Coast Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 3, May, 1985, p. 32.

[In the following review, Rochmis offers a negative assessment of Mister White Eyes.]

Among the least rewarding of this novelist, Gold's current novel [Mister White Eyes] centers on Ralph Merian, a veteran journalist who refers to himself as the V. J. What puts the reader off is the fact that Merian is not a likable character despite Gold's fascination with him. He is a man who has been at the center of a multitude of conflagrations: his early family life was no bed of roses, he has had two unhappy marriages and has sworn off love forever. He is, however, now quite taken with an attractive woman, Susan, from England, but shies away from considering what he feels for her is love.

Sent to Arizona to cover the story of the Stony Apaches, who have invested their tribal capital in a phony film venture, Merian meets Hawkfeather, a derisive character who despises the journalist and calls him Mister White Eyes. Throughout this period, Merian is obsessed with thoughts of Susan, when he visits his disturbed brother Chaz, he is even more obsessed with finding, or at least pinpointing, the core of his own being.

But so little of Gold's writing is plausible, so much is left unsaid, so much seems self-indulgent, that at story's end we are still as perplexed as we were at the start. No writer should do that to his readers; no reader can justify such manipulative inaccessibility.

Bette Pesetsky (review date 4 May 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Lovers & Cohorts, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 4, 1986, p. 3.

[In the following mixed review, Pesetsky comments that while the stories in Lovers & Cohorts exhibit considerable craftsmanship, they are lacking necessary elements that would make them memorable.]

“Marriage can be fun, the conservative marriage counselor said. He was perhaps the last marriage counselor in California who counseled marriage.” And he was wrong—at least for the couple in the life-in-miniature in Herbert Gold's story “Stages.” Indeed, marriage gets short shrift in many of the stories in Gold's new collection [Lovers & Cohorts].

Gold has scooped up 27 stories written over a 40-year span for Lovers & Cohorts. Some are new, others collected in three earlier volumes—Love and Like,The Magic Will, and A Walk on the West Side. In his introduction to the collection, Gold willingly tells us what he writes about. “Love,” says the author, “family, Jews, Bohemia, wanderlust, and the meaning of life.”

The narrator for 11 of these stories is the masculine “I”—which I shall differentiate into the Cleveland “I” and the other “I's.” The Cleveland “I” seems to me to be by tone and exhausted passions the same person who revisits his life from story to story.

Take the traveling “I” in “Love and Like” who returns to the scene of domestic disaster to ruminate over the leavings of marriage, the undigested quarrels, the deserted lovers, the dreams of lost children. “If they had finally made out, it would all have been remembered as the progress and process of love: With failure, it could seem all bad; he was determined to hold in retrospect to a mixed verdict—some pretty, some unpretty, and nevertheless the long Sunday afternoon habit of lovemaking spoke for true intimacy.” Alas, the search for true intimacy leads us right to the unfaithful husbands (professors) whose unsurprising lovers (students) inhabit “Paris and Cleveland Are Voyages” and “What Became of Your Creature?”

The best of Gold's stories have the flow of the natural storyteller, the rhythmic dialogue and the voice that sustains. In the “Smallest Part”—the story that the author says served to generate his novel He/She—the domestic drama stirs. The tale is neither slick nor excessively crafted. In the few pages of “The Ninety-Six-Year-Old Big Sister,” we are affected by the death of the old woman of the title who leaves her 81-year-old sister bereft of the talisman of a living older sister.

The stories set in Haiti offer a provocative sense of locale. “Port au Prince has become an amputated town. …” In “Timoune,” a Haitian woman takes for granted that the American family who have befriended her daughter will take the child back to the States with them as daughter cum servant. In the “Haitian Gentleman,” we are given images of a particular man living through a particular life. “Andre-Pierre was bored by vodun as a Southern planter might be bored by hillbilly music. The loas of vodun and the bakas and the loupsgarous and the zombies—the beasts of the Haitian hills—he had put away years ago, along with his childhood. … ‘I have a degree from Paris, do you think I need to spend time on Chicken-worship?’” I can see Gold's Haiti better than I can see his Cleveland.

And sometimes when things are going well and Gold has hooked us, he forgets his lucid style, his colloquial wit, and we speed along into rhetoric. He can offer up the slick devices of “Susanna on the Beach,” where the girl with the torn bathing suit receives the expected reactions from the spectators on the beach.

A prolific author—40 years of stories. What's the problem? Well, the problem is that this has become rather a Golden Age of the short story. Have Gold's stories traveled well? Or should they have been packed as if by Scheherezade with description, discourse, quips, reminiscences, proverbs and the rest? There is no doubt that Herbert Gold lived for too long a time with the fearsome appellation “promising.” Is it that by expecting much we are reluctant to settle for less? No, I think not. A story ought to linger—rattle around in our mind. We are given technical proficiency when we want to be haunted. Gold offers us the familiar assumptions about life's experiences, and we need more than the touch of recognition for the Jewish experience, the domestic disruption, the suburban malaise. We want to be pushed to an imaginative limit past the numbed hearts of Gold's men, to the point of passion where craftsmanship alone will not suffice.

Herbert Gold with Maurice Wohlgelernter (interview date 16 December 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Herbert Gold: A Boy of Early Autumn,” in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 136–71.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on December 16, 1986, Gold discusses a variety of subjects, including his writing, teaching, marriage, and Judaism.]

The interview is, we know, a profile, a sketch, or a close-up. It is, furthermore, as Alfred Kazin once remarked, not only our “way of understanding the personality but also his exceptionality.” The writer, for one, is thus given the opportunity to document that “exceptionality” himself. Because part of that “exceptionality” is the writer's heightened degree of himself, a sense of his particular gift or “daemon,” we view “with increasing satisfaction the biographical close-up.” Ours is a “tendency to identify the power of art with the uniqueness of personality.”

One such unique personality is the novelist Herbert Gold. Slowly approaching his mid-sixties, the early autumn of his life, Herbert Gold has published some twenty-six books—novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, and reportage. His style, “analytical, terse, psychologically probing, frequently epigrammatic,” has won him a wide readership, placing him among some of the important post-World War II American novelists.

His very successful novel, for example, A Girl of Forty, evoked a rave review in the New York Times, where, among other things, one reads that the “novel's dialogue and scenes are so accurate and, at the same time, satirical that at first a reader tends to overlook the depths of Mr. Gold's brilliant portrait of certain members of a generation that never had it so good.” That keen observation, sense of comedy, and sharp ear for dialogue and moral implication have helped gain him wide recognition, both here and abroad.

My own interest in Gold began with the publication of Fathers, his most acclaimed work, some twenty-four years ago. In fact, my long review of that novel appeared in the pages of Tradition, and I was not alone in my very favorable opinion of that “novel as history,” for almost all critics across the country hailed it in superlative tones. As a result of my review, however, a friendship between us was born, which grew steadily, mostly through correspondence, since he resides, permanently, in his adopted city of San Francisco.

Small wonder, therefore, that when asked by the dean at Baruch College to recommend someone to assume the first Visiting Distinguished Novelist-in-Residence position there, Gold came to mind immediately. He arrived in the Fall of 1986 and taught engagingly, movingly. Long in experience as a classroom lecturer at various major American universities—he once occupied Nabokov's chair at Cornell—he captivated his students with his teaching method. On visiting his classes, one notes, at once, that his students learned much, and enjoyed it even more. He is a formidable presence anywhere, especially in the classroom.

Before his visit ended, I had decided to interview Gold. He consented, fortunately. In part, I think, because like all writers, he “rejoices his soul in the fullness of his own idiosyncrasy—his giftedness.” Besides, any avid reader of the well-known Paris Review interviews, now between the covers of some eight volumes, would readily concur with Kazin's further observation that “when a modern writer is interviewed … and invited to talk about his manner of life, he understands, under the helpfully flattering questions put to him, that he is being recognized as his ideal, a wholly individual artist-man, a unique force, a truly free man. In such an interview, the writer visibly expands the truth about himself.”

To prepare a series of “helpfully flattering questions,” I reread most of Gold's work; realizing, however, that little more could be covered than “his approach,” which is “delightfully intermingled with himself.” Hence I concluded, it would be, precisely, Gold's “idiosyncratic giftedness” rather than his oeuvre that I would seek to probe.

Where, then, does one begin? Among Gold's works, of course, is the autobiographical My Last Two Thousand Years, which on rereading might, I thought, serve as our point of departure; although, either Fathers or Family could have served that purpose equally well. For, central to those three memoirs is the idea that, like most writers, “his life and work speak for each other.” If I were to concentrate on that autobiography, I would find that, if pressed, he would try to tell me even more; for, in the “writer's own mind, clarity about a seemingly personal matter seems to advance that moral clarity which is tantamount to literary power … the power to shape words that open up new realities in the mind.” And that power in writers, we know, rests, ultimately, “in themselves alone.”

To further my search in that self alone, we had agreed to meet, in the spacious offices of the Vice President for Development at Baruch, on Tuesday morning, December 16, 1986. It was a cold day, I recall. Herbert arrived bundled up against the weather, which is decidedly unlike that of his own San Francisco. He began at once to peel off his sweaters, took off his heavy winter boots, curled himself up on the comfortable leather sofa, and waited, while sipping coffee, for the questioning to begin.

The tape recorder began to roll. Unlike some writers—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for one, who once called that machine the “modern third ear”—Gold was not the least apprehensive about that “dreadful little machine.” And unlike, too, the late Bernard Malamud, who, when once interviewed, agonized over every word, every sentence, as if it were suddenly being transported to the printed page, Herbert spoke freely, rapidly, candidly, never once faltering in his reply. His words came naturally. Like many writers, he is obsessed with language; consequently, when the interview was finally processed on paper, few changes were required. To be sure, some of what follows may appear to be gossip. But, as Stephen Spender once noted, when himself the subject of a Paris Review interview, one must see “gossip and informative talk as a continuum,” a continuum, apparently, central to all interviews.

The long interview—we met again two days later—went smoothly. Gold is a pleasant person with an ingratiating smile. There is a boyishness about him that captivates. A boy, in fact, who in the early autumn of his life finds it necessary to calibrate his long career; to realize that “his gift and his life are really versions of each other; that his habits and beliefs occupy some mysterious center of creativity—his daemon, the mystery of his creativity”; that the preservation of the personal voice and vision requires endless renewal.

What follows, then, is the eloquence and the danger of the personal mode:

[Wohlgelernter:] Was your original family name really Augatare?

[Gold:] It was something like that. I only heard it. It was never written down so I was trying to recapture it. It meant “weight holder,” “scale holder,” according to my father.

Did he actually change the name to Gold because of the gold that supposedly paved the streets of New York, of America?

That was one of the stories he told, and I think it's probably true.

You say that Cleveland was the “fount of family.”

I meant that this was a whole world for a child. I think anywhere a person is born and raised is the fount of the family of that teller.

And yet, in your book Family, you say that you “went to New York because that was my Paris, my London, my Manhattan, my invitation to find a way out of Cleveland.”

Well, that's not a contradiction. A person grows up and he wants marriage, he wants an education. To do so, he has to take leave from family—to break from family.

What kind of town was Lakewood, Ohio, where you grew up?

Well, Cleveland itself had a large Jewish community. Also a very large Polish community and an enormous Hungarian community, the largest outside of Budapest. Lakewood was a suburb on the west side, the opposite side of Cleveland where the Jews were. So, when I was growing up, there was a strip of very wealthy people—with electric cars and chauffeurs and maids and big houses along the lake. And a very large middle class and even some lower middle class. There were no Jews. Later, when I was about to leave, I discovered a couple of secret Jewish families. But, I knew no Jews as a child, other than my immediate family.

You begin The Age of Happy Problems with the following statement: “This is a report about where one man stands, plus many matters of teaching, learning, love, marriage, work, and the prospect of death and how he came to this stand in the cities of America.” Let's begin with teaching. You have had an exceptional career as a teacher. You taught at Harvard, Cornell, Berkeley, the University of California-Davis for five years, and Wayne State, among other schools. Why did you give up teaching?

I never gave it up; I never took it up, either. I've never had a tenured job, I don't give up teaching. My idea is to teach part of every year and this is what I managed to do—so I never took up teaching—and I still teach, and I want to continue it. And all the places you've mentioned, and many others, have been temporary arrangements. For me, it's an important nourishment. Especially, as I grow older, it means I have contact with a different world, of young people. Especially, as I grow stupider, it means I have a contact with the world of the mind and it enabled me to exercise the books that I've read and to deal, as I do increasingly, with would-be writers and the problem through the right ambition.

And yet there is an interesting passage in The Age of Happy Problems where you indicate, apparently, that your teaching seemed to be a slight contradiction, almost, to your work as a novelist. “For me, the primitive appeal to pleasure and pain of writing stories as a possible action, is a way in and out again, as teaching is not. As a teacher, I caught my students too late and only at the top of their heads, at the raw point of pride and ambition, and I had not enough love and pressure as a teacher to open the way through their intentions to the common humanity which remains locked within. As a writer, I could hope to hit them in their bodies and needs, where lusts and ideals were murkily nurtured together, calling to the prime fears and joys directly, rising with them from the truths of innocence into the truths of experience.” It seems to me that this particular position would indicate that you almost found a contradiction between the two, or, at least, a difficulty.

It's not primarily a theoretical essay. This is a dramatic essay, describing the specific incidents. And there is something inauthentic, which all teachers suffer from, in teaching “the Humanities” to people who lack experience with the great matters, simply because they are too young. So, even your talking about matters of love and death to eighteen year olds, often they have the words, but not the sensibilities.

And yet you teach so well, so dramatically and intensively.

Teaching is an art of the possible. You do what you can. You go deeper into your own feelings. And you are teaching an idea to students when you write. An idea probably exists. When you're teaching in a class you're teaching actual students.

Would you agree with Gilbert Highet that teaching is an art?

Of course.

How would you define that art?

Discourse at its best, between a maestro and students. Sometimes students are smarter than the maestro.

How would you define learning?

