To the Editor:
Many thanks for Marion Magid’s review of The Romance of American Communism by Vivian Gornick [Books in Review, February]. It is incredible what distortions revisionist history can give us.
R. Hugh Uhlmann
Kansas City, Missouri
To the Editor:
Marion Magid’s review is beautiful, i.e., brilliant and moving. . . .
Jesse R. Pitts
To the Editor:
It appears from her review that Marion Magid would be prepared, if somewhat bored, to review a book critical of the politics of former Communist party members and would relish the prospect of reviewing a book supporting their politics; what she finds frustrating is a book that is neither one nor the other and is therefore an elusive target. This frustration permeates the review.
At the beginning, the statement, “On Stalinism, at least, one might have thought the verdict was in for all time, but no such luck,” is surely not warranted by the contents of the book; if the “account” is “adoring,” it is not of a political ideology. The gratuitous comment, “If something polemical is intended here, Miss Gornick has neither the inclination nor, one suspects, the skill to say it outright,” is another symptom of frustration, as is the quibbling about the Yiddish of the author’s grandmother. (If Miss Magid doubts the words were spoken, let me assure her that imperfect Yiddish is spoken in this world, and if she is being a purist, her complaints are best directed to Miss Gornick’s grandmother.) The reviewer infers, but the author never asserts, that “. . . there is no question but that [Miss Gornick's reminiscence] is also meant as a stand-in for the Jewish immigrant experience as a whole.” The reviewer then responds (to an argument never made) that “. . . the Jewish Communists . . . far from being either the mainstream or the vanguard of the Jewish working class, were actually cut off from the rest of the community. . . .”
But this confusion between what is said and what the reviewer wishes to read is clearest when she criticizes the following paragraph: “My father was Labor, my uncles were Capital. My father was a socialist, my uncles were Zionists. Therefore Labor was Socialism and Capital was Nationalism.” These impressions of a young girl are rebutted as though they were presented in a political campaign: “These are of course utterly false oppositions, as even someone prejudiced in the matter might be expected to see; and the travesty of reality they represent is neatly captured in the word ‘therefore,’ which attempts to make a sort of dialectical ‘truth’ out of a simple self-serving lie.” To see that the reviewer has constructed a cannon to shoot a sparrow—a dead sparrow at that—one need only read the next line, which the reviewer omitted: “These equations were mother’s milk to me, absorbed through flesh and bone almost before consciousness.”
Finally, it is not true that “what . . . all Miss Gornick’s subjects have in common . . . is . . . how nice they are. . . .” Some are extremely arrogant and egocentric and others have an infinite capacity to experience without learning. Yet there is no question but that Miss Gornick is sympathetic to the human impulses that induced some of these people to join the Communist party, often with considerable personal sacrifice, so as to feel useful and important (or, if you like, arrogant and superior). This is not to deny their slavish and uncritical devotion to Moscow nor the (now) undisputed crimes unquestionably committed by their idols. And Miss Gornick does not deny them.
Morton D. Davis
Teaneck, New Jersey
Marion Magid writes:
Let me assure Morton D. Davis that I felt not the least bit “frustrated” while reviewing Vivian Gornick’s book. On the contrary, it is seldom given to a reviewer to examine so uncannily representative a document. Nor did I find the book in any way “elusive” as a target. One need read no more than a dozen pages or so to discover the work’s intention: it is a sentimental apologia not very well disguised as a piece of social history.
On the question of Stalinism I confess myself genuinely baffled by Mr. Davis’s point. Is Stalinism then not germane to a book about the American Communist party during its Stalinist heyday? True, the author avoids—except very occasionally and then, as it were, on tiptoe—putting the question to her forty-some-odd dedicated political “idealists.” But surely a reviewer would be remiss in similarly evading the question. The American Communist party was not, after all, a venture in landscape gardening. If Miss Gornick’s now elderly subjects are today enveloped in the pathos of a lost cause, they did not lose that cause for want of trying.
So far as the author’s grandmother’s Yiddish is concerned, I have indeed read my share of imperfect Yiddish—a lot of it, as it happens, in the memoirs of the American Jewish Left, currently ransacking its once-scorned ethnic origins. But I have never before encountered imperfect Yiddish in the form of perfect German. The tiny but tormenting false note this introduces into the flood of recollection is perhaps too minor to dwell on. Still, as my Yiddish-speaking grandmother used to say, “C’est le ton qui fait la musique.”
Mr. Davis’s next two points both hinge on my supposed tendency to infer from what has only been implied. It is true that Miss Gornick nowhere asserts in so many words that a social conscience and Stalinist politics were identical in the Jewish immigrant world. She merely suggests it, by failing to provide the context within which her subjects functioned. By leaving out the large fact that there was an anti-Communist Jewish Left—bitterly opposed to attempts by the party to take over trade unions, fraternal groups, cultural organizations, and so forth—she distorts a significant piece of history. So far as her own political views are concerned, I am glad to hear that the political equations of girlhood no longer apply, though the sentence Mr. Davis supplies seems to buttress my argument rather than his. Terms like “mother’s milk,” and pre-conscious identifications “absorbed through flesh and bone,” suggest, if anything, views that have become an ineradicable part of one’s being.
Mr. Davis’s subsequent point I concede. Not all Miss Gornick’s subjects are portrayed as nice people—the glaring exception is Max Bitterman, portrayed as nothing short of a monster. He is also the one individual in the sampling to have unequivocally disavowed his Communist past, and a male chauvinist pig to boot.
Finally, I confess that unlike Vivian Gornick and Mr. Davis, I do find it genuinely hard to sympathize with the “human” impulses which led people to serve a political idea in whose name tens of millions have been murdered, and millions more deprived of their freedom. Would Mr. Davis extend the same sympathetic consideration to the “human impulses” of those who served Nazism?