Herbert Gold Gold, Herbert (Vol. 152) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Judith Sklar (review date 28 July 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 817 words.)

Anne Bernays (review date 22 May 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)...

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John Rechy (review date 5 December 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dorothy H. Rochmis (review date January 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dorothy H. Rochmis (review date May 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Bette Pesetsky (review date 4 May 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 &...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daniel Curzon (review date 17 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Taylor (review date November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alex Raksin (review date 3 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daniel Walden (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Anthony Daniels (review date 11 April 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Bruce Cook (review date 18 April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dan Wakefield (review date 24 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dick Roraback (review date 4 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 338 words.)