The mastery of the past. And I'm sure this is a complete definition. And, achievement of the tools, and the materials for making something new and better. I think of learning as something like the way John Dewey describes it as “creative assimilation.”

Which books have you assimilated? And which works, both classic and modern, have had a big influence on you?

Well, it's always tempting to answer that question to name the OK great works: the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy. I had an education in the so-called Humanities, and, as a lad, I read the great works. But, I think we are also influenced by the backs of cereal boxes and by the trivial popular fiction we read; by magazine pieces I was influenced. An alert teenager is influenced by books like, say, James Branch Cabell's novels, Thomas Wolfe's novels, or George Sylvester Viereck's novels, which I later realized were second and third rate. Balzac excited me. He isn't one of the very greatest. Flaubert excited me when I first read him, in much the same way that Balzac did, although Flaubert is, perhaps, the greater novelist. All my reading has been eclectic. And I'm just as likely to buy and read a newspaper underneath my sandwich.

That learning actually began at Columbia College, did it not?

No, I think the learning began as a child. I read by flashlight under my blanket when my mother would turn off the lights. I think that was one of the things that appealed to me in Thomas Wolfe, that he wanted, when he went into a library, to eat all the books, to devour all the books. It began with some guidance even earlier than Columbia, I think. With some teachers in high school.

In the Columbia experience, since Humanities is a required course for all freshman and sophomores, or undergraduates, generally, was there any specific instructor who influenced you?

My freshman instructor, Oscar J. Campbell, the Shakespeare scholar. I was very fortunate with him.

He was my instructor as well.

It was a small group, and he was a thoughtful man. And something of his presence for a boy, the quality of the mind and the quality of the person is important for what you learn. I write about this some place. When Oscar Campbell described “nearly dying” in relation to Lucretius I was as moved by what he said about “nearly dying” as I was about Lucretius. And it gave a depth to the reading of Lucretius.

Were there any other instructors at Columbia who influenced you?

Mark Van Doren, who read my poetry. Although he wasn't my teacher, I sat in on his lectures and I visited him in his office. Lionel Trilling, whom we mentioned the other day.

You never took courses with Trilling though.

No. As a student, I was a philosophy major. I went to many of Trilling's lectures. But I did try to take a class that he taught, the seminar with Jacques Barzun.

It was a seminar in the nineteenth-century history of ideas, if I'm not mistaken.

They didn't admit me, as it was open only to history and English majors, and I was in philosophy.

In the philosophy department, did you work mainly with Irwin Edman?

Frankly, he was a bit of a disappointment as a teacher. He was confused by his end-of-life sexual madness. And, he was kind to me, but he was also a great bother to me.

He wasn't really the world's “greatest” philosopher. Actually, we used to say in the English department, that he was “a misplaced English professor in the philosophy department.”

He was a lively “pop” philosopher. And I first read him when I was seventeen, that's very young to start reading philosophy.

Philosopher's Holiday?

A popular book. I found my way in the philosophy department by reading Sartre and some of the Existentialist philosophers. Through the Humanities program, I read and was fascinated by Plato, by Aristotle. I studied Aristotle's Poetics carefully and I found poetry in it, which not many people had found in it!

Did you study with John Herman Randall at all?

I did. Randall's class in the history of philosophy. I took his class but there was a problem with him. Two problems. One, that it was early in the morning.

I remember. He used to teach at 8:00 in the morning.

And it was hard for me to get up for it. But they were canned lectures. They were amusing and interesting but they were always the same.

Yes. He gave the identical lectures each year, I recall.

I felt I could read them and I didn't have to get up that early in the morning.

Writing. You wrote your Master's essay in philosophy. When did you find out that you were destined to become a writer?

I always wrote. I always wanted to be a writer. I was a storyteller before I wrote. My brother and I told each other stories in bed as children. I wrote poetry. I wrote stories in grammar school and junior high school and high school. I thought I wanted to be a poet. And I still write poetry. I published poetry very young. So, I never thought of making my living as a writer when I was very young, but I always knew I was going to write.

When you began to teach, did you teach philosophy?

My first teaching was philosophy, and I gradually sneaked over into the English department because of my reputation as a novelist and not as a philosopher.

And your beginning as a creative writer, as a novelist, when did that begin? And how?

I know I wrote a novel in college. It wasn't published. A few years ago it was sold to the library. I wrote another novel as a graduate student in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, which was published, Birth of a Hero. And it was partly out of philosophy I had been reading and I translated my ideas of how it was possible to be a hero in modern times from the French resistance to growing up in Lakewood, Ohio. And I tried to put in mind the possibility of heroism of a forty-year-old accountant in Lakewood. I wrote that book when I was in my mid-twenties. Later, when I was in my early forties, I wrote a book about a young man who wanted to be exceptional who was in his mid-twenties. I reversed the age bracket.

What was the original reception to your work?

This book I sent through the mail to Viking Press. It was dug out of the slush pile by a young editor, Monroe Engel, who later taught at Harvard. He was briefly an editor. He carried it around. He was very kind to me. Malcolm Cowley recommended publication. Someone, I think at that time it was Saul Bellow who was being published by Viking. He was living in Paris. He was asked if I might write again. If I had really written a book. I was totally unknown. He must have issued a favorable verdict. Viking published the book. It got some good reviews. So, I was an officially accredited novelist. But not to have my picture on a three-cent stamp.

You mention in My First Two Thousand Years that you had “two elders: Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow.”

Saul was someone whose work I admired. He was also one of the first novelists that I came to know. And he was kind to me. He read my story; I wish I still had the letter that he wrote to me. I sent him my story “The Heart of the Artichoke,” and he wrote a wonderfully enthusiastic letter to me about that. And that encouraged me a great deal. Dangling Man and, particularly, The Victim, pointed some ways of seeing city experience which was valuable to me. I admired the sections of Augie March which I read as they were being written because I had gotten to know him and we became friends.

The problem of “alienation versus accommodation” runs through most of his work, certainly his early works Dangling Man and Seize the Day. Would you say that you had a similar problem in your orientation?

I'm a different person, and I've drifted and moved away from that situation of being an acolyte. I never quite was that. So, I don't think I have the same sense of private suffering that he has, concentration on my own suffering. I am, I think, more interested in dramatic relationships.

I ask it primarily because I thought the term “elder” you use about him might mean influence, but my suspicion is you mean age difference.

Yes. Elder simply means older. He achieved something, and he was an example of a Jewish writer, frankly Jewish, able to achieve something in the American world of literature.

And yet twice in two interviews, which were published, he emphasizes that “I'm a westerner first and then a Jew.”

Well. I don't know what he said, but he is identified, and he doesn't like it very much. Nobody wants to be called a Jewish writer. Every American writer writing in English is an American writer, but he is also qualified as a Jewish writer. As a Chicago writer. As a writer of a certain prose; as a writer of a certain kind of psychology. We all have that, but every writer squirms when he is named an “oedipal writer” or a “Chicago writer” or a “Southern writer.”

How was Delmore Schwartz your “elder?” And I'm not talking about age.

Delmore Schwartz is older. In addition, I was moved by his great story “In Dreams Begin Responsibility.” Again because it dealt with a city person, with an obviously Russian-Jewish background, facing his parents. And then, some of the poems I found very moving. I still do. The image that he projected for a young writer was exciting. As it happened, I had never met Delmore Schwartz, I didn't know him. But, I saw the suffering in his poetry, in the man, and in his writings. And so again I saw him as a possible model. To a young boy, a twenty-three year old, the writer looks like a model.

You also speak in My First Two Thousand Years of the number of writers with whom you had some relations as a writer, and you speak positively of them. I was wondering, for example, your relations, first, with Allen Ginsberg.

Allen, I just saw him a few days ago. We went to college together and we debated in college. And we sat at the West End Bar and talked about writing together and we fought about everything. We disagreed about sexuality. I am a confirmed heterosexual and he was passionately mystic as a boy poet. I was a poet who was more interested, then, in studying the real world and the ironies about the real world. I refused to accept madness as an ideal. But he was someone I liked and was moved by, and still like. Our disagreements didn't mean that we couldn't be friends.

Richard Wright?

Did I mention Richard Wright?

You did.

I'm not sure. I knew him slightly when I lived in Paris and he was not a writer that I was deeply disturbed by. I liked him as a person and was touched by his effort and his ambition. I may have mentioned him simply because, when we met, I didn't know him well. I was friends with a black writer whom I had translated, Cueneau, and he looked at me in a bemused way because I was the only white face in the group. I just thought he was a kind man.

I don't think that Richard Wright, for example, in his greatest work, Native Son, could possibly have had any influence on you.

Simply because he was a writer who made a career as a writer and that I knew him. I'm not sure why I mentioned him when I did.

You also mentioned James Baldwin. The reason I ask is simply because I detect angst in some of his works. You have very little in common.

We were born in the same year, I think, and I knew him in Paris. We were friendly and I think I mentioned him dramatically as someone I met, not someone I was influenced by. We were friends.

One notices, clearly, that in most of your novels love is central. First, explain or define it, if possible, and why is that so?

To define love is something that poets have been trying to do for 4,000 years, at least. For me it's mixed with feelings for family, parents, and children. Erotic feelings. It's the most significant connection we have with the world, outside ourselves and possibly the most significant connection we have with ourselves also. It's probably what makes us, along with our intelligence, most different from animals. Otherwise, our loneliness would be impenetrable. Love and desire are not the same thing, but love without desire is inconceivable to me.

There is also a feeling that one achieves identity through love in your works. Is that true?

It's one of the things that brings you out into the world. You not only love a woman, children, and parents, but you love your work. And I love the breakfast I eat and the feeling in my legs when I walk, and the excitement in my body when I have a cold shower. Love is a category of effort to improve the rest of the world.

And marriage?

Well, I'm not, and have not been, a very exemplary married man. I think that I wrote some place that if marriage were declared a business, it might be declared illegal, because it so often failed. I've had rather interesting experiences with marriage because I've been married twice. Yet, although I've also been divorced twice, my marriages have been totally different experiences for me. Both marriages produced children. One was really a distressing lesson in misunderstanding and missed love; the other, I really loved my wife and I still have strong feelings for her and for all my children, but especially for the shadow of that marriage which has ended. Hard for me to imagine human society without marriage, although I have been living as a bachelor for many years.

Would you agree then with the statement you make in The Age of Happy Problems: “What makes the familiar strangeness more difficult to bear is the artist's special heightening of it, and the need for the privacy of fantasy in addition to the other needs for privacy and this, at the same time, that, paradoxically, he demands the gift of passionate love, which can calm his awful, self-inflicted loneliness?”

This was written after my first marriage and before my second marriage, and it was written out of a marriage that was shattered by a great deal of anger and jealousy and resentment, so that I was struggling with the idea that I wanted a connection with another person, but I hadn't yet had the real experience of a tolerant connection with another person. My first wife made it difficult. She was essentially very jealous, and jealous not only of other people, but of my private life, even of my thoughts and my work. Finally, when the marriage broke up, I had a great sense of relief that I could now have my fantasy and have my imagination and have my intelligence without interference.

Is that terrible need for privacy an artist's general problem?

It is a problem. But I do think that some marriages allow that, and I'm more optimistic now than I was then. It is still a problem, but there are men and women who can have husbands and wives who have independent needs to master the real world outside of their marriage.

What do you mean by “work”?

My work is writing and teaching. But work is how you express or imprint yourself on, or how you connect with, the world. It is a part of love and a part of the way you connect yourself. I could think of prayer as work.

That's what it's called in the Bible and the Talmud. The word for prayer is not “praying” but the “work of the heart.”

I could also call it play. Ideal work is also play and play is also work.

That is, if you love your work.


And, of course, finally, in that particular statement cited previously, the “prospect of death.”

The thing that hangs over us. We want to live forever. And we know if we don't believe in heaven, we won't live forever. Therefore, we make extensions of ourselves. One of the reasons marriage is important is because it can lead to children who live “forever.” My children will live “forever.”

From your novels I've read, one notes that you don't necessarily associate love with death. In your last very successful novel, A Girl of Forty, there is death, to be sure, but the death of a youngster.

In Family, there is the death of the father, and in some of the stories for example, “A Death on the East Side,” there is a picture of a man facing death, and how to deal with it, although it is a somewhat satirical picture of a man failing to face his own death in the proper way. I think it does say something that would consider a description of aging as a part of reckoning with death. Finishing anything is a little death. He/She is partly about death—the death of a marriage.

But that's the death of a marriage.

Every death echoes every other death.

You don't, of course, mean death as mourning, as standing by a graveside, necessarily.

No, but finishing things is death.

It is quite clear that in most of your work, especially in that marvelous major book, Fathers, there appears a deep, intense involvement with family, particularly your father and your mother.

One of the errors or weaknesses of much American writing has been that it has been written out of oedipal spite. Many first novels are about “how I don't like my parents.” Second novels, on “how I don't like my wife.” Women do the same thing. To me, it is far more complicated than that, and you have to destroy the father but also encompass the father. I will be destroyed by my children, but I hope I will also be carried on over through them. Fathers and so many of my other books have been wrestling with this. Ultimately, I am an optimist and value life, therefore, I really deeply value my mother and father. I fought with them bitterly, but also forgave them for the difficulties they caused me. They gave me the strength to win the battle against them.

And yet you say that your father was “rude, quick and indifferent.”

He was also not indifferent because he was able finally to perceive me truly. He was rude, but he was also kindly; he was impatient, but he was also generous.

Was he generous to you?

He was ultimately very generous to me and to other people. Even after his death, I keep finding acts of great kindness and generosity. A young man came to see me a few months ago, this is long after my father's death, and told me that his grandfather said that his life had been saved by my father and he told me the story. This gives me great pleasure to hear because I hope that something of this is in me.

In the scene you describe in Fathers where he took you to a Russian bathhouse in Cleveland and you say they used to play cards there, he and his cronies, you write the following: “I grabbed the cards in my fist and flung them about, I did a dance of craziness and screaming tantrum of protest against so much betrayal, until suddenly my face took my father's slap and I fell sobbing to the tile floor.” You wanted your father's recognition and, perhaps, love, or attention. You were, of course, a very young boy at the time. Did that persist?

