excerpt from Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism (New York: Basic Books, 1977):

Those of the Middle Kingdom - the story of Mason Goode


WHILE it was indisputably true that thousands of people joined the Communist Party because they themselves were actually members of the disenfranchised working or subworking class, it was even truer that many more thousands joined because they felt themselves to be the spiritual and intellectual heirs of the disenfranchised. These people always reminded me of what the Chinese called "those of the Middle Kingdom"--meaning those who were motivated by conditions of the spirit rather than of class history. They were often the people who led the revolution wherever in the world it actually occurred, and who most often came to brilliant, deadly power in every Communist Party in the world: including the Communist Party USA. Mainly, they came from the educated middle class and were sensitized in individual and emotionally mysterious ways to Marxism and the Party. Many of them were intellectually or artistically gifted, and often the fate of their gifts is directly related to what Communism and the Communist Party meant in their lives.

In a large, plant-filled room in a wooden house on a small island in Puget Sound that faces directly across the water toward Seattle, a lanky, young-faced man with expressive humorous eyes comes walking toward me, one hand buried in the pocket of his olive-drab cotton trousers, the other outstretched in welcome. His face, his body, his gait have the unmistakable, irrevocable bearing of those born into the upper middle class; his handshake is strong and confident, his speech calm and educated. He motions me towards a daybed covered with a gaily colored Mexican blanket that reflects the comfortable, bohemian seediness of the entire room; he drops himself gracefully into a painted wicker chair opposite me; we begin to talk.

Mason Goode is sixty-two years old on this wet September day, and he is a long way from "home"; although, he says, in the last few years he has finally begun to feel that home is wherever he is. Goode, a man of physical grace and spiritual delicacy, was born with artistic gifts of his own into a talented, wealthy segment of American life. He could, he was told, become "anything." He became a Marxist and a professional revolutionary. He was a functionary of the Communist Party for eighteen years. In the McCarthy period his life was smashed to bits. He never really recovered from that terrible time, and for the past twenty years has lived in a strange kind of limbo here on Puget Sound with his wife, Dorothy, operating a commercial fishing boat.

From the beginning, Mason Goode is something special to me. As the man begins to speak, carefully, conscientiously, trying hard to reconstruct his childhood for me, I feel as though we are caught in a movie "dissolve," fading back into a re-creation of popular American history, a dream of glamor and the ironic juxtaposition of fabled Twenties wealth and equally fabled Thirties socialism. For Mason Goode is the son of a famous man, and the child of a famous time and place, and there is in the story of his childhood, young manhood, and political conversion a melancholy radiance, a compelling, ingathered sense of some very special moment in American life, somehow green and still, and at its center the golden children who were called to Marxism when a fullness of history filled the European and American continents exactly at the moment that entire history went smash.

Mason was born in 1912 to a father who had a talent for writing and a mother who was a great beauty; both parents were the children of cultivated, well-to-do, intensely assimilated German Jewish families. By the time Mason was ten years old his father was rich, famous, and drunk. When he was twelve his father left home. When he was twenty his father was dead of suicidal alcoholism.

Mason's childhood is, in some senses, that of the poor little rich boy. There they were--the mother, Mason, the two younger sisters--rattling around in a twenty-room mansion in a wealthy New York suburb with the father coming home drunk, or two days late, or finally not at all. There were three cars in the circular driveway--one of them a Rolls--but often no money for gasoline. There were servants whose pay was often weeks late, buying groceries on credit, and holding the children tight while they wept secretly in the kitchen. The mother was absolutely childlike, absolutely self-absorbed. She withdrew into a chronic depression and became for the rest of her life a neurasthenic burden, weighing down the lives of her relatives.

