Vivian Gornick and the Revolution That Won’t End

John Freeman with the Author of Unfinished Business

For the past four decades, Seventh Avenue in lower Manhattan has been a thoroughfare of American essayists. In the late 1990s, I’d often pass Daniel Mendelsohn there, enjoying his afternoon stroll amidst other men—a circuit he later described in his memoir, The Elusive Embrace. It was a well-worn path, cruising the avenue. In City Boy, his chatty memoir of 1970s New York, Edmund White recalled encountering the poet and critic Richard Howard charging down Seventh. The two made an appointment on the exact same street corner and picked up walking and talking the next day as if no time had passed. Recently, I met White for lunch on the avenue near where this ambulatory meeting had occurred. Leaving the restaurant, we ran into Mary Gaitskill, heading north. We didn’t need to ask Mary where she was going—it was self-evident she was following the compass needle of her mind.

“Nobody I know sees New York as a struggle. Mostly a charge.”

In all this time, the writer one might see most often on her daily peregrination down Seventh Avenue was Vivian Gornick, author of Fierce Attachments and thirteen other books. On foot, Gornick is a fast walker, slightly tilted forward, contained. A woman not lost in thought, but powered by it. On the page, she is the warmest narrator in American life-writing of the past half century, save for perhaps James Baldwin. Like Baldwin—or White or Mendelsohn—Gornick’s work hasn’t just traced the orbits of American culture, it has reconstituted the air through which she paces by questioning its assumptions. Who gets to move freely? Why does anyone have to ask for that permission? Gornick, after all, emerged from the white-hot center of the women’s liberation movement. Her 1969 Village Voice essay, “The Next Great Moment in History is Theirs,” detailing a gathering of Kate Millett and others, announced the arrival of second-wave feminism in the US.

In the decades since, Gornick didn’t abandon second-wave principles by any stretch—a recent book ruminated on suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton and modern feminism, she’s also written a short biography of the anarchist Emma Goldman—but she found a way to turn that period’s mantra, “the personal is political,” into a narrative strategy by flipping it inside out. From Fierce Attachments onward, Gornick’s life often appears in her work, but not as the story, but the situation in which a story develops: often a story about culture, or love, or friendship and justice. Forging this method took a long time. The fires from which she pulled it can feel like distant embers in 2020 America, Gornick admitted on a recent afternoon, sitting in her West Village apartment overlooking the AIDS memorial at St. Vincent’s Triangle, the times a changin’ back thanks to America’s political insanity.

But the other good thing about Seventh Avenue is that it’s a place where people still feel free to signal their gratitude, or otherwise.

“People are always shouting out to me on the street,” Gornick says, green eyes flashing, imitating a voice from her part of the Bronx, “‘Hey Gornick,’ they say, ‘I liked your piece!’” I tell her I often thought of doing the same when she’d zoom past on the avenue. She erupts, “Oh, you should have!” then launches into a tale about a writer we both know, and we’re off on a typical Gornick conversational stroll. This digressive, enchanting energy is what has made Gornick such a beloved life-writer. You don’t just want to talk to her, you want to be talked to by her. Walk with her. You want to be in her orbit. As Gornick speaks to me before her bookcase, asking questions as often as she riffs, her rich, confident, street-wise accent grows. It sharpens the edge to her intimate, hilarious and fabulously intelligent voice, one more tuned to laughter these days than it is to rage. She won’t have her head turned by new translations of her work in Norway and Sweden, grateful as she is for new readers. Nor is she going back on the circuit. “All those guys, they love the festivals. Me, I like my routine!”