That's correct. At that time I was very jealous of his ability to withdraw from me and family, in order to do what he was doing, which was to be occupied with his business, to play cards which I never understood as a passion, to retreat into himself, and his own concerns, and we fought over that. That is what I am describing here. I fought over that, and now I can understand it a little better. I think I give both my sons more attention than he did me as a child, but I now accept his limitations. I also accept the strength that it meant, that he was fascinated by the laws of gambling. I would say that fascination is important if you lead the life of a novelist.

Did it persist?

Did what persist?

That idea—the want of recognition from your father beyond your young years?

It did. I always wanted recognition from him. But, increasingly, I was able to accept recognition from others. I became erotically awake—recognition from women and from girls; recognition from other writers; and recognition from teachers. The role of a father is a spreading stain as you grow older. I would say around the age of forty, I got recognition fully. That was a real achievement, and then the last twenty years of his life he was more like my son. I was more like his father. So we completed a cycle together.

Did he read to you?

He read some, but he wasn't a great reader of books, but what I understood and he understood was that I had a reputation as a writer, that I was respected, and he took pleasure from that.

You say that “gradually my father's life echoes in mine, his shadow lies athwart mine.” Apparently, that shadow has persisted.

Well this book was written more than twenty years ago. I understood how much I was like him. That's what I meant by his “shadow.”

How like him are you?

In my ability to ignore things that were not relevant to my case.

You say that he was “chancy.” Are you chancy?

Yes, I am willing to take risks. I've discovered that some people think I am reckless because I believe I'm immortal and I do things that other people won't do.

Immortal in which way?

My wife resented that I went to wars as a reporter. I didn't believe I could be killed. To put it in a different way: it was worth it to take the chance, to get what I got out of the experience; to accomplish what I accomplished. I am willing to risk disease and gunfire. I find that other people are more frightened than I am. I don't take any credit for it, but I am simply not as frightened evidently as other people. I have this sense that I will live forever; I know in my mind that I won't. But I dearly believe that I will.

You are not referring to your works are you?

I am referring to me.

When you say that—it seems to be almost an implied criticism: “He had abandoned the path of his fathers and he never forgot the safety of the synagogue. God did not comfort him. Safe with himself was his persistent intention. It was as if God had been broken in his heart or at least crippled and he needed to heal himself alone in the jungle of America with the smell of cigars and the glitter of gold.”

He ran away from scholarly history. He ran away from Russia. He ran away from the shtetl, the ghetto. He ran away from Hebrew education.


Right. He turned to the religion of America which meant achievement, money, power in the world, assimilation, and taking the name “gold” was symbolic. He was not interested in scholarship, religious scholarship. Toward the end of his life in a fairly conventional way, partly out of fear, he became a more observant Jew.

How observant was he?

He went to synagogue and prayed.


Fairly regularly, but not daily. He went when it was convenient.

That idea of your father's seems to echo in almost the opening of your book My Last Two Thousand Years: “Born a Jew in Lakewood, Ohio. I embraced the belief in Americanization. American is enough. Health, love, money, luck and words will surely suffice? A community can be carved out of all the riches of America without resorting to the tribal myths. Those are the principles and articles of faith, aren't they?” And that is a rhetorical question, obviously. Your answer today?

“Aren't they” expresses some doubts that they really are. Nonetheless, I'm impatient with the rituals of religion. I like ceremonies, celebrations, and prayer when it is part of my family feeling. If I'm with my children, if I'm with my family. I'm not going to do it by myself.

And yet you say that there was a center to be discovered and, in a strange way, despite that profession you make, you sought that center. You seem to use the verb and make it adjectival at times: “crippled.” Your father, you say, was “crippled.”

The “crippler” is a section of Fathers.

You talk about the “crippler” in Russia, of course.

But I am referring to that also.

But you make a statement “I believed him to be crippled by the loss of his past.”

Exactly. Just the way the “crippler” removes some of the humanity from these boys, he lost something of his history by not following in the path of his father. He was a Columbus coming to America, and he didn't go back to the old country. He really sought to build his life without very much reference to his past. Nevertheless, he was a product of that past. And I think he lost something in depth and in solidity and in confidence and some of his terror as he grew very old, because he didn't have that consolation. He was a rather lonely man.

Obviously. The question I ask then, is: you looked for that center and that shadow lifted in part because you have tried, as you indicate in My Last Two Thousand Years, that you are looking for that center: “There was a richer past someplace than the one I knew,” you say. “My father was silent about it. He was a Jew. It was something. I longed to be continuous,” and that continuity is not going with your father, but with the center, with, perhaps, the Jewish people. And then you have that marvelous description in My Last Two Thousand Years where, in submitting your first piece of writing—it appeared, I believe, in Harper's Bazaar—the editor asked you how you spelled your name: “Gold” or “Gould.” The difference being Gold, as in the Jewish “Gold,” or “Gould,” the American spelling, or assimilated spelling, or the “Waspish” spelling. And then you go on to say: “Whether to be, or not, a Jew announced as that to the world as a crucial turning in the road. I'd come to this place without the U in my name. I'm not a believing good Jew but I was committing myself to my father, my brothers, my unknown cousins everywhere, to trouble if necessary, to the meaning of the past no matter how ignorant I might remain of it. I could be ignorant of it but not a foreigner to it, accepting this small part of my faith. I would take the rest as it came along. But the beginning of who I was could be told by a negative not to deny a Jew, nor you.” So, the shadow had lifted a little bit. You are looking for the center. You want the center and you want continuity. But what brought you to that? Obviously, it was not only that particular incident, since that was just the culmination of what you were thinking and believing.

Much of my writing has been about what brought me to that connecting with family. The negative thing that I mentioned which was connected with anti-Semitism, the contact with the sense of emptiness without connection. I suppose, conceivably, some Jews are converted to other religions, become Buddhists, become Christians. For me, somehow, I had enough, maybe, through the connection with my family, and through my philosophical readings, that Judaism seemed to be the best connection that I could conceivably have, both because it was impossible to deny, and because it was good, intrinsically. Recently, I met a young woman whose father is a Jew converted to something else, Episcopalianism, and, through her, I met him also. I found a rage in my heart against him. He was about my age. I found I even didn't like her as a result. It seemed to me that this was pure evasion and he was doing something that was merely comfortable. And cheap.

You didn't have a Bar-Mitzvah?

I didn't want a Bar-Mitzvah and my parents were incapable of pressuring me against my will, and so I was not Bar-Mitzvahed.

So you came to all of this “not to deny,” sort of the result of some anti-Semitic experiences that you had in your youth.

A positive image of Jewish courage and intelligence and achievement and dignity. And I am still learning. I'm still studying.

What Jewish works did you study in the past?

I recently have been reading the Bible. I recently wrote an essay for a book called The Jewish Bible, on one of the Chronicles. I'm part of a local Jewish study group which meets fairly regularly.

What specific works did you read? Do you recall?

A Guide to the Perplexed. I consider it a Jewish book. I studied Spinoza carefully. I considered his work Jewish, also.

Your anti-Semitic experiences brought you to this?

My pro-Semitic experiences brought me to this.

Interestingly enough, you have indicated that you did know, when growing up as a young boy, about Hitler and what was going on in Germany. How strong an influence was that?

I don't know how to answer that. It was a shadow in all of our childhoods. It was a horror. It certainly meant to me that there were only two possibilities: one, was to run away, to deny, escape, and hide; and the other was to stand up, and I chose to stand up. It wasn't just that I read about it in the newspaper but there was a strong anti-Semitic current in American life in the early thirties. The Black Shirts, the Silver Shirts, the German-American Bund. All the negative anti-Semitic movements that were powerful in those days. My reaction was to say “Okay, I am a Jew; what is this about?” There were other Jews, we knew, who thought that they would creep into holes.

And you felt that it was necessary and, obviously, you fought in the Second World War, to root out that evil which crossed all of Europe and the world. And yet, in that marvelous story, in Love and Like, reprinted in Fathers, “Aristotle and the Hired Thugs,” where you tell this wonderful tale about your father who was called a “kike” in Lakewood, Ohio, by Al Flavin. And then you tell how your father hired those thugs to beat him up for calling him a “kike.” They wanted to kill him but your father, applying the Aristotelian principle, said “don't kill him, just beat him up without killing him.”

Teaching him a lesson. My father in that way was a teacher. Also politics is the art of the possible. One of the problems in that experience is that it certainly could seem lacking in forthrightness and courage to hire other people to do your dirty work for you, but politics is the art of the possible. You do what you can. My father knew that he was not able to do it himself, but he wanted it done and he wanted the man to know that it was being done by him.

And then you say that your father told you in that particular story, told the writer, that is, about Hitler, “when he makes his noise, we march into the Rhineland and stop it good. You don't have to listen to that noise. You stop it in the best way you can, you stop it. You stop it.” Can you stop it with principles of moderation? Can you stop any such evil with moderation? Total evil?

You find what means are possible. You don't drop atom bombs on every bad person. So, obviously, there is some calibration before extinction. The opposing elements—even Israel which has atomic weapons is not using them and shouldn't use them. One of the things intelligence means is the use of appropriate means. You don't simply kill. An animal may kill its enemy instinctively. Human beings identify somewhat with the right to life of the enemy, and so, therefore, you do what you can.

Obviously, that shadow of your father remains with you, because in Fathers you indicate that when you were in the army, after Fletcher's anti-Semitic remarks, you fought him, but you go on to say: “I no longer wanted to murder him. Boys will be boys and bigots will be bigots, together we do our killing elsewhere.”

Well, it seemed inappropriate to fight a war against Hitler, against one of my fellow soldiers, and it was an obvious irony, as every Jewish soldier in World War II remembers, that there were many anti-Semites among his comrades, and we were all fighting the same war against Hitler.

It all looks as if it comes from a “negative quality.” You knew about the concentration camps, you knew about the murder of Jews and then you tell in Therefore, Be Bold the story of Herschel Greenspan, the man who killed a Nazi Third Secretary in Paris. “I love ice cream,” you say, “I loved Eva who was non-Jewish, and I loved truth as through a glass darkly, as through a suburb protectively, I just began to see that actual Herschel Greenspan and living, breathing Euclid masters were also part of my truth. In fact, the truth was really a sum of such parts, terrible and sweet.” Do you think, having been moved by Herschel Greenspan's experience, tragedy and bravery at the same time, that you could love that Waspy girl? As a young boy, of course, in Lakewood. And worse, her father, who was an overt anti-Semite? Is that part of truth?

Well the real world is the real world and people are not unmixed. I can't blame Eva Masters for Hitler, not even her father. People are often ignorant. People are rash. One of the puzzles about the world is that things are not all black and white. There are certain people who have anti-Semitic feelings who are worthy of respect in other ways. And one of the processes of education, of love, is to build bridges where bridges don't exist.

Can you really build a bridge with a virulent anti-Semite?

I am not interested in building bridges with virulent anti-Semites. But you mention Eva Masters. She was a child of her father and she was a person learning. He functions in the book very much as the image of a mean-spirited person, but still he was not Hitler.

And moving toward that center, despite your “negative” approach? That is your coming to Judaism?

I didn't stop you with that, but I should. Because I found—for whatever reasons, I found a great many positive, convincing elements in Judaism. I mentioned the other day the law of Moses. The Jewish emphasis on life now, life on earth. Jewish emphasis on morality and proper behavior. The beauty of some Jewish texts. The elegance of Jewish survival, they're all positive elements.

That is correct. And that, it seems to me, understanding that, as you do so well, you have moved a little further, despite the fact that you said in the early part of My Last Two Thousand Years: “I hardly noticed the convulsions taking place in Palestine and I am an American of the Mosaic persuasion, but I saw no reason for a Jewish state in the Middle East, a little Lebanon or Switzerland or Haiti. I paid constant attention to myself. I envied men who wept, and those who died for causes.” But apparently, you couldn't. You took that position?

I didn't take that position. I was a child. This was a dramatic work and I was describing the process of growth in a child. I was describing, there, the egotism of the adolescent.

Of course, that is true. Yet, you come very strongly upon a facet which fascinated me. You visited Israel many times. Do you recall how many times?

Many times.

You were there in the '67 war?

I was there for the first time in '56 and then, for a time, I was going every year and was actually there three times in '73. I went immediately when the '67 war broke out and didn't get there until it was over because it was so fast. I did arrive in Israel on the fifth day of the '73 war.

What made you go constantly?

I became a committed Zionist and my sense of the Jewish people entwined with the fate of Israel. I loved the possibility that Israel suggests.

What else did you see in that country that fascinated you?

I liked the energy, the vitality, the fun. I worried about problems. I sent my eldest daughter to Israel who lived there for five years. I had dear friends.

What else in Israel did you find exciting?

I like the climate. I liked the beauties of Jerusalem—this gets to be a travelogue. The life of the kibbutz and, in particular, I have friends in Kibbutz Nir David. I dedicated My Last Two Thousand Years to Shimon Tal whom I know there, and whose family I love. I met him first in Haiti. He stood for the best kind of Israeli. He was a pioneer is Israel. And I have friends among Israeli writers and artists.

You say, “Here as elsewhere I sometimes confuse euphoria, a condition of not caring what I was doing at home, with ecstasy in which I might go myself if not care to care without caring. I dwell with the confused American effort to make a temple of desire and worship in it and to make resurrection of occasionally gratified desire.” Did some of that gratification of desire dampen in Jerusalem or was it heightened?

I'm not even sure of what you're saying.

“The dwelling in a confused American effort to make a temple of desire.” What desire are you talking about?

Well, Jerusalem was a kind of—I had an epiphany or conversion phenomenon. Jerusalem excited me beyond anything I had anticipated. And, the history flooded—confused myth with things in the past of every Jew—flooded over me when I went to Jerusalem. So that I realized that this was a place that was mine.

