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.
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.
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.
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.