At 84, the key to Gornick’s happiness these days is her involvement in activities that are not arrival points—things like friendship, on which she is one of America’s finest writers, or analysis, which she has been in for several decades. Such passions are, by definition, endless. Gornick appears to find a comfort in the circular, muscular logic one must apply to them to be involved in them. Gornick’s friend, the writer and activist Alix Kates Shulman, who has known her for 50 years, has watched Gornick’s evolution from feminist firebrand to personal essayist and sees in it a different kind of risk. “After the rightwing backlash against feminism and the Left, in the United States in the 1980s,” Shulman wrote in an email, “she dared to turn in a new direction. With Fierce Attachments, I think she changed her conception of herself as a writer, embracing the personal essay as more rewarding and important than her journalism, to herself and to the world.”

Yet to read Gornick’s work going back to the 1960s, the knowledge that she’d have to know herself fully—to inhabit herself fully—has always been there. In other words, she knew then, she’d have to write her story. In the 1976 essay, “The Price of Paying Your Own Way,” about women and money, Gornick wrote: “the beauty of feminism is that it is a social and political movement that has redefined the power and obligation of the self.” If the first part of Gornick’s writing life was helping shape the terms of that redefinition: the second has been trying to live up to its possibilities. “What grounds me,” she says now, “is always trying to figure out why I’m doing what I’m doing. How to be in the world and asking, ‘To what degree am I creating this and to what degree is this being created for me?’ That’s my ballast.”

*

Vivian Gornick didn’t grow up thinking this way. It took time to see around her particular universe, to catch the glint of its creation. Hers was a black and white world, an us and them universe. Gornick’s father worked in a dress factory owned by her uncles. Her mother stayed at home in their apartment in the Bronx, keeping the fragile peace of the neighborhood, making dinner. “Papa works hard all day long,” Gornick recalled her mother saying in her recently reissued The Romance of American Communism, when she asked why her mother made dinner each night. “Those words, in my mother’s mouth, spoke volumes, and from the age of reason on I absorbed their complex message… the words said: We are all of us, here in this house, vitally connected to the fact that Papa works hard all day long. We pay attention to and respect that fact; we make common cause with it.”

Growing up in the 1930s, going to a Yiddish shul after public school let out and with parents that were fellow travelers of the Communist party, Gornick had a childhood out of Singer. Her ear was tuned by the sounds of that apartment. “At the wooden table in our kitchen there were always gathered men named Max and Hymie, and women named Masha and Goldie,” she wrote in The Romance of American Communism. “Their hands were work-blackened, their eyes intelligent and anxious, their voices loud and insistent. They drank tea, ate black bread and herring, and talked ‘issues.’ … That passionate, transforming talk! I understood nothing of what they were saying, but I was excited beyond words by the richness of their rhetoric, the intensity of their arguments, the urgency and longing behind that hot river of words that came ceaselessly pouring out of all of them.”

To this day, all this talk has left a mark in her more ways than one. Gornick loves talkers, treasures ideas, and is impatient with griping about the struggle of daily life in New York. “I grew up just marching through it all,” she says now, when I ask her if Manhattan has become a harder place to live. “For me, I am what you call urban—not urbane, as somebody said to me! No, I’m the urban peasant. Nobody I know sees New York as a struggle. Mostly a charge.” Coming from the Bronx made this so, but she had to leave it to see it clearly—and her mother, who was far more than a woman who stayed home. “She was everywhere,” Gornick would later write in Fierce Attachments, “all over me, inside and out. Her influence clung, membrane-like, to my nostrils, my eyelids, my open mouth. I drew her into me with every breath I took. I drowsed in her etherizing atmosphere.”

“That was actually the first set of sentences in which I discovered that I had discovered a voice,” Gornick says, when I quote them back to her, “that I had finally achieved a voice.” I compare the world it creates and its claustrophobia to Ferrante, and Gornick instantly corrects me. “You know, in Italy, they still have a very vigorous, ongoing feeling, sort of proletariat feeling for the sons of Naples. And growing up that way and being trapped in that world. The neighborhood is the major character, not the girls. Nobody gets away, no matter what. She gets away and comes back. So I don’t associate to that.”

