Academic journal article Shofar

"Violent and Sentimental by Turns": The Gendered Discourses of Mike Gold

Academic journal article Shofar

"Violent and Sentimental by Turns": The Gendered Discourses of Mike Gold

Article excerpt

A new writer has been appearing; a wild youth of about twenty-two, the son of working class parents, who himself works in the lumber camps, coal mines, steel mills, harvest fields and mountain camps of America. He is sensitive and impatient. He writes in jets of exasperated feeling and has no time to polish his work. He is violent and sentimental by turns.

-Mike Gold, "Go Left, Young Writer"

My mother had that dark proletarian instinct which distrusts all that is connected with moneymaking. My father was more childlike.

With female realism she tried to beat the foolish male dreams out of his head.

-Mike Gold, Jews Without Money

The first of the above epigraphs, from a January 1929 editorial by Michael Gold in the leftist journal The New Masses, has often been cited as evidence of the gendered inflections of American proletarian writing of the 1920s and 1930s.1 Gold's editorial exemplifies both the insistently masculine imagery associated with proletarian writing (such as his wild youth's phallic " jets") and the connection between the manly proletariat and the myth of the American West (demonstrated by the title of the piece, "Go Left, Young Writer"). In the introduction to Writing Red, Paula Rabinowitz explains that Gold's use of the West "suggested that the Left, like the West, was a wild place-brutal, rugged, and certainly no place for a lady" (3). This connection is borne out in Gold's writing, but critics have been less apt to notice that Gold's prescription calls for writing that is both violent and sentimental; whereas the first term can be read as a predictably "masculine" discourse, the latter-the sentimental-is a form long dismissed as falling within the purview of the feminine.2 Moreover, the sentimental has often been vilified as lacking the "authenticity" central to the proletarian project. For Gold, however, combining the modes of the sentimental and the violent testifies to the authenticity and the active commitment of the writer. Unlike the "minor affects," such as irritation and envy, which Sianne Ngai has associated with "obstructed" or "suspended" agency, the aggressive extremes of rhetorical violence and sentiment mobilized by Gold project a writer who both takes action and inspires others to act (Ngai, 2-3). His efforts excite sympathy to inspire revolutionary change. By yoking together the registers of the violent and the sentimental, Gold contends that writing constitutes valuable labor rather than the intellectual parasitism and aesthetic prostitution he condemns.

Like his theoretical writing, Gold's autobiographical novel, Jews Without Money, draws on the myth of the West and depicts images of masculine virility. At the same time, however-as suggested by my epigraphs-the novel seems to privilege "female realism" over "foolish male dreams" by opposing proletarian women who are strong, wise, communally minded and distrustful of capitalism to individualistic, unrealistic men, especially the narrator's capitalist father. This article aims first to examine the "masculine" aspects of Gold's theoretical writing, and then to identify how and why those terms are subverted in Jews Without Money, where a contrast is established not between virile men and ineffectual women, but rather between realistic female adults and childlike dreamers who are often male. Attending to the tension between the violent and the sentimental that energizesGold's writing-and which he constructs as a tension between masculine and feminine registers-reveals the context through which he sought to validate his own work as productive labor. In his masculinist critical rhetoric as well as his female-centered autobiographical writing, Gold endorses "real" labor and "authentic" feeling and opposes them to the false, gilded, and prostituted products of mass culture as well as to ineffectual "high" art. Seeking to project both authenticity and agency, Gold develops an aesthetic of extremity, "violent and sentimental by turns. …

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