Once the father had, rather brutally, established his permanent absence, he began to visit, and a curious thing happened inside the boy. Feeling desperate with abandonment, he became very nearly speechless, and his nights were riven with dreams so bad he would sit bolt upright in bed at three in the morning, sweating and terrified; he experienced such powerlessness he could not imagine his being had any affect on others at all. Yet, at the same time, he was drawn to his visiting father, and perceived with a kind of child-wisdom that he, too, was desperate. Living as he did on the confused edge of his father's sophisticated, literate world, Mason was nevertheless given glimpses of that world at times, and when he was it would come upon him that-despite the brilliance and the nonstop gaiety-there was a dreadful emptiness at the center of his father's life. Years later, of course, Mason realized that his father drank and made love as much as he did to appease the panic and hunger that emptiness induced in him, but at the time it was all happening he only knew that his father was confused and driven, and the boy was awash with love and pity for this glamorous man who wanted to be kind to his children, but was not.

One spring morning in 1927, when he was fifteen years old, Mason and his father were standing at their suburban station waiting for the train to New York. It was a beautiful morning, very clear and bright. Mason's father had had a good night's sleep and was feeling good. He was, as always, carefully and beautifully dressed. He whistled as he brushed some barely perceptible lint from his blue jacket and straightened the creases of his white flannel trousers. His shoes, he decided, needed polishing. He walked over to the shoeshine stand beside the station's waiting room. The man shining shoes was an Italian immigrant who was just about Mason's father's age. He wore a shirt rolled up at the sleeves and a pair of shiny black pants. His arms were strong and brown, his hands work-blackened. He worked quickly and well, and as he did a sudden sadness spread itself across the father's face. He turned to Mason and said softly: "Poor devil. I wonder what kind of a life he must lead." Before he could think, Mason said to himself: "I know what kind of a life he leads."

His father was always saying things like that, as though in anxious, mysterious wonderment that he himself had escaped, and how could anyone who hadn't live. Suddenly, Mason saw the great disparity between his father's discomforted liberalism and the reality of the suffering world made up of the small, the powerless, the disenfranchised. He realized with a shock that he felt wounded, deeply wounded for that other world. Mason knew in that moment that the Italian immigrant was more real to him than his father and, sensing the import of what was happening, he felt intense sorrow both for his father and for the Italian. He knew also that the quality of his sorrow was different for each of them.

In 1928 when it was time for Mason to go to college, he chose to attend Alexander Micklejohn's experimental college at the University of Wisconsin. Worried, confused, unhappy, knowing his father was drinking himself to death, the sixteen-year-old Mason went off to school, not really certain why he was going at all. The speechless boy had by now become an attractive, poised, but oddly detached young man. Not much seemed to touch him, or to matter very much. At the same time, he did not consider himself without feeling or desire or curiosity. Rather than inhibition it was as though some powerful confusion of life had produced a fatal hesitation in his soul, an unknowingness that made engagement prohibitive. He seemed always, in those days, to be listening, for what, exactly, he did not know; but it was as though he were listening for the sounds of his life: poised on the brink, waiting to begin. And all around him, he recalls, in that rich, ripe September of 1928, the world seemed to echo his own internal state of being: as though it, too, were listening, gathering itself together for some supreme effort, some transforming moment of clarity.

Micklejohn's school--which only lasted a few years--was an American experiment in the English university tradition: great books, Athenian humanism, seminars, tutorials. From the first, the atmosphere was heady and altogether wonderful to Mason. Young men of intellectual talent and erudite opinion seemed to converge in droves on Micklejohn's school. Mason began to read voraciously, with a sudden exploded need that took him by surprise. And to talk. To talk as though there were no tomorrow and everything must get said today, right now, this very minute. The talk at Micklejohn's was rich, constant, overflowing. Philosophy, religion, history, art, aesthetics, politics filled the talk of the intelligent, beautiful young men as they sat in seminar rooms, dining halls, bars, and lounges, walked across lawns, played tennis and swam, lit pipes, changed from white ducks to Harris tweeds. Ideas swam in Mason's head, but even more important than ideas themselves, the idea of ideas soaked through him. The idea of a large frame of reference--a context within which one placed one's own experience--that was what most amazed and gripped him. The "men of context" were people with theories, theories of art, of history, and above all, of politics. Here, for the first time Mason met men of varying political ideologies. He met libertarians, anarchists, socialists, syndicalists. And he met Communists.

