In The Odd Woman and the City, to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May, Vivian Gornick writes of the “shock of pleasure” she gets each evening as she gazes from her 16th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village at “the banks of lighted windows rising to the sky, crowding round me... [I] feel myself embraced.” Today, however, a massive construction project embraces most of the sidewalk facing her building, and her conversation is punctuated by the pounding of jackhammers.
This juxtaposition of romance and grit suits Gornick, a quintessential New Yorker from the tips of her stylishly short gray hair to her sensible black sandals. You need good shoes when you walk as much as she does, and her new memoir is stuffed with vivid snapshots of her encounters on and off the sidewalks of New York.
They range from hilarious scenes of blunt urban conviviality—Gornick and a female friend laughing with a man on a drugstore line about their similar sexual dissatisfactions—to faintly menacing displays of metropolitan rudeness: asked to speak more quietly into his cell phone on a crosstown bus, the offender replies, “I’ll do what I damned please.” Gornick, not surprisingly, was unintimidated by this belligerence (she insisted the bus driver call the police); she’s never been one to back off from an argument.
Born in the Bronx in 1935 as a daughter of the left-wing working class—a world captured in her 1977 book, The Romance of American Communism—she took as her own political cause the reborn feminism of the 1970s. In both movements, Gornick saw a gulf between ideological certainties and human complexities.
It was George Gissing’s The Odd Women, a Victorian novel exploring this gulf, she explains, that gave her a name for her conflicted feminist condition, a name she’s appropriated for her new memoir. Gissing’s novel shows protagonist
Rhoda Nunn rejecting love because it doesn’t live up to her feminist ideals, but is buffeted by feelings she fails to acknowledge. “When Gissing called Rhoda the odd woman, he described what I knew was the reality,” says Gornick, seated at her dining room table.
Gornick remembers arguments with academic feminists who thought that Gissing had betrayed feminism, but Gornick’s most important discovery—as she says repeatedly in the book—was this gap between practice and theory. “It began to overcome me,” she says. “I could see that here was the ideology, here were the emotions, and we were in turmoil. One of the first flashy, angry insights feminists of my generation had was, ‘If I can’t have love on the terms I need it, if I can’t be real to myself and not feel some part of myself in exile in a love relationship, then I’ll do without.’ But nobody means to be alone; a solitary existence is not optimally human at all.”
Gornick, a veteran of two marriages and other long-term relationships, says, “I always thought I would fall in love again successfully. As it happens I haven’t, and I have come to understand how much a combination of social history and a particular temperament is responsible for this. That’s all I was trying to put on the page: what a struggle it is for so many of us.”
Gornick set out to write this book about “my friend Leonard and me; he’s a gay man who’s lived a similar life to mine for many years, and it struck me a long time ago that our relationship was paradigmatic. What we both struggle with is how to be human, how to live in both erotic and social connection, and still feel good about yourself. The thing about our generation is that we named this struggle; we brought it out into the open. It’s a historic struggle and will go on for a long, long time.”
Yet as she wrote about Leonard and their friendship, Gornick recalls, “I found that I had a situation, but I didn’t have a story; I didn’t know how to make a book out of it. Then one day it hit me that the city was the perfect foil for what I felt between us, that I would describe us as children of the city. The thing about the city, and this has been true for 100 years, is how much it means to those of us who have difficulty with connection, how much it takes up the slack to be on the streets of a great city.”
When Gornick goes away to teach, she says, “I’m often in university towns where I feel like a zombie, because I walk and walk and walk, and nothing’s happening, because there’s nothing on the street! I realize when I come back to New York what an incredible charge it is, how much it’s constantly reminding you of your own humanity and everybody else’s.”
It’s this hunger for human stories, Gornick believes, that fuels the ongoing memoir boom. (She was at the forefront, publishing Fierce Attachments, a ferociously unsentimental portrait of her turbulent bond with her mother, in 1987.) “It’s become the genre of the moment, but many of them are inferior,” she says. “They’re testament, they’re therapy, they’re confession, but they’re not literature. I think that when people sit down to write a memoir they believe they’re telling a story, but they don’t understand that you have to have an idea, an organizing principle, a piece of emotional wisdom that drives the stuff beyond raw material.”
Gornick applied the same yardstick to her biographies of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton and anarchist Emma Goldman. “I did them for money,” she admits with a laugh. (Personal narrative is her preferred genre.) “Nevertheless, I took each task very seriously; I realized that I would have to find a take on each of them that came out of myself, something I felt acutely and honestly.” With Goldman, it was “the spirit of the refusenik”; with Stanton it was the conviction that “what we call politics is the slow, steady change of sensibility that is accomplished by shared understanding”—the only kind of change, Gornick adds, that produces significant social justice.
The author of several collections of critical essays, Gornick is eloquent and articulate about the craft of writing. The goal is always the same, she says: “Simply trying to shape what it feels like for you to be facing the world, that’s what every writer is doing. I mean, what else do we know but who we are? [Poet and critic] Randall Jarrell, who’s been very important to me, wrote that what he loved about Robert Frost was that his entire body of work is simply the story of how the world looks to one man. Frost never lost that focus: ‘This is how I see it, this is how I feel it, this is how I understand it.’ Now, that’s not easy. People have always thought that if you’re writing a memoir out of your own unsurrogated self, how much easier it must be, but it’s exactly the opposite. For someone who is not hiding behind a poetic or fictional narrator, to find a persona in yourself who can tell the story that needs to be told, that is some trick.”
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Beast.