Do you still subscribe to this statement, in talking about Jerusalem: “Its presence filled civilization and nature. I was inhabited by the God I didn't believe in, the people I didn't fully belong to, the nation in which I was not a citizen, the parade and celebration tomorrow in which I would be merely a tourist.” You are talking obviously about Yom Atzmaut, or Independence Day, which was celebrated during one of the times you were there. Would that be correct?

I have this problem, a special dilemma which is that I am a nonlearned Jew. I'm a person who loves Israel, who is still American. I am professionally someone who works in an American language, not Hebrew. It's impossible for me to live in Israel because, although I adore the achievement, my family is too precious for me to consider leaving it. And I have five children and an increasing number of grandchildren here. So, I never am going to be totally Jewish or totally Israeli. I'm always going to be an American and, in some way, an outsider. The man I mentioned, Rabbi Jacob Asher, said something marvelous about a friend of mine who died, a writer and journalist, a man by the name of Paul Jacobs, with whom I had many disagreements. Rabbi Asher said at a memorial service for him: “He rejected Judaism but Judaism did not reject him.” I don't reject Judaism, but Judaism is capacious enough, I think, to accept all kinds of weaknesses and errors, even mine.

You use the phrase here, “I was inhabited by the God I didn't believe in.” What God were you inhabited with in Jerusalem?

The Jewish God.

And you still don't believe in him?

I'm not even sure what belief means. I don't have a concept of God that I seem to recognize in other Jews. My concept of God seems to be more general, in philosophical terms, a principle of the universe.

Having been overcome so strongly by experiencing Jerusalem and visiting it constantly, aside from visiting your family, it appears to me that you were drawn somewhere to it. Can you sense, can you feel, can you even conceive of the idea of that great convulsion in the Middle East called the creation of the State of Israel might not have been only man made?

I can conceive of that, but my own sense about it is that it comes out of history. And the will of the people, the will of the people inspired by the vision of God. I can conceive of that inspiration. What I feel is the skill of, let's say, a Ben Gurion or a Moshe Dayan. And maybe they were inspired by God, but I don't see the “Will of God.”

And yet, these very same people sense something, call it God, call it Divine, call it something supernatural, but they all sensed that, after the Six-Day War, in that magnificent victory.

I admire their belief. But what you're offering is the argument about authority. They felt it. I respect them. I understand that they feel it, that they felt it. William James said that one of the arguments in favor of belief is that “it's useful,” and that's a good argument in favor of belief, but it's an overly practical American view of God. Temperamentally, I am rooted in the real world, the world of my experience, and my experience has not been of God.

And you don't think God can be rooted in anyone's daily experience?

Yes, of course. I believe that idea can be rooted, and that you believe, and that other people believe. I'm just saying, I don't.

And then after that marvelous experience, you say, “I still didn't believe. I remained an American from Lakewood, Ohio.” But the tourist had made the touch with something in the past which changed him, and more important changed how he saw everyone else. Assuming, as you have repeated a number of times, that you still don't believe, how were you changed and how did you see everyone else?

My connection with history is stronger than it once was.

You're talking about Jewish history.

Jewish history, Jewish tradition, my love of my fellows in this family of mine. You might say, my love of their imagination, of something that I don't fully believe in, is more powerful, and that's sufficient for me.

Well, how do you see everyone else?

How do I see everyone else?

Obviously, that particular passage states, “Something changed, how I saw everyone else.”

The sense of community is stronger; therefore, I include them; they are part of my life in a way they weren't before. They are not strangers. Many crises of Judaism and of Israel have tied me more strongly to them. Not just the crises in the negative way, but the achievements, the victories.

Then you'd subscribe to this statement: “I did not suddenly learn the faith of my fathers but I learned the lessons of this faith. It wouldn't shut up my complaining either, no more than it shut up the complaining of my fathers, but now I also have the reassurance of history which they had given me through their sons and daughters.”

I'm interested myself that I am still saying what I had said when I wrote this book. You anticipated that by your question earlier. I treasure their faith, and the utility of their faith. Utility for me, but I don't have faith.

And yet your own father, you say, at the very end of his life, started to pray again. Was it fear of death?

Partly I think fear of death, need, and maybe this happened to me. I think, as I said the other day, if I have a horrible disaster, if I am afflicted with a terrible illness, I'm going to say, “Oh God, help me.” But, that's purely a child crying out in need. But when I'm finally myself, in control of my body and soul, God doesn't enter into my economy.

But, you do say that “I have given birth to the Jewishness within myself.” Down deep, I would suspect, there is something in you that has moved you very strongly; part of it was the Israeli experience, but it moved you very deeply towards a feeling of continuity with the past.

Yes, that's true. Two things you're asking: one, I absolutely agree with: my sense of historical rootedness is very powerful; the other, my link with actual Jewish belief in God is not so powerful. I'm aware of the importance of that as a unifying element of the Jewish people.

And yet you find one of the great works of all times to be the Bible and the Mosaic code, something practical and of daily use. Would you consider that a possibility in becoming a main element in your thinking?

It is. It is. The Mosaic code is a great code without reference to its origin. Without reference to, let's say, the ritual.

But there is a lot of ritual in that Mosaic code.

Right. But I'm speaking of the moral behavior that's involved, and the means of judging, the way of dealing with error and failure.

Do you feel that one should separate, which the Mosaic code does not, rite from ritual.

I don't feel one should. I'm just describing. You asked me what I do. I'm not going to make prescriptions for others. I'm not a rabbi. Let me just specify. My interest, my temperament as a person, is that I am a novelist, and a storyteller; therefore, I describe this process. I said I am not a rabbi, but, in some sense, storytelling is teaching, by example. Imagining possible worlds. So, my fascination is with the process. Generally, religious belief is fascination with the end. Arriving at a state. My fascination is with the journey, rather than with the arrival.

So you do consider yourself, clearly, an integral part of the past.


There is another country you visited often. You visited Haiti. What did you love about Haiti other than the climate?

I'm sure that the situation of the Haitians makes some contact for me with the situation of the Jews, isolated from the world, subject to prejudice. A creative temperament, lively, brave, suffering, plus many, many differences. They are exotic in the way that my own people are not. I have developed, for purely historical reasons, an interest in France. I speak French and lived in France. The joke of the contact of Africa with France in the Caribbean was interesting to me. In addition, I developed a professional interest. I wrote about Haiti. I became fascinated by the Jews who became Haitians. They are no longer Jews, but they're Haitian families with Jewish names and with various amounts of Jewish tradition. I have a friend who was the Israeli Ambassador to Haiti, whose studies of the original synagogue and placements of the original French Jews along with the other Jews who came to Haiti interested me. So, out of a sort of playful curiosity, partly, and then for some deeper reasons, Haiti became a part of my extended family, also.

And then you had a wonderful experience, or sad experience, in Biafra. What moved you, first, to go to Biafra, aside from writing professionally about it; and, second, to develop your deep interest in it?

The Ebos attracted me. They call themselves the “Jews of Africa,” they had a lot in common with Jews. They were scholars, they were merchants, they were subject to pogroms; they were also gay, lively people. And, they were persecuted by the surrounding world. They formed a nation, Biafra, which was, in some ways, very like Israel, embattled, surrounded by enemies. They were a tragic emblem because they failed. They teach me a lesson, they teach Israel a lesson, which is, you can't count, to quote Tennessee Williams, on the kindness of strangers. Much of the world was very sympathetic to Biafra, yet Biafrans were destroyed, millions died, and the country no longer exists, wiped out by history. It's a lesson to Israel. So then I became involved by going there and seeing what there was. I was there during the time of war and I saw how intelligently they attempted to survive it, and how tragic it was. I wrote a little book called Biafra, Goodbye.

What seems clear, therefore, is that there is something in Herbert Gold which moves you to seek people less fortunate. I suspect that's strongly Jewish.

I think it is. You know, in a way, everybody is less fortunate than I am. I'm not attracted to misery, as misery, at all. What I'm attracted to is power against obstacles. And the Ebos and the Biafrans are—were—a powerful people, tragic, because, in the end, they were destroyed. The Jews are a powerful people. There are plenty of suffering people, beggars, that I tend to turn away from. The beggar whose eyes I admire is the one who has a glint of triumph in his eyes; the one who looks at me and says something funny is the beggar I like. I'm not a person who goes around seeking misery. I am attracted to indomitability.

And they were indomitable, obviously. Until they were destroyed. Have you ever wondered why the Biafrans “didn't make it” and the Israelis “did make it”?

I know what you're saying. You're thinking that God was on the Israelis side.

I'm only questioning. I'm not trying to make you a rabbi.

There were incredible historical reasons for this. Well, I think that the will of the Jewish people is very strong. Biafra and the Ebos had a very strong will but the entire world was against them. Except for some sentimental people like me. They had the Russians and British and the Americans and everybody against them. The Israelis, at least in the beginning in 1948, were recognized by the Soviet Union, at first. They negotiated partly through luck and partly through good negotiation.

Of course, they also had the British against them.

Yes, but the whole world wasn't opposed to them. Truman …

Clearly. And others, for political reasons, were also for them. Now, I think, we'll conclude this part with a word about the other half of your passionate interest which you describe in Family: your mother. Now in her late eighties, she is deeply involved in selling Israeli Bonds. In looking back over her life: first, her influence, and, second, how different was she from your father? Or, how much was she like your father?

Well, my mother is very different from my father. She's outgoing and concerned with everybody around her. She takes her meaning from reaction to the world, immediately. She has much less privacy than my father had. I fought with her continually for many, many years, and, really, was totally reconciled to her only after my father's death. I think because she's powerful in her own way, and I didn't like all the things she did with him and me. And she didn't approve entirely of me. Now I have nothing but adoration for her brilliant survival and her energy and her intelligence. She's eighty-eight. I am also grateful for having the gift of her energy, something that is a family trait, a genetic flaw, you might say. That she has lasted until extreme old age, but with so much intact. I told her the other day that she ought to write a book and I think that she may do it yet.

You describe her as someone “who was determined to root out my flaws before they could appear. Starting from the age of eleven I was rooted to her in the traditional way. Could I, would I, not marry a nice Jewish girl? My mother had a non-ecumenical view of things.” Is her non-ecumenical view of things still valid, or do you think it's misplaced?

Well, I'm sure I learned some things from her; I'm sure I have adopted elements of her belief even though opposing her. Her nagging and her obsession with my right behavior was opposition to me and made me fight all the time. And, at the same time, I somehow knew that it also meant that she loved me. She was overbearing but that also meant that she was totally concerned with me. It's not an unusual relation of an oldest son to a Jewish mother. I'm now able to go my own way and see the quality of attention that she gave me and still gives me. My mother and I will never agree about some things, but I can agree that her continual concern with the real world is something that I also have, in my own way. When somebody dies, my mother's first question is going to be: “Is he Jewish?” I'll never have that kind of narrowness. My mother is much broader than she appeared to be when I married my second wife, a non-Jewish woman. She not only loved her but she continues to love her after our divorce. She's capable of seeing people for what they are, despite what she says. She's capable of seeing the real qualities that people have. Now, in her extreme old age, she has black friends, Polish friends, all of the people who were likely to be thought of as the “enemy” in a kind of ghettoized mentality. She's been able to step out of that, because her appetite is stronger than her prejudice; and her appetite for real people, and her appetite for love is very powerful. And so I've learned to see that whatever she says, whatever narrowness she expresses, her real feelings are much broader.

Interesting that historically, even in terms of your own life, she has proved to be correct, in a way.


About worrying who you would marry, who you would love.

Well, she was totally wrong, because if I married my first wife through her urging, it was a great mistake. And my second wife was not a mistake. The marriage ended but it was not a mistaken marriage; it was a wonderful marriage; and she's a wonderful woman; we had incredibly marvelous children. They're giving me a happy age. There was a terrible unhappiness in ending the second marriage, but it was no mistake. And to me, this is amazing that, at eighty-eight, my mother now sees this. She sees, with all the ambiguities of an ended marriage, that it was not a bad marriage.

Let's move on to the art of writing, and, specifically, the writing of fiction. First, do you need any particular environment to write?

No. Quiet. Not even quiet. I need not have the static of emotional disturbances; in other words, a wife, a child, a dear friend, crying for help—that would disturb me. But, I can work in noisy places if I'm not involved in the noise personally. I like cafes. I like the outdoors.

Can you write in a cafe?

I've written a lot in cafes. I was trained to do that by, you might say, the Existential movement, by living in Paris where the only warm place in the winters, right after the war, was in cafes.

So, therefore, you don't need any seclusion.

I need seclusion, but not the same kind of seclusion. I cannot have, let's say, a loved one chatting with me, or a friend chatting with me, while I'm working, but strangers, making noise around me, that's seclusion.

Could you say something about your method of work?

I think that's the only thing that I think is the best advice for anybody is to write in the morning before the day fills up with distractions.

Do you write in early morning?

I try to write when I get up in the morning.

For how many hours?

It's part of my breeding, so I don't have to think about it.

When you finish your writing stint, do you continue in late afternoon or evening?

Usually, in late afternoon, I'm busy with other things, with racquetball or swimming or with my children or with my friends or with reading or with writing letters, or with answering mail, or making bank deposits or paying the bills, telephoning the mother.

How does the idea of a novel come to you?

A fantasy grows. Sometimes, I think I only have a short story. The story won't stop. The story goes on. With a number of my books, I've started writing a story and even published it, and somehow, I wasn't satisfied. What happened next? Who else came into this tale, and the novel grows the way a child does. How does the idea of a child come to you? By an impulse, and the impulse grows.

Do you keep notes, or a journal, or a diary and write scenarios?

I make notebooks. I throw notes into folders. When I'm thinking about something I'll accumulate ideas about it. I don't keep a formal journal. I wish I did, actually. But I used to plan my novels ahead. Now, I let them grow more naturally. I discovered, when I lost a notebook which had the complete plan of my book in it, that, after a few days of panic looking for it all over in Cleveland—I carried it to the art museum, I wandered through a park, and somehow, it got lost—I discovered that I didn't need it, and that the writing came more energetically, without the burden of a lot of notes. But, I still do make notes.

