The Romance of American Communism
Verso, $29.99 pb, 263 pp
In the novel Demons, Dostoevsky’s narrator describes the character Shatov as ‘one of those ideal Russian beings who can suddenly be so struck by some strong idea that it seems to crush them then and there, sometimes even forever’. This ideal person is one whose ‘whole life afterwards is spent in some last writhings, as it were, under the stone that has fallen on them’. The people who populate Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism are Americans rather than Russians, but they too are living in the last writhings of the strong idea that dominates their lives: the idea of Stalinist communism.
Gornick’s book, first published in 1977, has been rereleased this year by Verso, with a new introduction by the author. To write the book, Gornick, then a journalist, travelled around America for a year interviewing former members of the Communist Party USA. The product of this labour is a narrative oral history, a series of character portraits that balance the reported speech of the interviewees with Gornick’s own authorial interventions, by turns admiring and judgemental of her subjects but always keenly perceptive.