Like (or unlike) Elena, Gornick didn’t go far: simply down the 6 train to City College, which had a great faculty, but even better students. “Most of us had been reading in bottled up silence from the age of six on and City College was our great release,” she wrote in Fierce Attachments. As she began to build her fabulous, intelligent mind, her mother and a single mother nearby, Nettie, both fought against the power this created by redirecting it. Nettie tried to remind the young Gornick her best power would be wielded by seducing men. Meantime, Gornick’s mother tried to remind her it would come from loving them.

Gornick tried both. By her thirties, following a trip to California for an MA at Berkeley, she was twice married and divorced. Neither stuck, but in the interim she had turned herself into a writer. She began to write articles and essays. Finally, she wrote one she felt good enough about to mail into the Village Voice. “Two days later my phone rings,” she tells me now. ‘I say, “Hello?” And a man says, “Who the hell are you? I’m Dan Wolf from the Village Voice. Who the hell are you?” And I said, “I don’t know, you tell me.” And he laughed and he said, “Send me whatever you’re working on.” It took Gornick a year to send the next piece. And then another year for the next. “Then I was married and living in New Mexico by then, and then I left my husband and came back here—I don’t know how I had the nerve to do this—I went to the Village Voice to ask for a job,” Gornick says. She asked to see Wolf. He said, “Oh, that’s who you are!” I said, “Yeah. I’d like a job.” So he said to me, “You’re a neurotic Jewish girl, you can only produce one piece a year. How can I give you a job?” So then I said I’ll do anything, and I meant it.”

“I got out into the street and I suddenly realized what I should have realized all the time. The minute I got out in the street I felt much better.”

She got off to a roaring start. “I spent a day with Dorothy Day, do you know who she is? Leader of the Catholic Worker Movement, she was older by then. Fierce, tough, unreachable. And then Jack Kerouac died and they sent me to Lowell, Mass. to do his funeral. That’s when I first saw Allen Ginsberg. The funeral was a nightmare and like something out of a bad novel, just insane. It was divided between his French-Canadian relatives who were all like my family. Lower middle class, sitting there, their arms folded. And then all the hippies! Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg—all these people flying around like lunatics. In the middle of this a very old woman was weeping and weeping and weeping. She was Jack Kerouac’s wife, his widow. He had married a woman old enough to be his mother. All of a sudden somebody sits down next to me and I look and it’s Allen Ginsberg. I recognized him. And he says, “Who are you?” I tell I’m there for the Voice and he asks, “Are you speaking to her?” I said, “Oh no, I wouldn’t dare do that.” He said, “You must. It’s your job.”

“So of course I didn’t, and it passed, and Wolf gave me the job.”

“Twenty years later Allen Ginsberg is at PEN speaking. PEN had voted to censor Israel for its treatment of journalists. And all these Jews at PEN went up in flames. Everybody else said, ‘What do you mean? You can censor Morocco but you can’t censor Israel? You can censor any other country in the world?’ Which they did. It was really an internal fight. Ginsberg got up there to defend, of course, the accusation against Israel, which was warranted. The place was packed and I was sitting in an aisle seat, and he was in his sixties by then, wearing a threadbare black suit. A suit, too tight, and shiny. You know, looking old but still, he opened his mouth and he was noble. He was, he was noble! He comes down off the stage and he’s walking up this aisle, and I stopped him and I said, ‘That was a wonderful speech.’ He peers at me and he says to me, ‘I know you.’ Three times he says, ‘I know you.’ And I said, ‘I’m sure you do.’ (laughter) Unbelievable. “I know you.”

So at age 34 Gornick went to work at the Voice. If she wasn’t known then, she soon would be. Second-wave feminism was beginning to rise and the paper had become the voice of the liberation movements. In 1970, she began putting together some of these voices into a book, the anthology Women in Sexist Society, which includes the early work of Ellen Willis, Elaine Showalter, Cynthia Ozick, Shulman, and an essay of Gornick’s own on the woman as outsider, which gave a glimpse of the wall of contempt feminists faced at the time. “Not long ago,” Gornick wrote in the essay, “I sat across a luncheon table from a man who is intelligent, educated, and somewhat famous. As coffee was being poured, he leaned back, lit a cigarette, narrowed his eyes against the smoke, flicked an ash from his arm, and casually said: “Of course, you realize that if Women’s Liberation wins, civilization will simply be wrecked.”