Could you give me an example of a note you'd make for a novel?

I might get an image of what a person looks like, or what somebody says. The idea of a book is so firmly rooted, it doesn't need to be written down or so firmly vaguely rooted that I don't want it to be written down because I want working it to grow, a quirk of dialogue. If a man has, as in the book I am on now, one of the characters has a short prissy way of saying, “fancy that.” He's not that sort of person, but he picked that up from a “B” English movie and, in moments of crises, when he was trying to figure out what to say, he says, “fancy that.” Well, I wrote that down in a notebook.

Do you have any superstitions about your methods of writing?

No. None.

Have you ever “cribbed” anything from any other writer?

I don't even know what that means.

Taken an idea or scene?

I don't think so.

I don't mean it in the sense of theft, but rather, whether something remains with you.

Oh, well that's something different. That's not cribbing. When you learn, something remains. Everybody I've learned from, I've stolen from, you might say. I learned something about the relation of father and son both from Homer and from James Joyce, and from many others and from Hamlet and from many other people. I don't consider that cribbing.

Would you care to say something about prose style in relation to the novel?

Insofar as it's been conscious, I've tried to develop a way of telling a story which has the sense of a primitive story being told. Someone sitting on one side of a fire telling a story to someone else at the other side of the fire, or, on a train, meeting a stranger and telling a story, with a style which also can encompass things, ideas and the use of the intelligence of a person. And I've tried to do that through the American vernacular. There's a lot of tension, because, on one hand, I want to write American English that echoes the way Americans really speak, and, at the same time, say some things that Americans don't normally say to each other.

Have you ever written merely to improve your writing? Or, to practice your writing as an athlete would work out?

No. I've written sometimes to make money. I've written on assignment to get paid, and I think of that as a professional and interesting effort to do professional work. And, I suppose, some notebook entries. But basically, I haven't thought of anything as merely a technical exercise. I had a friend once who used to copy great writings before he would sit down and do his own writing. He would even type a few pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald before he'd sit down to write his own stories. Of course, the stories came out to be ersatz Fitzgerald.

In writing your novels has any particular form or problem given you trouble, say, a problem with joining two parts of a narrative or getting people to move from A to point B.

I've had problems facing the implications of a story at times, and I didn't like what was happening. And I would have the same kind of inhibition against doing it—when writing the next scene when it was unpleasant, what one might have visiting a dying friend, let's say. I've discovered that it's not difficult to change scenes. You hit the typewriter carriage twice, double space. When you tell a story you don't have the problem with the person you're talking to, you're telling the story to, of how you got from place to place, you just go. You assume that first you're here and then you're there. Readers understand that. That's the sort of thing, a kind of obsessive concern that young would-be writers go through—I think I did have it at one time and I just solved the problem by going around it.

Do you do any research or special reading to prepare for writing a novel? Or, while writing your novel?

Sometimes. If I want to know more about a subject that comes into the book, I'll do some reading. If someone has a disease I might look up a book of symptoms. If I'm sometimes writing about Haiti, I might look at a map to locate things. If I've done some magazine writing, I've clearly done research. But for a novel, generally, I want to tell what's in my fantasy and I'm writing about things I know well enough so I can imagine it. I'm not really concerned, let's say, in A Girl of Forty, if there's a shop that sells VCR equipment at a certain corner of a street that I name because I'm not aiming for that kind of realism. It's enough that in the action of the story that kind of neighborhood would have a VCR shop with transvestites lurking in front of it. It could be that the corner I name has a different shop, there's a liquor shop or a Chinese laundry, or a short-order hamburger place. That's really a trivial distinction.

Have you ever written about a situation in which you have had no personal experience or knowledge whatsoever?

I should hope so. I've written about evil things. And these are not things that I've lived through. But Goethe said “there's no crime of which I cannot conceive myself capable.” In our fantasy we do everything. So, I've written about homosexuality a little, and I'm not homosexual. I've written about murder—I've never killed anybody. I've wanted to. I've written about cruelty, and I suppose I have been cruel in my life, but not in some of the ways that I've written about. I've written from the point of view of a woman, and I don't think I've ever been a woman.

To what extent are your characters modeled on real people?

Characters are not modeled. Characters grow. So, the answer is they're not. Nevertheless, obviously, your life experience comes into your fantasy about people. But I don't take a person and say I'm going to write a story against him. I'm going to write a story defining her. I might get an idea from a woman. In A Girl of Forty, I got an idea from several women about the lifestyles that Suki, the central character, the heroine of that book, might have and has.

I was going to ask, how did Suki come about?

She came about from observation in American life and an experience with a certain kind of woman. The kind of women who don't grow up. I'm nevertheless grown up.

Well, then how do you name your characters? Suki for example? How did you get the name Berman in Salt? How do you get any name in your novel?

When I wrote my early books, I tried to get names almost in a Dickensian way that suggested personality. I don't like to do that now. I named the character Ruben Flair in my first novel because I wanted to indicate that he had a flair for changing himself. Dan Shaper was a kind of image of myself, and Shaper suggested both Jewish like Shapiro, and Shaper, maker, artist. In The Prospect before Us, I named a character Sam Bowers, but I realized I was telling the Samson story and I didn't want to make that too obviously symbolic, so I changed his name from Sam to Harry. Harry also has meaning. I saw him as a Harry, middle-aged man with a lot of vitality. Now I tend to find names simply that are appropriate to real life. The name such a person might have. Suki is kind of a cute person, who would be called not Susan, which is presumably her real name, but Suki. The name just seemed appropriate. If the character is Jewish, I'll find a Jewish name, if it's Irish, I'll find an Irish name. Alfonso, in A Girl of Forty, is a name that seemed appropriate to a black detective.

Do any specific characters reappear in different guises?

Some of my characters appear in different stories and different novels. I'm sure you've noticed that Dan Shaper appears a number of times. I haven't written more than one book about one main character. Maybe that's not true; Dan Shaper has appeared in several books, early novels. Sometimes main characters in one book will appear in a minor role in another.

What do you feel about the other kinds of writing you've done or are doing? How do they stand in relation to your work as a novelist?

Journalism is a way of learning about the world, so I love reporting, and I want to go on doing that. I've done a certain amount of war reporting; I've reported on some strange places, places like Haiti, Tahiti, various parts of Africa, Senegal. I wrote [that] little book about Biafra. I believe in getting out into the world and not simply doing what, unfortunately, a number of American writers do, which is to sit, collect their Guggenheim grants, and scrape the inside of the Oedipus complex. I'm tired of writers—I think I've said this to you—who are writing novels about how their parents didn't understand them, their first wives didn't understand them, and their second wives didn't understand them. That's really monotonous.

What could possibly ruin a good writer?

A bullet through the heart. Alcohol, too much publicity, celebrity.

The kind of thing that happened to Fitzgerald?

Well, Fitzgerald was ruined, and yet some of his very last writings are some of his most beautiful writings. He was ruined by fame, by certain weaknesses of character, which resulted in his alcoholism and his preoccupation with money, and a kind of lack of manhood, even though he was a very gifted and beautiful writer.

How does one avoid the fame?

How do you avoid fame?

If it's avoidable?

Well, I think every writer would be a liar, for me to say, or anyone to say, I don't want to be famous; everybody wants to be famous. You can avoid the penalties of fame by keeping balance. If it comes late enough in life, some writers, as history has shown, can accept the pleasures and the confirmation and the validation as an encouraging thing—a help rather than a detriment. For many American writers, having to do with the childishness of most writers, the boyishness with which male writers begin and the girlishness with which women writers begin, when they're working for fame and riches, and the love of beautiful people and they get those things, then something goes out of the writing. The writing goes soggy.

For example, Truman Capote.

Truman Capote was a sad, neurotic, sick person.

He was seeking publicity all the time.

He had little gift.

He had a beautiful gift for writing, a technical gift.

He had some kind of gift. I wouldn't say beautiful and I wouldn't say technical. He had a sweet, colorful, small gift which he blew up, and life blew up for him.

Hemingway, for example, seemed to have been preoccupied with that fame, although he ran away from it, but he loved it.

But his image of himself, of that macho style. Hemingway's best work was early. That's true of many American writers, fortunately.

You wouldn't say that every great writer has one book?


Not true?

No. It's obviously not true, because many great writers have several great books. People like to think that a writer tells his own story. Therefore, when he finally succeeds at telling his own story, that's his great book and he's finished. The fact is, the great writers have been able to tell a varying number of great stories. One could say that Anna Karenina is one of the great novels, but War and Peace is also a great novel, and a very late book, like Hadji Morad is a great novel, and there are many other great stories and novels that Tolstoy wrote. Dostoyevsky, the same. Even a contemporary writer like Nabokov wrote a number of great books: a great autobiography, a classic novel, Lolita. A fantastic and wonderful book about the future, Ben Sinister.

What do you answer someone who would say, “Well I recognize that character, you modeled it on this person.” I'm thinking particularly of Bellow's Humboldt's Gift.

Humboldt's Gift is a book I liked very much. Humboldt is obviously modeled on Delmore Schwartz. Bellow does use Delmore's character, but it's not a picture of Delmore Schwartz, though. It's fantasy, a show image of Schwartz. For example, he shows the craziness, the wildness, and some of the charm of Schwartz; he doesn't show the greatness of his poetry; it's very difficult to do that in a novel. And the story of Schwartz in that book is his relation with Charles who is, I suppose, also a shadow image of part of Bellow. So he uses, as everybody knows, real people, and sometimes they're recognizable, but he changes them. They're portraits when he is finished with them.

It's not a defect in a novel for someone to take a character that one knows and rework it or develop it.

There is no rule, writers do different things. Some writers might even begin their books as acts of revenge: I'm going to get back at my wife by writing about her. By the time they're finished, it's not she anymore.

You keep any audience in mind when you write?

A very intelligent young person in the second balcony, listening to the dialogue and an imaginary reader.

Do you feel an obligation to your audience?

I want to write as well as I can, as an obligation to myself, as well as to my audience.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a novel about which I can't say anything, except that it's a novel about which I can't say anything.

A general question: what is the function of the writer other than, of course, writing?

A writer is a citizen. A writer doesn't, by being a writer, get to have any less obligation as a husband, or a wife, parent, citizen, human being. It's wearisome, writers who behave immorally, cruelly, childishly, with the excuse that they are artists. I don't believe, incidentally, that writers are more neurotic or more crazy than other people; it's just that their craziness and neurosis is betrayed by their work. In my now increasingly long life, I have known writers at every part of the spectrum, from madness to great virtue and decency. So the writer's obligation is to be the best writer he can, and the best human being he can.

Should writers become more involved in areas other than writing?

I can't make a rule about that, because a wonderful writer like Flannery O'Connor chose wisely to retreat to her farm and to write her marvelous stories and novels. That was the right thing for her.

But, of course, she was also ill.

For Solzhenitsyn it's proper to be involved in public life, and there are gradations in between. I like getting out into the world, so I like reading the daily newspaper and reacting to it.

But you are also a journalist.

But I don't read it for that reason. I'm a journalist because I am a writer. I'm not a writer because I'm a journalist.

Therefore, writers, you believe, should not be involved in any “cause”?

On the contrary, I don't think I make rules for writers. Some need to be. I need to be involved in causes involving my family, that is, the Jewish people. I need to be involved in causes involving American politics because I'm an American and I take seriously what happens here. I was involved in the anti-Vietnam activity in the sixties and early seventies. I've been involved in other political action. But I won't say to someone else who says, “I don't understand this, I'm not interested, it terrifies me, it bewilders me,” “you have to.” People do what they have to do, what motivates them.

What motivated you, for example, to become involved in the great Vietnam protests?

I am what I am. I don't want to live in a cloister or an ivory tower. I am a person, a citizen, a father, a husband sometimes, a Jew, an American, and I take these things seriously. And I'm also—that's a pompous way of saying it—I'm entertained by the spectacle of history and I like being part of history, in this way.

It's interesting that none of this seems to seep through your new work, because what is central to most of your works is the notion of love, of family, of personal relationships, except, perhaps, for The Great American Jackpot.

I don't think that's quite true. In The Great American Jackpot, I did a satire on a kind of political activity of the late sixties; in Waiting for Cordelia, I did an attack on a certain kind of political moralism; in several books, I've written about the problems of feminism and men's relation to feminism. In Fathers, I've written about the historical destiny of the Jews; the same in My Last Two Thousand Years.

But those are memoirs.

The only one that is a memoir is My Last Two Thousand Years.Fathers is a recreation, but it's called a novel, and it is a novel. And The Great American Jackpot is not a memoir. Waiting for Cordelia is not a memoir. A Girl of Forty is my most recent book; there is a consideration of California life-style and what it involves in families, family structure, and relation of parents to children, the isolation of the kind of new affluence, the differences among classes. I think all those are elements in that book. It also considers the matter of the relation of work to private life. The narrator is in the box that he's in, partly because of the failure of his work. In a drop of water, you can see everything.

How do you feel when you're not writing?

Sometimes, I want to write when I'm not writing. Writing is a part of my metabolism, it's the way I integrate myself, the way I master the world, master my experience, it's the way I control the main fun I've had, I guess, other than children. So I need to write.

Do you write every single day?

No, but I like to write every day. Sometimes something [else] is more important that day. I didn't write today.

And how do you maintain continuity with your character if you skip a day or two?

It's harder if you are forced to skip a day for one reason or another. When I'm writing a novel I really prefer to write every day, a little bit, at least, to keep the think flowing, to keep the sap flowing. If I didn't have five children, if I didn't have another life, if I weren't a citizen or human being, if I didn't have all sorts of obligations like everybody, maybe I could do that, but that would involve other sacrifices. I count on the fact that I have not yet developed Alzheimer's sometimes to remember from one day to the next what I'm doing.

Does it become terribly troublesome, the day you don't write?

