Issue 211, Winter 2014
Vivian Gornick has written about herself in friendship, in marriage, as a daughter, as a woman living alone in New York, as a writer who has difficulty with writing. There are moments when she describes her struggles and her failures in love and work with such calm candor it seems that there is nothing about herself that she is afraid to see. Her memoirs include Fierce Attachments (1987), about her childhood in the Bronx and her lifelong antagonism with her mother, and Approaching Eye Level (1996), a collection of essays about her life as one loner among many in Manhattan. Of the awards and honors she has won for her work, the most recent is the selection of her “Letter from Greenwich Village” (see issue 204) for The Best American Essays 2014.
Although Gornick is best known as a memoirist, she is probably most influential as a critic. In her 1997 collection of essays, The End of the Novel of Love, Gornick makes an argument that was so quickly absorbed into the mainstream of literary thought that it now seems obvious: in the wake of the social changes of the sixties and seventies, the subject of love and marriage had lost much of its dramatic potential for novelists. “Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed . . . The idea of love as a means of illumination—in literature as in life—now comes as something of an anticlimax.”
Gornick received a B.A. from City College in 1957 and an M.A. from New York University in 1960. After working in book publishing, she became a reporter for the Village Voice in 1969 and was soon assigned to cover the feminist movement, whose insights would strongly influence her work. She began writing criticism, mainly for the Voice and The Nation, when relations between men and women were changing fast, and she registered those changes in her own reading. We all know the term “personal journalism” thanks to Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and other celebrated practitioners. Gornick would develop for a new generation something you might call “personal criticism,” a first-person style that draws on the tradition of essayist-critics like William Hazlitt and Virginia Woolf while also reflecting a very contemporary hunger for personal testimony. Indeed, the “I” of The End of the Novel of Love seems continuous with the “I” of Fierce Attachments, of her personal essays, and even of the biographies she has written (of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Emma Goldman). Whatever Gornick’s subject, her writing relies on direct, lived experience.
In conversation, Gornick speaks very much the way she writes—with point. She is an excellent storyteller and can quote the novels that matter to her at length and verbatim. She has blunt manners and a warm, disarming laugh. Our interview was conducted in her West Village apartment over two days last June.
Were your parents readers?
My father read the New York Times and the Daily Worker and the Morgn frayheyt, a left-wing Yiddish newspaper, every day of his life.
My mother was a romantic, so she read novels, many from the nineteenth century. She had only a high school education, but she was one of those immigrants who grew up on the Lower East Side and went to every free lecture in sight. When I was a young woman I began to give her books to read. She read whatever I gave her, and I would say, Ma, how was the book? She’d narrow her eyes, look steadily at me, and say, Powerful, really powerful. Or she’d say, Not powerful, not at all powerful. But once I gave her a two-volume autobiography by a popular English novelist of the early twentieth century named Storm Jameson. Jameson was a lousy novelist, but when she was in her late seventies she wrote this autobiography called Journey from the North—she came from Yorkshire—and that was her masterpiece, the one book she wrote brilliantly. A week after I’d given my mother the book, I came in and there she was, lying on the couch, reading it. I said, Oh Ma, how are you enjoying that book? She sat up, swung her legs over the side of the couch, narrowed her eyes, as always, but this time she said, It’s as though she’s just in the room with me. And then she said, I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book. And I thought, What more could any writer ask of a reader?
Because of this literary romanticism of hers, she pushed me to take the academic, not the commercial, course in high school. She told me I was going to go to college when many of the girls on the block were being urged to become secretaries. Love, of course, was the most important thing in a girl’s life, but she wanted me to get an education so that I could become a teacher in case my husband died or left me. She thought that in the best of lives what happens is that a girl goes in one door marked college and comes out another marked teacher. When I graduated from City College and she discovered I wasn’t a teacher, she felt swindled.
In Fierce Attachments, you describe your years at City College as a kind of idyll. What were relations like between the girls and boys?
We were working-class to the bone, and that really dominated everything. Class outclassed sex, you might say. It was as if, unconsciously, we knew we were all involved in a project, and that made us comrades. Not that kids didn’t develop crushes, fall in love, and some even have sex, though most of us were virgins almost until the end of college. But it was more like so many other pioneering experiments in which gender is, at least temporarily, ignored. The women were pressed into service just like the men. So, as in the nineteenth-century West, when many states gave women the vote to honor their participation in settling the territory, we girls at City College were most often treated as fellow pioneers.