Looking back on the period now, Gornick can easily recall such interactions. But mostly she recalls the spirit of change and togetherness. She wrote about this once in 1990:

To be a feminist in New York City in the early 70’s—bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Not an I-love-you in the world could touch it. There was no other place to be, except with each other. We lived then, all of us, inside the loose embrace of feminism. It was as though we’d been released from a collective lifetime of silence. Every week, there was a gathering of some sort at which the talk was an exhilaration. There wasn’t a woman in the room whose conversation did not engage. Once, after one of these evenings, a friend called me in the morning and sang into the phone, ‘Everyone was interested, and everyone was interesting.’ I laughed and sang back, ‘Everyone was interesting because everyone was interested.’ We saw our inner lives being permanently marked by the words we spoke. We were changing before each other’s eyes, taking our own ideas seriously, becoming other than we had been. We were, in fact, reincarnating as the feminists of previous generations, although what this actually meant was understood only slowly and very imperfectly. I remember reading Elizabeth Cady Stanton and feeling amazed that a hundred years ago she had said exactly what I was now saying. Amazed, and gratified. Not sobered. That would come later.

For much of the 1970s, Gornick was on fire with this energy, reincarnated or not. In 1971, not long after her anthology came out, Gornick flew to Egypt, then in the news with Anwar Sadat taking office. She came in search of the culture that had made an ex-lover, and spent six months buffeted around Cairo, doing less talking and more listening. The ear she’d tuned for the voice that would become hers drove her then deep into a foreign culture—out of which she wrote her first book, In Search of Ali Mahmoud, one she dismisses today as lousy. (“I let people take it over.”) It was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1974 alongside titles by Jessica Mitford and John Kenneth Galbraith.

A few years later, she published The Romance of American Communism, drawn from hundreds of interviews with old timers, fellow travelers. Irving Howe reviewed it for the New York Review of Books. Essays in American Feminism, which collected the first nine years of her work for the Voice, appeared that same year. As if this pace of publishing was not enough, she began work on a book about women in science. She spoke to women who had grown up on Park Avenue and others who had “grown up on Tobacco Road,” she wrote in her introduction, referring to Erskine Caldwell’s novel. “A female person grows up, discovers that by virtue of temperament, inclination and talent she is a scientist, and she becomes one. Then what? How much battle must she do to get to the excitement? … What are the chances of her breaking free and penetrating to the center?”

*

By the mid-1980s, Gornick was still asking herself the same questions. Second-wave feminism had begun to stall. She had published six significant books in just over a decade, but as the 80s turned she found herself a bit at sea, tied up and tired out. Thinking back on this period today, she regards it as the beginning of the loss of familiar footing. “I grew up with the romance of the Soviet Union and I lived to see that country disappear. When the country disappeared, and I was certainly no longer a sympathizer, much less a fellow traveler, nevertheless I realized how deep inside it was as a verity, as a block in the world. One of the building blocks. And it disappeared. It wasn’t a country anymore! What did we do with that? I was so far out of it, people I knew walking around stunned, like the world had come to an end and these were the remains, and what do we do now. And I did, you know—people like me had to change the foundation of their belief quite often.”

Gornick worried in this period about becoming broke. She worried that she had become depressed. She wasn’t sure what to do. In the end, she wound up walking her way out of both. In the early 1980s she had begun a memoir about her mother, and Nettie, a single mother who lived across the way from them. She wanted to write about how the two of them made her a woman. Gornick wrote forty pages of the book and then hit a wall. There was too much unfinished business with her mother. Then one day her mother phoned and told her a story which she enjoyed. Rather than write it down straight into the book, she wrote a scene in which the two of them were walking, so that she could set it up. Thus began the book’s roving format, a series of reflections and riffs on the apartment in the Bronx collaged together with conversations which happened—or could have happened—as she took walks around New York with her mother.