It is sometimes difficult if I take time off. At other times, an interruption can be productive. Sometimes I choose to stop if I'm having a difficult time, if it's not making progress. If I like the book to grow organically, when I have a feeling that I'm forcing it, then I'll deliberately stop work. I'll tell myself, “okay it's not working, you're not allowed to write for a week.” And then, by the time I get back to it, it's often refreshed, or for two weeks.

In other words, you've gone through a two-week period without writing at all?

Yes, but I'm aware that I'm not writing. So when you say to yourself, “today I'm not going to write,” that's a form of writing. It's counter-phobic, in a way, but it says to your unconscious “store it up.”

I've found that I've suffered a great deal when I don't write.

When I couldn't, for one reason or another, when I was interrupted against my will, it's sometimes difficult to get back to it. The best way I've found, when there are too many distractions in your life, is simply to force yourself to write before all the distractions happen. I've known people who set their alarms for 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning and got up and wrote for an hour or two. I haven't quite been able to do that, but I've set my internal clock to write the minute I open my eyes, before coffee, before anything happens. I rush to the desk and write, in my pajamas sometimes, shivering.

About how many pages a day do you write?

I don't make rules.

On the basis of your background, what was the most you've ever written in a day?

I don't remember. There are times when I've been inspired, a few days in a lifetime, literally only a few days, when it's just poured out, and even then, I can't count. So I don't really know, but I've written a whole story in a day, several times, chapters of a book in a day.

And how little have you written in a day?

One word, half a word.

In revising your work, what is your method?

Revising is more sure, easier, and less tense, because when you start to revise, you're revising because you know you have something, otherwise you just throw it away. I've thrown things away. But if I'm revising it means I've got something and now I know what needs to be added. So revision is very satisfying. You put in the things you've left out because you were racing to fill the structure. New discoveries occur, so you are drawing arrows and pasting and scotch taping and crumpling up and retyping but you have something there and you know what it is and you're making it better, or you're fulfilling its possibilities. It's like dressing a child that is already a healthy kid.

How extensive are your revisions?

It varies. I look at every word and I look at every phrase, and I tend to read things aloud. Sometimes, I'll revise a number of times. Sometimes the thing is right the first time, the second time.

Do you do it chapter by chapter, line by line, word by word?

I have a concept of the chapter that I write line by line. Then I'll look at a paragraph and I'll say this is out of balance, there's too much narrative here, there's not enough narrative. Those are technical. The characters have lost sight of the problem; they have to get back to the business of this episode. So you both do it line by line, word by word, and then, looking at it in gross, and when you have a chapter done the chapter is beautiful, you say, “okay, this is too long, so what comes next.” I've either got to shorten it again or make what comes next to balance it. It's a constant equilibration and calibration.

And you never tire of it?

I tire of it every day, and then I stop. And then, I'm refreshed and start again. Sisyphus rolls a rock half-way up the mountain and then it rolls all the way down and he says, “good, tomorrow I'll start rolling it up again.”

What do you consider your best work?

Ask a man who has five children who's his best child. I don't know whether any writer could have an answer to that.

What is your favorite work?

I treasure the book I'm working on because it's the most delicate, and requires the most care. I like a book like Fathers because it was successful, and gave me the pleasure of a large audience. I like another book because it summed up an issue for me. He/She was to me, my sense of it is, that it is a perfect small picture of the mechanism of breaking up a marriage. I like “The Heart of the Artichoke,” a story, because it exploded something in me about my relationship both with American prose and my relationship with my father. I like A Girl of Forty because I've been studying California for nearly thirty years, and I have an image there, a projection of California, that pleases me. You like different books for different things. There are a couple of books that I don't like very much. My first novel, I think of now as just a student work. The Optimist has some good things in it, but I think I was, for reasons in my life and career, hasty with it. One part of it is quite good, and the rest of it, I think, didn't quite work. The other books always have something that makes me treasure them.

I think between Fathers and A Girl of Forty there was a lull in your recognition by critics, then all of the sudden you bloomed and blossomed.

Well that's their problem, not mine. Its true that my career, my place on the “stock exchange,” went down after Fathers. I just think that means that not enough attention was paid to, let's say He/She, or the stories in The Magic Will. Even a book that I wrote as a pure entertainment, Slave Trade, has some serious issues in it. It was written to have fun. I would put it in, say, the category of some of Graham Greene's entertainments. But even so, I don't think that's a decline. There was a time when I wanted to play in that particular way, play with serious issues. And play with a genre, the detective mystery genre.

What is your reaction, personal reaction, to a severely negative review?

I want to kill. To break knees with baseball bats. Sometimes it's so stupid that you just turn away. It just doesn't make any difference. If it harms me, let's say, if it's in an important place, like the New York Times or The New Yorker, it's very annoying. It hurts me in various ways. It hurts my pride. It hurts my so-called career, it hurts my finances. I'm the kind of writer who depends on reviews. I don't have a mass audience.

How would you sum up your career?

Ask me that in fifteen years. Someone once said, I'm a bird, not an ornithologist. I don't think I'm in a position to sum up my career.

Daniel Curzon (review date 17 April 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Heterosexual Underbelly of the City by the Bay,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1988, p. 2.

[In the following review, Curzon argues that although Dreaming begins slowly, the narrative is ultimately rewarding.]

San Francisco is as much a character in Herbert Gold's new novel, Dreaming, as any of the other characters. However, it's not the San Francisco of those little cable cars that climb halfway to the stars; it's the San Francisco of financial hustler Hutch Montberg, a “greedy dreamer” in trouble with loan sharks who wouldn't mind seeing him turn into Rice-a-Roni under their little cable car if he doesn't come up with the money he owes them.

This is the noir San Francisco of bachelor Hutch, heterosexual picker-upper of tired blondes, all-around health nut, heavy-duty runner and liver of the good life. For Hutch, it is “important to take care of both the body and the soul, the arteries and the meaning of life.”

On the other side is his brother Dan, the family man complete with teen-age-daughter problems, an unfinished novel, and a wife who may leave him if he co-signs for his overextended brother, whom he loves like, well, like a brother.

Hutch is likewise a brother-lover. Indeed he loves Dan back so much he doesn't mind getting him into trouble with the loan sharks when Hutch can't pay off his debt. In author Gold's world, family passions are intense. Nobody just endures relatives. It's all blood, blood, blood. Very ethnic.

Gold seems bent on showing San Francisco's non-glamorous side. His villain is a Sydney Greenstreet heavy with a mean streak that would chill the air faster than any morning fog you can think of. His hero is no California airhead, into peace and love with flowers in his hair, but he stands by his beloved niece when she has a crisis with her punk-rock lover. Overall, though, he is not a very nice guy, a difficult literary type to bring off. Except for the Northern California sunshine and the open-door cafe of Enrico's, the reader might think himself in New York's garment industry with some sleazeball “entrepreneur,” a sleazeball who jogs and then gorges on doughnuts.

There are some scenes in this novel with a slimy Russian who is trying to capitalize on the San Francisco life style, but this character is not integral to the plot. There are also some scenes with the Lunch Bunch that give a flavor of the Algonquin Roundtable—West Coast, present-day version. These men have woman trouble and watch the romantic and financial antics of the main character with envy and skepticism. The novel could use even more of these gentlemen who lunch, possibly as a frame for the entire work.

Gold is a serious novelist interested in describing people the way he sees them. As a consequence, Dreaming is likely to annoy feminists, liberals, and others who don't want to know about the underbelly of heterosexual San Francisco. The snipes at Chinese characters won't win any friends among the Chinese either, and they must be understood in the context of San Francisco's Chinatown, which is expanding into the North Beach area, replacing the bohemian life of the coffeehouses and the world they have encompassed for a long time.

Dreaming has a good story to tell about two brothers, but it takes until a third of the way through the novel before the story really clicks in. Some readers may not be patient enough to wait that long. Those who are will be rewarded with a book that moves through its unsentimental world at a good pace, examining some interesting '80s people with some rather large warts. Indeed, this book is certainly not for the tourist crowd that wants to hear about the Gettys, the Golden Gate Bridge, the painted ladies, or the love that waits there in San Francisco.

David Taylor (review date November 1988)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “American Dreaming,” in American Book Review, Vol. 10, November, 1988, p. 9.

[In the following review, Taylor discusses the satirical exploration of the American Dream in The Man Who Was Not with It and Dreaming.]

If there is an English equivalent of the American Dream, it is essentially domestic; its literary roots are Homeric: the wanderer is always really on his way home, and home is fairly unsurprising; despite the annoying suitors, Penelope is the same as ever. The American Dream has a more biblical flavor. Our Abraham and Sarah, impelled by some inner command or outward necessity, journey forth into an unknown country, guided by restlessness and faith. Our Moses, seeking relief from the false security of bondage, moves towards the Promised Land. And, as in the Bible itself, there are both a lowbrow and a highbrow version of the dream. There is the simple dream of land, fresh opportunity, the “feast of fat things.” Of course, before you know it, those lowbrow dreamers will be settling down in the desert suburbs to worship the golden calf. Perhaps the children will make it to the Promised Land. But then there is the highbrow dream of the prophets (and their nightmare vision too), before whom gleam the gates of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, the Great Society.

The American Dream persists in American fiction, often as the antidream or nightmare, as in the fiction of William Burroughs. It informs the fiction of the Beats and their successors, to whom Herbert Gold is a first or second cousin. And if the American Dream is a sociological cliché, it is nonetheless embedded in the American sensibility; it is perhaps the closest we come to a shared national ideal. Of course, apart from Horatio Alger's few descendants, it is most often the subject of satire. But this in itself suggests the tenacity of the dream. It is not the dream but its betrayal that moves the satirists and ironists into battle. Being, making a home, just getting on with it, is not a sufficient national teleology, even for most of our writers.

Both The Man Who Was Not with It, first published in 1954, and Dreaming, Herbert Gold's new novel, are largely satirical works. With a few major exceptions, the characters represent types, attitudes, personae. And they are all either dreaming the American Dream or lying as casualties in its wake. There are both low and highbrow dreamers, but what seems especially to distinguish these dreamers is that their author intends them to wake up, and not necessarily into some stark disillusionment.

Apart from its title, The Man Who Was Not with It shows few signs of wear. The title is relentlessly explored for meaning, but otherwise the language of the novel, so much of it derived from or invented for the carnival ethos, saves the novel from being a period piece. An America of the fifties is there, almost unobtrusively. It is peered at from inside the carnival world or from the windows of a car.

Early in the novel Bud Williams, the narrator/protagonist, makes it clear that this is a novel about language, among other things. Like his father-figure hero, Grack, Bud is a shill, a “talker,” a “signifier,” who tells the story as if he were luring us into his “countstore” in “The World and Tuscaloosa Too Shows.” The “carnie” is the central metaphor of the novel and provides both its special dream-world and the springboard for the narrator's lyrical and playful flights of verbal exuberance so characteristic of satire. The simple arrival of a letter, pivotal though it is, becomes the occasion for musing: “I turned it over for the fun of receiving mail, the abstract breath which a word can carry from person to person, the pleasure teased through a pen until it comes out grammar.” Bud's apparent distance from the letter itself derives from the con-man role he plays in the carnival. The “honest con-work” of the “talker” is to be intermediary between the carnie and the “marks,” the potential customers. As shill he appears to be in both worlds. His job is to create illusion, to entertain the marks even before they enter the turnstile. And it is a delicate and dangerous role: either world can turn against him. He is as essential to the success of the carnival as the narrator is to the novel. He is both “with it” as representative of the carnival and yet not with it as he connects with the marks.

What is so extraordinary about the novel is that while its energy and lyricism come from the carnie, while it points a satirical finger at the hypocrisy of the marks, the ordinary Americans, while it seems even to celebrate the lawless bravado of the bizarre and the outcast freaks who are with it, in the end the novel affirms not a defiant dreaming, not even an artful escapism, but a wakeful and joyful embrace of ordinary life.

Dreaming, Gold's new novel, is much more self-consciously satirical, even though it retains some of the earlier novel's affirmation of the ordinary. It is clearly about America, seen through the side-show mirror of California. And in case we should miss that, the setting is San Francisco, the pleasant and civilized California, not Los Angeles.

Hutch, an ambitious and over-extended speculator/salesman, is a near-caricature of an adolescent America falling unwillingly into middle age, debt-ridden and desperately seeking to maintain the illusory dream of eternal youth, virility, prosperity, health, and promise. His is the lowbrow American dream strained to the breaking point. He drives a rented BMW, lives in an elegant rented apartment that serves primarily as a symbol of his success and secondarily as the perfectly calculated setting for the seduction of “tired blondes,” preferably stewardesses with “skin problems.” Both his cynicism and his adolescence are revealed in the summary of his relationship with tired Suki: “Suki was good at it. A little sadness gives an extra dimension to a blowjob.” Most of his working time is spent at his table in his “office,” the sidewalk cafe where he deals with “important people” and drinks cappuccino and grapefruit juice. His recreation/religion is jogging, which eventually brings on his death. In effect, he runs in circles throughout the novel, running for his life, until his final collapse.

Hutch has no trace of a moral conscience. “Whatever's right,” he says again and again, meaning simple expediency. Life, he says repeatedly and without conviction, is “a festival.” The joyless and relentless pursuit of self-indulgent pleasure is his only motive.

But Hutch's festival has none of the honest roguery of the carnival. He too is a “talker,” “signifying” only his inner panic and emptiness. His talk works mainly with the tired blondes and his teenage niece, whose egotism and vacuity are the perfect match for his. If anything resembles love in his festival it is what he thinks he feels for Trish, his heir, the beneficiary of his life-insurance policy. His only other near-relationship is with his younger brother, Dan, whom he exploits and betrays and for whom he has a kind of contemptuous affection. His is a brutal portrait. Hutch might be one of the new breed of salesmen lamentably described in Death of a Salesman: “Today there's no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality.”