Who were your teachers at City College?
They were just smart college boys, mostly wasps—not teachers of distinction at all. They were the kind of people who, at the turn of the century, were running settlement houses. That’s really what it was like, now that I think about it. The English had this big project among Oxbridge men to go north, to educate the working classes. Our teachers were something like that, although nowhere near as well connected or well-set-up as the English. But they certainly cheered us on.
I read some years ago a piece in the London Review of Books by an English writer who was about my age and who had grown up in the fifties, poor. And they were really lower-class, living in council housing. Their teachers would tell them, You are never going to be anything but a clerk, you don’t need to study this, you need to learn that. With us, at City, it was exactly the opposite. The teachers, for the most part, seemed charmed by our rude smarts. I had a teacher who, when I finished school, said to me, What are you going to do now? And I said, I don’t know, get a job. He said, Don’t do that—you’re better than that. Go get some more education. A lot of us had that experience. And I am sure that many of us succeeded much more fully than those teachers did, but they wanted us to do well.
It was such an oddity, the little world that we came from, it was such a set of contradictions. We went to college because we knew we didn’t want to become clerks or office workers, but our ideas were so dim. The yearning for education was just part of the culture. My friends and I worshipped literature. We thought everything we would ever know or care about or be devoted to was to be found in literature—certainly it was in being absorbed by the books we read. And we especially—me and the girls I knew—felt daring when we read Colette and Mary McCarthy. These were fonts of wisdom for us. The work of these writers was not on any syllabus of any course we ever took, but we looked upon them as our real mentors. I memorized whole passages of Mary McCarthy. It was from her especially that I thought I was learning how to be in the world, as a woman who expected to become a person.
Were you were reading criticism at the time?
Not when I was growing up. I was a dreamy kid at City College, falling in love with D. H. Lawrence and George Eliot, but I wasn’t in the world, I wasn’t of the world. For others my age, who came from more educated homes, Partisan Review and the other literary journals must have been a presence, but I’d come from a left-wing home, where politics and literature were worshipped, not analyzed. I was not at all a sophisticated reader. I thought I was going to be a novelist because that’s what a writer was—so all I read was novels. I gave no thought to any other kind of writing.
Were you writing fiction?
Of course. Stories. Not one of which was ever any good. They all lay there on the page like a dead dog.
What were they about?
They were about what I thought were important events, which meant whatever was churning me up at the moment. I had had a relationship in my early twenties with a man who was an art dealer in New York. I don’t mean a sexual relationship. I needed a job, and a girl I went to school with said to me, My family has this friend, he runs a gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street, he needs an assistant, go see. So I went to see him. He was a crusty old German Jew who was a well-known art dealer, actually. I went to work for him in his gallery and all kinds of characters came in and went out and a lot of nutty things happened there. It was its own education. The dealer came to adore me. I was the appreciative daughter of his intellectual dreams. We remained close in this odd way for a number of years.
Then he died and I began to discover the things he had done in his business that were a bit shady, and also that he was having an affair with my classmate’s mother. I thought this was thrilling.
I would often carry paintings to the restorer, who was two blocks away, down the street. The dealer would say to me, Always walk with the canvas turned inside because Fifty-Seventh Street is full of spies. So I called my story, “Fifty-Seventh Street Is Full of Spies.” Now, Mary McCarthy wrote a very brilliant story about a man like this—it’s one of the earliest of her stories. She knew what to do with such material. I didn’t. I sent my story to Commentary, and an editor wrote me back and said, It’s a really good story, we like it a lot, but the narrative is so naive. We can’t believe any twenty-year-old girl today could be that naive.
Did you know what the editor meant?
A little bit, but not really. I could have probably gone back to her and said, Could you tell me exactly what you mean? But I wasn’t even old enough to know to ask that question. I’m definitely what you call a late bloomer. The whole sixties went right by me. I didn’t know who the hell I was, I didn’t know how to find myself in any way. I wasn’t in the New Left. I certainly wasn’t in the counterculture. It wasn’t even that I was a good girl—I just felt utterly at sea.