From Fierce Attachments onward a new fluidness and almost floating purity emerges in her work. She begins to sound, always, like herself.

The book took years to write, but the time helped her in a way. “Every single afternoon, for years, I would fall into low spirits around four, five o’clock in the afternoon,” Gornick remembers now. “One day, completely accidentally, I had an appointment to see somebody on the Upper East Side. Someone in the 60s, on Madison Ave. And on impulse, I decided to walk. It was just an impulse. I can’t account for it. The point is, I got out into the street and I suddenly realized what I should have realized all the time. The minute I got out in the street I felt much better.”

Thus began Gornick’s career as one of the great walkers of New York City. Six miles a day became her regimen, and the prose, it’s hard not to see, her loose, rangy, beautiful new prose style flowed out of this movement. From Fierce Attachments onward a new fluidness and almost floating purity emerges in her work. She begins to sound, always, like herself. “I felt in contact with the world,” Gornick says. “And then I started walking and then I started—I wasn’t even listening—but I was hearing. You can’t help it in New York. I started hearing street theatre, people saying the most insane things.” The sounds of New York enter her work viscerally in Fierce Attachments. The strange run-ins that define urban life.

For more than 20 years, Gornick walked six miles a day. It was her “surefire cure for ordinary garden-variety depression.” It also poured voices into her ears. “It wasn’t the life of the mind, at all. It was the exact opposite,” she tells me now. “I don’t consider all that absorption the life of the mind; it was like raw material. But I would come home and write down everything.” In the early 1990s, she wrote an essay called “On the Street,” out of these still shining pieces of ore. The essay veers between jokes and strange overheard comments and conversations she has with a friend named Leonard, who is a genius for one-line zingers. After a boring dinner party, for example, Gornick recounts the whole affair to her friend. How she had to listen to the host’s tedious husband.

“The nerve,” Leonard replies. “He thinks he’s a person too.”

The New Yorker published the essay in 1996, and it was later collected in Approaching Eye Level, a new kind of book by Gornick. It was, simply, essays about people she knew, thoughts about living alone, a tribute to the old-fashioned art of letter writing, the glimpse I quoted above of second-wave feminism twenty years later. Gornick might be an urban peasant, but in these years she appeared the quintessence of urbane, at home in her skin. I saw her read from The End of the Novel of Love, her 1997 collection of essays on Jean Rhys, Willa Cather, Grace Paley and others when she was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle. On the bill that night at the National Arts Club, a once tony, briefly hip beveled glass reading space on Gramercy Park were Don DeLillo and Sonia Sanchez. Gornick’s warmly chiseled poise stole the show.

*

In the last 20 years a resurgence has been steadily building of Gornick’s work. She once joked no one read her over 14th Street. That is clearly not true now. The Situation and the Story, Gornick’s 2001 book on the art of writing nonfiction, is now taught in dozens and dozens of writing classes across the country. It might be the single best work on life-writing available, and it tells a story along the way. The Men in My Life, a kind of companion book to The End of the Novel of Love, in which all the subjects are male writers, from H.G. Wells to Saul Bellow, was a surprise critical hit. In it, Gornick pointed to something she had been saying all along—that she had been made by male writers too, from Ginsberg to Baldwin. Indeed, the term she most commonly uses to the side of feminism—the odd woman—she borrows from The Odd Women, the classic novel by George Gissing.

“Gissing’s psychological brilliance comes most fully into focus when it applies itself not to starving writers or sensitive young men of no means, but to the women who, in the author’s own time, began to proclaim themselves ‘new.’ Almost against his will (he really didn’t like them), he took a close look and saw that it was through the ‘odd women’ that he could most sympathetically—that is, most realistically—express the nature of the crippling self-divide experienced by those who know themselves to be categorically unwanted.”