As the Mafia bankers close in on Hutch, he talks Dan into cosigning the loan. Dan is a writer. He drives a cab by day to support Trish and his wife Gloria in their shabby house in a rundown suburb newly peopled by immigrants from the Third World. By night he writes his thousand-page novel. He is a highbrow dreamer but he loves Trish and Gloria, his hard-working schoolteacher wife who might be a slightly compromised version of Joy. She actually prays in the morning, in a vague but affirmative thanksgiving.

Dan holds on to his dreams, but wakefully. When he brings home a feast of greasy ribs for his family he is content: “He wasn't a sagging career driver. He wasn't alone. It was a blessing how, in family, happiness would flood over him like a weather, not pleasure but happiness, joy in his wife, joy in his daughter, the awareness of a thing going on, his family, now, then, forever.”

The other characters in the novel are either silly or menacing. Trish's skinhead boyfriend provides a parodic glimpse of the biker ethos, his only memorable conviction being that he has “strong sperm.” Various Third Worlders have adopted with a vengeance the violence and greed of the Promised Land. Avigdor, a Soviet journalist, fills out the international picture as his instant friend Hutch takes him to a brothel where he can enjoy American freedom in the arms of a “Zionist” whore.

Gold's vision is darker now than in 1954. But even in Dreaming he seems to offer the hope that there is something real that can come out of the American Dream, more than nightmare, more than continuing illusion masking failure. Perhaps after all it is something like home, like being “present to the world,” like the honestly artful con of making the ordinary extraordinary, something like the awakening from the American Dream into something like the English Dream. Like growing up. Or perhaps not. Perhaps even I am dreaming.

Alex Raksin (review date 3 February 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A review of Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 3, 1991, p. 6.

[In the following positive review, Raksin lauds Gold's travel writing in Best Nightmare on Earth.]

[In Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti,] novelist Herbert Gold is driving through Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, when his car suddenly is blocked by a crowd joyously whirling, dancing and singing around a carnival band. The spontaneous celebration is business as usual on this island where “people fly like birds” and use voodoo to “send messages without wire or words.” But when Gold translates the lyrics, it becomes apparent that the song is as bitter as it is sweet: “There is no reason for people to go hungry, no reason for children to die, no reason even for young and happy lovers to die.”

Given their nation's history of poverty, corruption and violence, it's easy to fathom the Haitians' sorrow, but how to explain their exuberance? Mirroring the opinion of poet Derek Walcott towards his native West Indies, Gold speculates that “some innocence of hope survives” because of the tropical climate: “Because the air can be sweet in Kenscoff, or fragrant with charcoal smoke and flowers in the hillside neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, or salty and seaborne in Jacmel.” Gold doesn't unravel all of the island's mysteries—there is no update on how the Haitians managed to uproot decades of military dictatorship in an election last December—but this is nevertheless travel writing of a high order, paralleling the author's own vulnerability with that of the land.

Daniel Walden (essay date Fall 1991)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Herbert Gold and Company: American Jewish Writers as Universal Writers,” in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 133–34.

[In the following essay, Walden discusses Gold's role as an American Jewish writer.]

Herbert Gold, who is a prolific and honored author, who has been a published author for some three decades, moved from Cleveland to New York to be in the center of this country's culture, to “find a way out of Cleveland.” In finding himself, however, he hoped to appeal to his readers “in their bodies and needs, where lusts and ideals were murkily nurtured together, calling to the prime fears and joys directly, rising with them from the truths of innocence into the truths of experiences.” And yet in some ways he is still “an American from Lakewood, Ohio.” What that means is that he has a strong sense of historical rootedness, while his link with actual Jewish belief in God is not so strong. To put it another way, he is interested in the moral behavior that's involved, the means of judging, the way of dealing with error and failure. This gifted writer whose career has spanned stories about Lakewood, Ohio, in Therefore Be Bold (1960) and a novel based on his father, Fathers (1966), through My Last Two Thousand Years,Family, and A Girl of Forty has said, when asked to sum up his career, “I'm a bird, not an ornithologist.” In effect, ask me again in fifty years.

But if Gold is not as widely known as he should be, I. B. Singer is as widely, internationally known as any author of the twentieth century. Known for his brilliant evocations of the Eastern European world that has vanished with the Nazis, he is also “the only writer for children,” according to John Guzlowski, “to have ever been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.” Singer of course is a classical writer, in Yiddish, who is known in translation for his stories and novels. Alfred Kazin, on the other hand, who is a literary historian, has only recently been recognized for his “modernist” autobiography, A Walker in the City. Thus if “modernism,” broadly speaking, is an unmooring of nineteenth-century certainties, Kazin's work is a twentieth-century autobiography that has tried to capture the spirit of his modernist literary masters.

Bernard Malamud, one of the giants of American Jewish literature, has been recognized for his portraits of father-son relationships as well as his ability to link reality with suffering. In “The Magic Barrel,” one of his most celebrated short stories, the “Akedah,” that is God's commandment that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac to demonstrate his faith, writes Brian Adler, figures prominently, as does the integrative or community element. For Heller, however, in Good as Gold, as opposed to the blockbuster Catch-22, the satirization of American politics runs hand in hand with the ultimately adopted alternative set of values represented by the Gold family. Values also present a problem in Arthur Miller's plays, from the early The Man who Had All the Luck (1943) to Death of a Salesman: the point is that whether universalized or not, Miller writes out of his value-laden religio-cultural background, as Dan Vogel says.

The real point is that whether the writer who is Jewish covers his tracks, or universalizes his characters, it is the writer's character that matters. If he is an American Jewish writer he will write out of his experience, his Jewish experience, whether he is religious or not. It is the fiber that counts, not the ritual or the religious commitment to a God.

Anthony Daniels (review date 11 April 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “A Land of Infinite Impossibilities,” in Spectator, Vol. 268, No. 8544, April 11, 1992, p. 31.

[In the following review, Daniels discusses the allure of Haiti as portrayed in The Best Nightmare on Earth and Ian Thomson's Bonjour Blanc.]

Haiti is a writer's El Dorado. Though small in size and population, its mines of misery and joy are inexhaustible; it is a sovereign comedy for writer's block. No matter how many times its history is recounted, it never stales; voodoo can be relied upon to impart a frisson of supernatural danger even to members of the British Humanist Association; and Haiti's brutal, absurd politics, in which winner takes all (especially the life of opponents), is rather more compelling than squabbles over future rates of income tax. One could write a book about a day in Haiti.

The fascination that this country, the less-than-perfect Pearl of the Antilles, exerts over all who encounter her is successfully conveyed in both these books. The first, [Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti] by Ian Thomson, is a description of a sojourn lasting several months; the second, [The Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti] by Herbert Gold, is a memoir of an intermittent association over 38 years, from the time when Mr. Gold was a struggling young writer. The authors share a deep respect for the Haitian people; they try not to sensationalise, and it is not their fault that the truth is often sensational.

The authors share more than respect: inevitably some of the same anecdotes and characters appear in the two books. Aubelin Jolicoeur, the model for Graham Greene's Petit Pierre in The Comedians (and proud of it), has a prominent part in both. In Mr. Thomson's book, a British admiral, asked by George III to describe Haiti, crumpled a piece of paper and said, ‘Sire, Haiti looks like that’. According to Mr. Gold, it was Columbus who crumpled parchment and said it to Ferdinand. According to me, it was Cortes who said it to Charles V—about Mexico. Probably, no one ever said it, except in Hollywood.

I don't want to nit-pick, however: both books are excellent. Mr. Thomson has a good sense of humour and on several occasions I laughed out loud. He is also intrepid; he has been to places where very few, if any, visitors ever go. Who would not be intrigued by villages named Port-à-Piment, Les Anglais and Trou Bonbon? Mr. Thomson is willing to go on a long, uncomfortable journey out of idle curiosity, and it is a very endearing quality in a travel writer.

He is good both on landscape and character. He doesn't much care for North American evangelical missionaries (I should have dismissed as caricature his description of the pair he met on the Ile de la Tortue had I not met such figures myself), but he is discriminating enough to recognise men of worth even when they fall into a general category of which he disapproves. Dr. William Hodges, a Baptist missionary doctor, historian and archaeologist, whom I have also met, is accorded well-merited praise and admiration. Mr. Thomson's judgments are thus not of the blunderbuss variety.

His persistence in gaining entry to both the National Palace and the National Penitentiary is above praise, and illustrates his deep engagement with the country. Because of his desire to understand as well as describe, his book is not only amusing but instructive. It is as good a substitute as a travel book can be for going to a country.

Bonjour Blanc is a trifle too long, however, and one senses the author's weariness with the discomforts of Haiti towards the end of the book. I was also disappointed that Mr. Thomson gives way to conventional piety on the penultimate page when he quotes—with approval—a Haitian politician who says, ‘Haiti is our house; it is for you (foreigners) to get out.’ This seems to me self-exculpatory on the one hand and condescending on the other: the glories of Haiti are its own, but so, fundamentally, are its horrors.

Mr. Gold, as well as providing good close-up portraits of several Haitian presidents, has the pleasantly elegiac quality of a man looking back on his life and trying to make sense of it all. It is impossible to remain long in Haiti without accumulating scores of anecdotes, and Mr. Gold tells them with both wit and compassion. I particularly liked his picnic on the Ile Cabrit with the Duvalierist Minister of Tourism, Nevers Constant, and a German diplomat. After a meal of lobster, steak, ham, cheeses and salad, with plenty to drink, they were shaken down by the Tontons Macoute on their way home.

One of Mr. Gold's early Haitian friends summed his country up perfectly: Haiti is a land of infinite impossibilities. Things that can't happen regularly happen there. Both books capture this pungent uniqueness very well.

Bruce Cook (review date 18 April 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Lifestyles of the Not-Yet Famous,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 23, No. 16, April 18, 1993, p. 3.

[In the following positive review, Cook praises Gold's journalistic style in Bohemia.]

Herbert Gold, dependably fine novelist and wonderful short-story writer, has for years maintained an identity that, if not exactly secret, is not sufficiently known. He is also a journalist. Unless you read the travel magazines for which he often writes, including Playboy, and his hometown newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, this facet of his talent may have escaped your attention altogether. True, he did publish a collection of his pieces, A Walk on the West Side, 10 or 12 years ago, but it was probably the least read of all his books (well over a score of them, by the way).

And let's get things straight. Herbert Gold is not just a journalist—he's a superb journalist. Writing in that mode, he casts off his usual style in fiction—economical, forthright, straight-ahead—in favor of a witty ironic, allusive prose, so swift that the reader often finds himself surprised, laughing out loud before he even realizes a punchline was on its way. That style alone would be enough to send the contributors to Vanity Fair into a chorus of envious wailing and gnashing of teeth.

All this understood, you will see that for me to call Bohemia a work of journalism is no slight. How to describe it? It is partly a memoir, partly a kind of wacked-out travel book, and partly (though I blush to use the word) a lifestyle book.

Gold's credentials are certainly in order. He made early forays into Greenwich Village as a student at Columbia. And he's been a fully licensed Bohemian ever since he took his young wife off to Paris just after the war on a Fulbright and spent his time writing fiction and digging the cafe scene. When that marriage broke up in the '50s, he fled Detroit, where he was teaching, and hied himself off again to the Village. There he lived not so much by his pen as by his clattering typewriter, churning out short stories, essays and reviews, becoming acquainted with all the usual suspects—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Seymour Krim and Larry Rivers. His adventures in that New York milieu, some of which he recounts fleetingly here, were detailed and embellished in one of his best novels, Salt. Today he lives where he has for decades now, in San Francisco, up Russian Hill from North Beach and right next to Chinatown—prime Bohemian territory. So he knows it, and he has lived it.

And what he does not know from past experience, he has at least visited. He takes us to some surviving enclaves—to Coconut Grove in Miami, Venice in Los Angeles, to Bolinas just north of San Francisco and to the drug-infested, crime-ridden new Bohemia of New York on the lower East Side. But, as Gold instructs us, “Americans are the Johnny Appleseeds of Bohemia, fertilizing everywhere …” In their desire to be “elsewhere,” Americans have taken the spirit and style with them to distant outposts, a few of which we look in on with him—Palma on the island of Majorca, La Paz down on Baja, even the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

His point, and it is well taken, is that Bohemia has become an acceptable, even desirable lifestyle all around America, and indeed the world over. The fringe life lived by the artistic few and their hangers-on up until the '50s burgeoned through succeeding decades until today it can be found in every big university town, in working-class cities like Milwaukee and Detroit, as well as in an upscale version in places like La Jolla and Mill Valley, Calif. Does work get done? Art get created? Some does, of course. But it's in dress, taste and attitude, and in the ritual of “hanging out,” that this has become a kind of mass movement—Bohemia for the millions, or at least for the hundreds of thousands.

All this makes the book sound far more sociological and sober than it is. It is told in the first-person: What Herbert Gold does not remember from his past he gives as eyewitness testimony. And remember that wonderful style of his that I burbled about in the beginning? It is everywhere in evidence. He can throw out a Wildean epigram—“Old age is wasted on the elderly: the young know what to do with it—insist on something different.” Or he can remark on his own naiveté at a Bohemian gathering he attended in his youth, “Some of the women wore long skirts to their ankles. Fat legs didn't occur to me; what occurred to me was sexy, European, depraved.” And he can tell stories of Jean Genet and William S. Burroughs that, while hilarious, would not pass muster even here in the book pages.

Bohemia is a fast, funny tour through territory most of us have visited, if only in our fantasies. The tour guide knows it well. Trust him.

Dan Wakefield (review date 24 May 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “The Proper Bohemians,” in Nation, Vol. 256, No. 20, May 24, 1993, pp. 706–08.

[In the following review, Wakefield discusses several highlights of Gold's career, his relationships with various members of the New York literati, and his book Bohemia.]