At the very same time, Mason discovered that he was a talented painter. He had been drawing all his life, mainly in secret and to comfort himself during his lonely childhood. Now, at Micklejohn's, he put oil to canvas for the first time and experienced revelation. The world of space, color, and composition opened up to him and he began to move, like a child following a string into the labyrinth, toward this new world. But, as time went on he saw that painting did not claim his whole soul. He perceived-and it was a crucial perception--that painting did not make him feel less lonely; only the exciting talk of ideas made him feel less lonely, and at that, most particularly, talk of political ideas. He would not, he thought, give up painting. Only for now. . . .

In the spring of 1929 Jeremy Lewiton came to Micklejohnís, and set Mason Goode on the course he was to follow for the next twenty-five years. Lewiton was a large-hearted, full-minded young man of richly expressive temperament. Lewiton was a Communist.

From the moment they met, the two young men cleaved to each other, becoming very quickly inseparable companions. Without question, Lewiton, the elder by six or seven years, was the teacher and Mason the pupil, but the power of stimulus and response that flowed between them like electric current produced a dynamic of self-discovery equally shared. For Mason, the beauty of being he felt in Jeremy Lewiton became inextricably bound up with Lewiton's Communism, and the emotional impact it made on him was formidable, alive and rich with promise. Even now, forty-five years later, as Mason Goode tells the story of his friendship with Lewiton, that impact can be felt. As Mason speaks, a picture forms itself in my mind. I see the two young men in late spring, standing on a lawn of intense and vivid green, dressed in white flannels, holding pipes whose fire is long dead and forgotten, talking swiftly, intently, oblivious to the afternoon's fading light, and at the center of the excited talk a stillness is gathering--Mason is listening, listening with an inner ear, and hearing, for the first time, the sounds of his life--a stillness like that in the eye of the storm, a clarifying stillness gathering in Mason and Lewiton, in the town, in the country, in the Western world (within the year there will be Depression, within the decade fascism and world war and the reactive explosion of socialism that will mark millions of lives forever). This image of white flannels, green lawns, that powerful rich young stillness, a moment in American life when a certain spiritual-political clarity could sink into a man like Mason Goode fills my mind. For it was here that Mason Goode began to feel socialism and his conviction, grown full then, that capitalism was immoral and socialism moral, would last a lifetime.

Seven years later Jeremy Lewiton would be dead in Spain and Mason Goode would be a branch organizer in New York for the Communist Party. The years that followed were, for Mason, often filled with irresolution and conflict but the memory of Lewiton as the prototypic, idealistic Communist held sway over him, and the largeness of promise, the beauty of being that had been Lewitonís Communism, would not run its course for another twenty years.

What Mason Goode shares with Esther Allen* [Another artist in the movement] the secret conviction that the loss of his creative talent is the price he paid for the festering conflict within which he lived out much of his life as a Communist. What he also shares with her is a deep-seated memory of the profound distaste he felt in his educated middle-class soul for the intellectual and emotional crudities of life in the Party.

When Mason Goode left Alexander Micklejohn's school in 1931, two large stirrings were at work in him: one had to do with the magical pull that painting exerted on him, the other with the yearning Jeremy Lewiton's Communism had set going in him. At the time, Mason did not worry about the polar opposites of these twin stirrings. Certainly he did not view them as potential sources of serious inner conflict. On the contrary, he saw them as enriching each other, multiplying experience, enlarging his relation to himself and to the world. He received a scholarship to an art institute in Pittsburgh and went off to study painting with the full conviction that he was a socialist and somewhere, somehow, in the world that lay before him the two parts of himself--the "private" and the "political"--would stream together fruitfully.