It is due to interactions like this with old texts, perhaps begun in a spirit of contempt, maybe even successful against their will, that Gornick expresses a deep allergy to the so-called “cancel culture”—the name given to conversations that have swept through the US in the wake of Trump’s election about ignoring or eschewing texts veined with misogyny or racism. “All censorship of books is wrong! It’s just wrong, there’s nothing else to say. It’s horrifying. It’s puritanical, it’s frightening, it’s horrible. I couldn’t have imagined I would live to see such regression. All of this. Political correctness is something I’m deeply sympathetic to in its origins and the reason for its existence, but I am not sympathetic to all the permutations.”

She went on,

I realized there’s not a thing these young women are saying, or any woman today, that we didn’t say 40 years ago. Nothing, not a word. I and everybody I knew said everything that’s being said now. When we said it, we were an eccentricity, a novelty. We were taken seriously to a certain extent, but never beyond that. No man ever lost his job. There was no, you know, French revolution ‘off with his head’—nothing like that ever happened. You never saw stories about sexual harassment. It was on the books, it was unlawful, but nobody paid any attention to it. And in fact I was shocked to discover that nothing had changed in the workplace. These accusations about all these guys—I am so shocked that nothing had changed! I mean, they were doing what they were doing to us in our twenties. It was unbelievable.

When I was in my twenties, I worked all these odd office jobs while going to school. There was always someone there who was hitting on me; everybody I knew. And you would go to work with your stomach in knots because you knew that somebody is going to torture you all day long: keep rubbing up against you or saying something salacious. It is the longest revolution on record. I mean, the idea of equality between men and women is something that we just can’t swallow. It produces so much anxiety.

The anxiety is endless and it keeps reshaping itself like cancer. You know, you knock it out here, it takes another shape and it wakes up there. It’s shocking how existentially frightened the human race is, especially on this score of seeing each other. Not sexually; I mean when a man in an office looks at a woman and decides he’s going to walk up to her and say something, he’s looking at her instrumentally. He’s not looking at a fellow human being. That is what has to change. And then she knows what he’s going to do and she’s deciding how she’s going to come out on top. So until that changes, it doesn’t change. Until it’s over, it isn’t over. And it’s certainly not over.

*

A large part of the greatness of Gornick’s second memoir, The Odd Woman in the City, which drew together 30 years of over-heard comments and conversations with Leonard, is how freshly the book renders the everyday. Walking in the city, making dates with a friend, trying to fall in love, having sex. In everyday life these activities can become so habitual they can become vacuumed of joy. In Gornick’s hands they become a new chance for engagement. Perhaps after decades of learning how every generation makes a new generation of Odd Women, Gornick has begun to find a new definition of new.

“I’ve never considered any of us revolutionaries,” Gornick says now, speaking not just of her generation, but the ones before and after her. “We’re not; we’re honest dissenters. That’s liberation in the true sense. Liberate us into our own country, into our own world.” These days, as ever, Gornick isn’t waiting for liberation to be handed to her. She is going to take it one essay and memoir at a time, describing her streets, her friends, her mind. And she’s not stopping. She has a new book, Unfinished Business, out this month—a meditation on revisiting some of her favorite formative texts, dating back to childhood. It’s an endless process. “It has often been my experience that re-reading a book that has been important to me at earlier times in my life is something like lying on an analyst’s couch,” she writes. Who wouldn’t want to know what comes next?

John Freeman
John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Freeman’s, a literary annual of new writing, and executive editor of Literary Hub. His books include How to Read a Novelist and Dictionary of the Undoing, as well as a trilogy of anthologies about inequality, including Tales of Two Americas, about inequity in the US at large, and Tales of Two Planets, which features storytellers from around the globe on the climate crisis. Maps, his debut collection of poems, was published in 2017, followed by The Park in 2020. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. He is the former editor of Granta and teaches writing at NYU.





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