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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Michael Gold

Michael Gold was the eldest of three sons born to the Graniches, Jewish immigrants living on New York’s Lower East Side. During the Palmer Raids of 1919–20 he took the name Michael Gold after a Jewish Civil War veteran he admired for having fought to “free the slaves.” When his father’s health and business failed, the son had to go to work at age twelve to help support the family. His anger at capitalism was initially more personal than political, more subjective than ideological: unlike the mass of impoverished ghetto dwellers, he had been reared to expect better.

He was twenty-one and his life was going nowhere when, having “no politics...except hunger,” Granich happened to wander into Union Square one April day in 1914 during a demonstration, was knocked down by a policeman, and had the epiphany he describes at the end of Jews Without Money. The Jewish Messiah that the young boy of Jews Without Money prays for will not come in Gold’s lifetime; but the Marxist Messiah, who will punish the guilty—i.e., the capitalists, the exploiters—and reward the innocent—i.e., the workers, the exploited—will.

The first time he read The Masses, the important revolutionary magazine edited by Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, Granich was amazed that poetry and fiction about being poor was publishable—he had been writing poems and stories which he assumed he could never publish. Four months after his Union Square epiphany in August, 1914, The Masses published Granich’s first piece, a poem about three anarchists who had died in a bomb explosion, and his fifty-year career as a writer was launched.

He left the Jewish, working-class Lower East Side and moved to Greenwich Village where he started to move in the American and Bohemian leftist and literary circles then swirling around John Reed and Eugene O’Neill. Discovering he could support himself working for the leftist press, Granich ceased working as a manual laborer. In 1921 he became an editor of the Liberator, which had succeeded the suppressed Masses and became the cultural journal of the Communist Party. When the Liberator became wholly political in the mid-1920s, he helped found the New Masses, devoted to publishing literary works by workers rather than by literary leftists with working-class sympathies. He became editor-in-chief in 1928.

Jews Without Money, which Gold had been working on throughout the 1920s, was published in February, 1930. Had it been published a year or two earlier when the Jazz Age still seemed to be booming, it might well have gone unnoticed; had it been published a year or two later in the midst of the Depression, it might have seemed old hat. The collapse of the economy had ruined the plans and destroyed the dreams of a whole generation, as the collapse of Papa Granich’s business and health twenty years earlier had ruined the plans and destroyed the dreams of Yitzhak-already-Isaac-already-Irwin Granich. Although Jews Without Money was not about the 1930s and did not emerge from a 1930s sensibility, having been composed in the 1920s, it seemed to many the pre-eminent 1930s novel. By October it had gone into its eleventh printing.

The book’s success was not based on its subject matter alone. It was Gold’s description of a degrading ghetto existence—the diseases, the early deaths, the degenerates, crime, prostitution, filth—and his arraignment of capitalism as its progenitor and cause that made Jews Without Money seem so contemporary, so urgent, in 1930. The heroic center of Jews Without Money is Katie Gold, whose selflessness, whose love for fellow men and women, Jew and Gentile, and whose energy and indomitability are all channeled into an almost cosmic sense of responsibility to and for everyone she comes into contact with. Katie’s persistent struggle to survive with dignity and generosity of spirit stands as a paradigm for the Workers’ Revolution.

Gold became a national figure, cultural commissar of the Communist Party, arbiter of artistic value according to the artist’s political allegiances. As the Twenties had buoyed up F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Thirties buoyed up Michael Gold—it was the decade for which he was born. In 1933 he became daily columnist for the Daily Worker, the mass circulation Communist Party newspaper. In 1935 in the introduction for a new edition of Jews Without Money, Gold noted that it had been translated into French, Swedish, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Jugo-Slavian [sic], Italian, Japanese, Chinese, Ukrainian, Russian, Yiddish, Dutch, and Tatar and was particularly proud that “German radicals had translated it and were spreading it widely as a form of propaganda against the Nazi anti-Semitic lies.”

Unlike many of the Marxists of his generation, Michael Gold never shifted gears, never changed with the times. Through the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties he remained remarkably—some would say foolishly, naively, stupidly—faithful to that twenty-one-year-old’s epiphany: “O workers’ Revolution!...You are the true Messiah!” Gold’s chance of surviving as a writer has come to depend much more on the religion and ethnicity that he abandoned than on his politics and ideology, much more on the Jewish identity he implicitly rejected at the end of Jews Without Money and which shaped the first twenty-one years of his life than on the Marxist identity he explicitly donned at the end of Jews Without Money.

Barry Gross
Michigan State University

In the Heath Anthology
from Jews Without Money
      The Soul of a Landlord (1930)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
text file Virtual Tours of NYC's Tenement Museum

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Gertrude Stein: A Literary Idiot
First Published in the New Masses.

Secondary Sources

James Bloom, Left Letters: The Culture Wars of Mike Gold and Joseph Freeman, 1992

Rachel Ruben, Jewish Gangsters in Modern Literature, 2000