Herbert Gold, Novelist
1987 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
In a memoir published not long after the death of his younger brother, Herbert Gold recalls moments from their childhood when the two boys would lie awake at night in the bedroom they shared, inventing stories to amuse and frighten one another. He speculates that it may well have been those late-night sessions that set him permanently into what he calls “the storytelling mode.”
It seems only natural that Gold would have looked back in time to try to find the determining events that propelled him into a writing career spanning more than half a century. And it is equally natural that he would have turned his gaze to his childhood in Cleveland, where the influences of what he calls “regular-folks America” began to shape his perspective and propel him into the wider world in search of all that was new and different.
suburban Lakewood in 1924, Gold chafed at the social and intellectual
constraints imposed on a bright Jewish boy growing up in a complacent
and decidedly gentile part of town. His forays into and around
Depression-era Cleveland in search of excitement and new experience
were the classic wanderings of the misplaced Bohemian, and the memories
he accumulated during those years would appear
A contemporary of the Beat-era poets and novelists, Gold traversed much the same path as his fellow explorers. After World War II, he attended Columbia University in New York, where he got to know many of the writers who would give the generation its name (including poet Allen Ginsberg, with whom he maintained an on-again, off-again friendship for decades). As a Fulbright fellow he attended the University of Paris, where he wrote his first novel, Birth of a Hero, which was published in 1951.
But Gold differed from most of his contemporaries in two important ways. Early on, he adopted a more consistent and professional approach to his career (over the years he would publish more than 20 novels, as well as innumerable short stories, essays, memoirs, and magazine articles). And although he knew well the coffee-house worlds of Greenwich Village and the Left Bank—what he calls “the Bohemian archipelago”—he was in but not of them. He never embraced the detached, ultra-cool tone with which the Beats were so enamored, and his work always seemed to be colored by the more profoundly human influences of a childhood and adolescence spent in Cleveland. He has lived in San Francisco's hip North Beach neighborhood since the 1960s, but through it all he has remained essentially a Midwestern boy.
In his best novels and short stories, Gold infuses a blend of humor, insight and compassion into his explorations of the human condition. Everything is fair game—the lives of his family, of characters met and imagined and, in particular, the progression of his own journey through the world. He revels in follies—his own and those of his creations on the page—but his true search is for the words, the gestures, the moments that define and reveal us. He writes in an emphatically American voice, as befits an artist who first slipped into the storytelling mode in the very middle of the American heartland.
A Father Observed
Noisy, brawling, weeping or alcoholic fathers must, to some extent, inoculate their children against the fearsome separations wrought by excitement. My father usually had things under control. He kept the lid on. I have seen him drunk once. On a Christmas Eve it was; he stamped into the house after the fruit store closed, wearing his sheepskin coat, snowy and wet and laughing in a way that frightened me. My mother kept trying to shush him (babies sleeping) and crowd him into bed. He reeled through the hall, and when his wild eye fell upon me, it made no connection. He was roaring, but what about? Nothing. Just roaring. Perhaps his Chassidic father sometimes thus celebrated the God-given right to roar like a beast. Perhaps he roared for the unforgettable and the forgotten.
I hid behind a door and put my nose in the crack. I watched my father. If he pushed the door—less nose.
In silence I watched him, and in a terror of loneliness. To be present when a father laughs, and yet to be so alone! My wet nose was in jeopardy against the crack of the door. This was no Chassidic mystery. There was no ritual to grasp at; it was his festival, his alone, personal, excluding. He was thick and powerful in tufted yellow sheepskin, and the crating hammer, with flat silvery prongs, stuck out of his pants pocket. There was also a bulge of holiday mone—a good day's business. He had come from the party he gave in the back room for the Italians who worked in his store. Probably Myrna, the bulging widow clerk, the heaviest thumb on any scale in town, the tightest corset, had led to wildness. She always wanted him to let go, push and shove, be a truck driver with her. With her swollen lips and her hilarious shrieks of laughter, she had everything figured out in her own sweet way. A tangle of widow's desire. My mother could settle that score later.
It was Christmas Eve; this was America; all down the streets of Lakewood, Ohio, children and parents put their lives together in momentary communion. Only in our house did the father celebrate without making his meaning clear.
Why did this come to be my model of isolation, separation?
—Fathers (Random House, 1962)
Cleveland Arts Prize
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