Herbert Gold was one of many bright presences in the literary world of New York in the fifties, his name and work often cited as part of a band of talented young achievers of that time and place that included Harvey Swados, Saul Bellow, Vance Bourjaily, George P. Elliott and Bernard Malamud. None of them had a best seller of literary acclaim like Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) or William Styron (Lie Down in Darkness), but all produced good, fresh fictional work, thumbing their noses at the gray-flannel critics whose theme song was “the novel is dead,” crooned to the tune of lamenting violins. When Bellow broke from the pack in the critical sweepstakes and crossed the finish line first in Stockholm, I wished he'd accepted the Nobel Prize for all of them—a recognition of the verve and vision of a whole generation of postwar writers who believed in the power and beauty of prose, and on one small island in a quick, unappreciated decade, forged a body of literature. (I don't begrudge Bellow the prize; I only mean that if the critical dice had rolled in a different direction along the way, it might have been Herb or Harvey, or others I haven't cited who came of age when my own contemporaries were in college or Korea.)

Fresh out of Columbia, I was impressed to meet Herb Gold and learn he was also an alumnus, another former student of our dynamic duo, poet Mark Van Doren (who served as literary editor and film critic for The Nation) and critic Lionel Trilling, during the undergraduate era of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. I'd admired a snappy short story Herb wrote called “The Heart of the Artichoke,” and his early novel The Prospect before Us. He was a wiry, handsomely dark-haired young man (though I thought of anyone eight years older who had published a novel as a wise elder) who seemed to bounce on the balls of his feet when he walked, springing along upper Broadway or the streets of the Villages as if he might with the next step bound over traffic and across an intersection with no effort at all. I noticed his gait because he liked to invite friends to go for long walks while they talked of life, love and literature, instead of discussing these crucial matters over drinks. Herb drank at the literary watering holes, of course, like the White Horse Tavern; but sometimes if you went to visit him in the afternoon he offered you tea instead of bourbon and proposed a long walk afterward, habits so unusual for writers of the era that I secretly regarded him as something of a health nut!

Herb left New York for San Francisco in 1960, and established himself on Russian Hill (which “seeps downward” into North Beach) as a literary and civic fixture. I ran into him out there in 1967, appropriately enough, in the City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's historic outpost of the San Francisco Renaissance of the fifties.

If Tony Bennett left his heart in San Francisco, Herb “found my home” there, he tells us in his new book on Bohemia, discovering “Left Bank Paris and Greenwich Village in a permanent laboratory condition, wrapped in a convoluted time warp of past and future within the instant present tense of California.” He has kept “the same flat on Russian Hill for over thirty years now,” finding there “communitas” and “a variety of stability,” noting, “These sticky things are roots.”

The roots must nourish Herb well, for he has continued to flourish as a writer of novels (from Birth of a Hero in 1951 to Dreaming in 1988, with fourteen others in between), reportage and memoir (most recently Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti in 1991), short stories and essays (including Love and Like and The Age of Happy Problems) over four-plus decades, a total of twenty-five volumes; counting this latest one. Herb once wrote a witty, insightful poem on how to avoid writer's block, but I can't figure out when he suffered from it. He has also lived and done his work in New York, Paris and Haiti, and his vigorous literary output seems to flourish in any geography—at least as long as it's the local bohemian section, to which he always gravitates, as we learn in his lively new literary tourist guide.

The bohemia that Herb is reporting on, of course, is “far from that Bohemia in the neighborhood of Prague, once a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.” What he calls the “Bohemian archipelago” can now be found in “urban places, college towns, encampments everywhere, in the new world and the old.” Look for it “in all the interstices of a society that still requires art, imagination, laziness, adventure and possibility unwilled by family and employment.”

Gold finds bohemia not only in the well-known centers like Greenwich Village and the Left Bank of Paris but also in unlikely spots like Tonopah, Nevada (where a blackjack dealer whispered she had a subscription to The New York Review of Books). His own bohemian explorations have taken him from Chicago's Rush Street and L. A.'s Sunset Strip to the Blue Bird Cafe in Moscow; from Key West to “both Venices” and the Bodeghita del Media in Havana. He finds bohemia in Israel, not only in Tel Aviv cafes but also “a motley encampment in the desert near a spring not far from Eilat” where an eye-patched hippie in cowboy clothes sells barbecued lamb and cold beer. Most impressive of all, Herb even finds “outposts of Bohemia” in his own hometown of Cleveland, which he fled for Morningside Heights en route to Greenwich Village nearly half a century ago, sighting “a few health food stores, espresso machines, and bookshops at Euclid Heights Boulevard and Coventry.”

Herb must have been as shocked to see such symbols of bohemia in Cleveland as I was to discover that the neighborhood where I grew up in Indianapolis, a benign and sleepy district of middle-class conservatism with the appropriately bucolic name “Broad Ripple,” had become a hotbed of espresso bars, art galleries and poetry readings, a new Left Bank in the heart of Hoosierland. My father saw it coming with dread back in the late sixties: “There's a place where they sell that thick black coffee—the kind like sludge—right in Broad Ripple!” He knew what it signified because he had visited me in Greenwich Village and asked at the Limelight Cafe if the people wearing blue jeans and beards were—he whispered the word—beatniks. You expected all kinds in New York, but now they were even in Broad Ripple. The bohemians were inside the gates.

Herb Gold—my fellow bohemian refugee from our fathers' Midwest—describes himself today as “this wandering beatnik emeritus, now a middle-aged greybeard,” but I argue the accuracy of the image. I saw him a year ago for the first time since our '67 encounter, and while he indeed sports a handsome gray beard, I question his credentials as a past or present beatnik.

When the Beat phenomenon exploded in the middle fifties, via the double detonation of Ginsberg's “Howl” ('56) and Kerouac's On the Road ('57), most of us West Village writers (as distinguished from the new East Village of the Beats) were critical, to say the least. We were traditional or “proper” bohemians (what Seymour Krim called “the writer writers”) rebelling against Eisenhower, Henry Luce and those two symbolic thoroughfares, Wall Street and Madison Avenue, but not against the form of poetry and novel, our own literary heritage, which we saw not only as the best vessels of art and truth but as weapons against the oncoming tide of mass culture, mass thought, the Organization Man, the numbing of sensibility, the prophets of what Herb Gold labeled back then “The Age of Happy Problems.”

We regarded the rise of the new antiform writers and poets, led by Kerouac and Ginsberg, as breakers of the best literary traditions, the ones that were also under attack from Luce and Life magazine on the right, who complained that American writers were too negative (Faulkner and Tennessee Williams were prime targets) and ought to emphasize the upbeat side of our society. The Beats, enshrined now as the bohemians of the fifties, were regarded with suspicion or hostility by us “proper Bohemians” then, who saw “beatniks” as false prophets and pretenders.

In the pages of this magazine, Herb Gold called On the Road “proof of illness rather than a creation of art, a novel,” and described Ginsberg's “Howl” as “blathering.” He was hardly alone in these attacks from the bohemian left; The Nation's poetry editor M. L. Rosenthal called “Howl” “the single-minded frenzy of a raving madwoman [sic].” I wrote an acid account in The Nation of Kerouac giving a drunken reading of his work at the Village Vanguard, comparing him unfavorably to the formalist poet Richard Wilbur, who gave a (sober) reading that same night. Most of my Village bohemian friends agreed with James Baldwin, who loved Henry James and put down Kerouac, Ginsberg and friends for their enchantment with Zen, dubbing them “the Suzuki rhythm boys.” Village Voice iconoclast Krim criticized Kerouac's “non-stop gush.”

Herb reports that in Paris at age 33 he “renewed my college friendship with Allen Ginsberg,” and several decades later in San Francisco was accused by a new young bohemian of hanging out with the “eastern establishment” when seen on the street with the author of “Howl.” Ginsberg has become part of the establishment (“a peculiar national treasure of sorts,” Time grudgingly acknowledged). Most of us during the onrushing decades have come to appreciate the breakout power of the early Beat work, especially the insight and wit of Ginsberg's poetry, whose staying power has made him a worldwide influence—and probably, ironically, our most well-known and well-loved national poet since Robert Frost.

Although Herb Gold has mellowed his opinions from the proper bohemianism of the fifties, it is obvious in his new book that he retains one of the basic values of our generation: You are what you produce; it's the work that counts. What dismayed so many of us about the “beatniks” was that they followed the original Beats like Ginsberg and Kerouac in style but not in substance; they dressed and spoke as artists, musicians, poets, but didn't paint, play or write anything.

The old work ethic of the fifties (our motto was Henry James's “produce; produce again; produce again better than ever and all will be well!”) still operates in Herb's current explorations of bohemia. What drives him nuts are those who live the bohemian life but don't produce. He describes with disdain a man he calls “Crandall” in Mallorca, who “dined out (drank out) on his thirty-year literary project,” which he's never finished. This “would-bee” writer keeps going on “brandy, chemistry, and an occasional temporary muse among the winter visitors,” Herb reports, and will no doubt continue as long as there is “strength in his arms and a check from home.” In the “Upper Bohemia” of Coconut Grove, Florida, Herb meets a man whose profession is “blocked novelist” and gives him good, solid advice from the ethic of our generation: “Write! Just write!”

Herb admires those who do, even when they aren't his cup of tea. He gives the devil's due to William Burroughs, acknowledging that “thanks to the good equipment he had inherited, and hard work, he tinkered with the controls until he opened the locks into his nightmares.” In other words, he wrote, and still writes, books. With similar admiration, Herb says Henry Miller was “reinventing American Bohemia, reinventing the American rogue and urban slave, mapping the road away from a massified society.”

It is these creators who Herb argues make bohemia possible: “The Bohemian masses exist in the aura of those few leaders who actually originate music, fine art, literature, fashion. … The would-bees take their honey from the flowers of creation.”

I'm reminded of James Baldwin, another of our proper bohemians of the fifties, who used to quote to me the admonition of an old professor he met at Howard University who urged him to remember his work came first, even above political activism, and that his goal should be to have “a shelf of books” at the end of his life. Baldwin would add with emphasis: “Remember, baby—a whole shelf.

Herb Gold has his shelf, and adds another good volume to it with his vigorous travels in Bohemia.

Dick Roraback (review date 4 July 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: “Feelin' Groovy,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 4, 1993, p. 11.

[In the following review, Roraback explores the characters and civilization portrayed in Bohemia.]

This is what Bohemia has come to:

—A Personal Ad in the Village Voice reads, “Slim, natural blond, one child, independent means, seeks man with one earring, ponytail or moral equivalent.” Moral equivalent?

—In Coconut Grove, once Miami Beach's Haight-Ashbury, now “an outpatient clinic for women suffering from henna dependency,” a young man tells an older woman, “My father died.” “Did you go to the funeral?” “No, I did it all by credit card.”

—In ex-Bo Carmel, Calif., “now priced onto another plane,” Herb Gold is stuck in traffic “behind a red-bearded fireman with his left arm extended straight out” and asks him if he's turning left. “No,” he says. “Drying my fingernails.”

Unblemished Bohemians, people who used to contemplate their navels, now pay someone to do it for them, says Gold. But he really doesn't mean it. What he really means is that things ain't what they used to be, or at least where they used to be. Things are still pretty groovy; just different. (And even the wealthier Bohemians, he notes, are deprived—deprived of deprivation. It's that sort of book.)

Gold's Bohemia, as well as his Bohemia, bops back and forth, place to place, era to era and back. And it's a hoot. You can read it back to front and never miss a beat. In a pinch, you can smoke it. Or you can trip through Bohemia, magic-marking high points, bons mots, insights, and when you've done you find you've marked just about the whole book, Mellow Yellow.

Gold, a Bohemian-in-Chief for lo these many years, knows the language, the places, the food, the lack of food; the coffeehouses, the joints and the joints. He knows who is and who isn't. Isn't is easy: Anyone who calls him-or herself a Bohemian. Is is easier: “The decision to belong is what defines a Bohemian; he can come from anywhere to declare himself a member. Conversion may mean only that he knows where to hang out. … He can be James Joyce or Charles Manson. She can be Djuna Barnes. …”

Even simpler: A Vietnam vet “named Wobbling Jim (probably not his real name),” in Hawaii to celebrate Harmonic Convergence, was asked how one joined. “He pulled up his shirt, showed his navel and asked, ‘Do you have one of these?’”

What do Bohemians do exactly? (Maybe exactly is not quite the word for an undertaking that is, at best, amorphous.) For 150 years, since Henri Murger glorified la vie de bohème and Puccini “put it into pretty song,” the Bohemians' raison d'être has been “defying convention, living for free-spiritedness, making do with what comes along, forming allegiances with a class of artists and rebels separated from the rigidity of feudal status.”

Nor does the Bohemian have to be an artist himself. It is quite enough to know an artist, to break bread with one. Quite enough to ponder the meaning of life “as hidden and revealed in wine, coffee and dreams.” And if impecunious, so much the better. It is voluntary poverty, as Gold points out, which is not the same thing as poverty-poverty. Even Diogenes, when asked what his favorite wine was, replied, “Other people's.”

Where might one find these assiduous students of indolence who add the pepper to our workaday lives simply by being? Just about everywhere. “Bohemia,” writes Gold, “grows in any alley where there's a bit of fertile dirt and noninterference.” San Francisco, of course, where Gold lives. Paris, of course, where a rebuffed Jean Genet followed Gold home “shouting angry words, not forgetting to be existential and paradoxical,” and where the ineffable William Burroughs, cooking for dinner guests, peed on the lettuce to express displeasure.

Bali and Haiti and La Jolla. Venice, Calif., where someone achieved anonymous immortality by declaring, “Honi soit qui mal i bu.” Cairo, Palma de Mallorca, Budapest, Beverly Hills (!), Mauritius, Mill Valley—everywhere the peripatetic Mr. Gold has stopped to sip.

With so much fertile soil to till, Gold's book is somewhat disorganized—who ever heard of an organized Bohemian? Whatever, it's well worth exploring, if only to make the acquaintance of one Alfred Idwal, an American living in Florence, Italy, where he writes “denunciations, just like Mencken.”

“I'm like a dog, looking for the meaning of life,” declares Idwal.

“What'll you do when you find it?”

“Hey, when a dog chases a car, what does it do when it catches it? Hell if I know.”


Gold, Herbert (Vol. 14)


Gold, Herbert (Vol. 4)