In 1933 Mason's father was dead of acute alcoholism, the family fortune was revealed to be nonexistent, the Depression was at full tilt, and Mason was soon lost to his art studies. He remembers he wandered the streets of Pittsburgh for days, nights, weeks feeling as grey-and-black inside himself as the city around him. He remembers Pittsburgh as a city of bridges under each one of which homeless men camped and slept. "The man under the bridge" became his lifelong image of the Depression.

He returned to New York and began to look for work: in the theater, in graphics, in advertising. None to be found. There was, in fact, a great deal of art and theater going on; aside from Broadway, there was the WPA Theater, the Group Theater, dozens of little loft theaters on Fourteenth Street--all of them alive with "social consciousness," European modernism, Depression realism, and sometimes outright Marxism. This was true in painting, design, and decoration as well. Radicalism and the arts seemed indeed to have merged, and Mason was in a continual state of responsive excitement, the two parts of the mingled dynamic seeming one to be as good as another. What, after all, did it matter if you worked in the arts or you worked in radical politics? It was all one, all feeding the same source, the same electric sense of life, the same live flow of politics, society, and art streaming together in an intensity of the world that was coming.

When Mason couldn't get work in the arts he joined the Communist Party. In the Party he experienced immediate satisfaction. Having been denied work in the arts, he felt that here, in the Party, what he actually was, was being used, fully taken up and taken in. He threw himself into Party work and rose quickly to become the branch organizer of a section in Upper Manhattan. In a curious sense, one could say the world had become a theater, the Communist Party was the drama upon the stage, and Mason became if not the set designer then at least a stage manager fully involved in the production: the revolution was around the corner, a new world was dawning, the fight against fascism was supreme, he was part of the future of man. The drama was tinged, for him, with a delicious edge of risk and danger fed by the feverish constancy of Party work and the shared conviction of all around him.

Nevertheless, Mason's social life remained for some time at a distance from that of the Party. He always felt vaguely ill at ease among apparatchik Communists. It seemed as though the men most devoted to the Party were also the narrowest; he remained in a state of emotional reserve and doubt. He kept telling himself that these doubts were the residual effects of his bourgeois background and in time, as his inner merger with the Party became more complete, they would evaporate.

The doubts never did evaporate. They continued to plague him. As the years went on they often nearly made him ill. He could not bear the Party hacks, the petty despots, his increasing unhappiness over the dictatorial characteristics of democratic centralism. He also hated his immediate political superior: a charming, intelligent, tyrannical man whose method of criticism was pure attack and humiliation.

There were hundreds of instances in Party life that caused Mason outright dismay. One night, for example, a meeting was opened by a speaker who said: "The subject for tonight's meeting is self-criticism. The first item on the agenda is the self-criticism of Mason Goode." Another time he was called down to Party headquarters and a Party functionary said to him: "I understand your sister is taking a course at NYU with Sidney Hook, and that she has 'questionable' friends. [For "questionable" read Trotskyist.] Perhaps you'd better stop seeing her." Mason stared at the functionary. "Stop seeing her?" he said. "What do you mean? She's my sister." The functionary looked up from his desk as though surprised that there was still something to discuss. "That's right," he said blandly, "stop seeing her."

Mason often felt the Part was foolish, embarrassing and, finally, dangerous; that more and more, as the years wore on, men like the functionary at headquarters and his own section organizer were the kind of men the Party was throwing up. He could not square this with his ongoing, Jeremy-induced, visionary sense of what the Communist Party was all about. And he did not square it, he simply endured it.

His love of painting began to live in a secret part of himself--a reserve part of himself, he thought. In time he came to realize the painter in him was not living in reserve, it was dying in exile. More and more, he could call up less and less those instincts, impulses, intuitions that had made him a painter, made him "see" the world and the life in it as a visual composition, a transformation of magic and serious fantasy.

One night in 1948, Mason attended a district meeting in Yonkers. The subject of the meeting was the expulsion of Earl Browder from the Communist Party USA. Having been expelled by the National Committee, Browder had now to be expelled by every district, section, and branch of the CP. This peculiar charade went on throughout the country and throughout the year.

The room in Yonkers was filled with men and women Mason had known for more than a dozen years. Across the room was one very particular friend. Mason tried to attract this man's attention, but he wouldn't look up, his eyes remained trained on the floor before him. The meeting began. The speaker talked passionately for more than an hour about Browder's betrayal of the Party. He went on and on about how this was the right, the necessary, the only thing to do. Everyone in the room began to look painfully uncomfortable. It wasn't necessarily that people liked Browder and didn't think he should be expelled. It was rather that most people weren't sure and therefore didn't think this was the "right" or fully understood thing to be doing.

Mason looked around the room at all those faces he knew so well. Everywhere, the faces looked increasingly more torn, confused, hesitant. The voice of the speaker ploughed on. Everyone knew the decision had already been made, and each person who didn't rise to his feet when the moment came would be fixed in Party memory. The speaker called for a vote.

"One by one," Mason says, "and then two by two, and then six by six, everyone in that room rose to his feet. And then I, too, rose to my feet. Inside, I felt sick. Lost, betrayed, turned into an automaton. I watched my friend across the room. He wouldn't meet my eyes.

"Later, my friend and I went home together. We didn't speak of what had happened. Years later, I met him on a street corner. I said to him, 'Remember that night in Yonkers?' 'Remember!' he said. 'It has haunted me all these years.' In time, I discovered that nearly everyone in the room that night felt the same way."

In 1952 Mason Goode left the Communist Party. The doubts had not simply accumulated in him, they had accreted into a conviction of deformed life. Mason and his wife, Dorothy, left New York and settled in a small southern city. He would, he told himself, begin to paint again. But it was no good, and in a very short time he saw that it was no good. He could not begin to call up the impulses of the creative temperament that had once fed his visual imagination; they had atrophied, withered in him with disuse. The images he found himself putting down on the canvas seemed to be relentlessly controlled by the Marxist cliches that exercised mechanical power over his associative responses. He could no longer "see" differently. Mason quickly made his peace with what he realized was the permanent loss of his life, and found a job teaching in the art department of a small university in the town he was living in. He lived now in a state not of active well-being but of grateful relief. He felt free and at peace within himself for the first time in years.

In 1956 Mason was suddenly subpoenaed by HUAC. In that small southern town where he was living the headlines screamed the news: "Art Teacher Found to Be a Red!" Mason shakes his head in disbelief as he recalls: "They were the kind of banner headlines usually reserved for declarations of war or armistice." Overnight, his life was destroyed. He lost his job, his house was smeared with shit and swastikas, his wife received threatening phone calls, people he had known for four years turned away from him on the street.

"The irony of it all," Mason says softly, staring out at Puget Sound. "Here, I'm a painter. I become a Communist. I lose myself as a painter. Then I lose myself as a Communist. Then I get my head kicked in." Mason seems bemused by this calculation. Then he says: "Or is it ironical, after all? On the one hand, it seems as though I'd repeatedly lost everything because I was a Communist, including being a Communist. On the other hand, one could say: You were a Communist, and everything that happened happened as a consequence of that great and monumental fact of your life. Including the development of certain responses to life that could never have developed in any other way, and that you would not to this moment trade in for anything. . ."

Mason Goode is what it is all about: a man who has lived within the orbit of the political passion, its harsh and brilliant rays reflecting off his soul, first nourished then deprived by the language of the closed system- formed and deformed, shaped by the narrow intensity, both hobbled and dignified by the power of that decision taken in a moment of golden influence, a moment that spoke to a deep and most particular part of the man, but not to the whole man.


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