Vivian Gornick

Mitch Bach

Vivian Gornick, Greenwich Village, September 2020

“From birth to death,” writes Vivian Gornick, in her memoir The Odd Woman and the City,

we are, every last one of us, divided against ourselves. We both want to grow up and don’t want to grow up; we hunger for sexual pleasure, we dread sexual pleasure; we hate our own aggressions—anger, cruelty, the need to humiliate—yet they derive from the grievances we are least willing to part with.

From there the divisions multiply. We long for experience, we shrink from experience; we want to understand, we don’t want to understand. We confuse our neuroses for our innermost truths and in the end it all boils down to: nothing. Pointless disharmony. “Friendships are random, conflicts prevail, work is the sum of its disabilities,” she writes in another memoir, Fierce Attachments.

But then there are times when we feel ourselves whole. We stand at the center of our experience and something inside us “flares into bright life.” Under the influence of “a conviction of inner clarity,” we become eloquent, prolific—what Gornick calls our “expressive selves.” This, we feel, is the meaning of life. This is what it means to be alive.

Gornick has published thirteen books in fifty years, fourteen if you count Woman in Sexist Society, the anthology of feminist writing she coedited with Barbara K. Moran in 1971. Most concern someone whose quest for the “expressive self” rises to the level of an addiction. In a new introduction to The Romance of American Communism, her 1977 book reissued earlier this year, Gornick observes that “there is a certain kind of cultural hero—the artist, the scientist, the thinker—who is often characterized as one who lives for ‘the work.’” This hero is her subject. Why do people devote their lives to causes that deprive them of love and comfort and ordinary happiness, Gornick asks? As a lifelong writer, a woman of blunt manner and deep feeling for whom the effort is agony, she has a personal investment in the answer.

Gornick has long enjoyed an audience of literary depressives and feminists. Now, a late-career revival is expanding her readership. In 2015 The Odd Woman and the City introduced her to a new generation. In 2020 four more Gornick titles have given occasion for a backward glance: Unfinished Business, a new bibliomemoir about rereading, and reissues of Approaching Eye Level (1996), The End of the Novel of Love (1997), and The Romance of American Communism. The timing of their publication could be chalked up to the return of American socialism, or to the tendency to rediscover women artists in old age. But the lasting value of her work lies in her commitment to the question of what it means to feel “expressive”: to experience the feeling that tells a person “not approximately, but precisely” who they are.

Because Gornick is foremost a memoirist, any tour of her work must contend with her autobiography as she tells it, in fragments. There is no single book in which she narrates her life story straight through; “truth in memoir,” she writes in The Situation and the Story (2001), “is achieved not through a recital of actual events.” Instead, each of her books marshals different pieces of her life in service of a central insight, whether she’s writing memoir, criticism, reportage, or a biography of someone else. She is dedicated to nonfiction as a genre, but has a novelist’s instinct for selection. To recount her biography chronologically thus requires some reconstruction.

Gornick was born in 1935 in the Bronx, the second child of working-class immigrant Jews. Her father, she recalls in The Romance of American Communism, was a kind man who “stood upright on the floor of a dress factory on West 35th Street…with a steam iron in his hand for thirty years.” Her mother, a passionate woman with a rougher style of affection, kept house. Both were fellow travelers of the American Communist Party and impressed the political nature of life on their children. Before she knew that she was “Jewish or a girl,” Gornick wrote in the late 1970s, “I knew I was a member of the working class.” Neighbors and comrades gathered at their kitchen table to “talk issues.” Young Vivian “listened, wild-eyed, to the 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…. Something important was happening here, I always felt, something that had to do with understanding things. And “to understand things,” I already knew, was the most exciting, the most important thing in life.

Although the more political of Gornick’s parents, her mother, Bess, “stopped everything” when the children were born. (“It was, in fact, part of her deprivation litany that if it hadn’t been for the children she would have developed into a talented public speaker,” Gornick writes.) Bess was in her element at home—lively, sarcastic, the doyenne of the building—but she railed against what she called “the emptiness of a woman’s life.” The transformative ideal that elevated her condition was not working-class struggle, but love. Love, she told her daughter, “in hundreds of ways, over thousands of days,” was the most important thing in a woman’s life. It gave her “a place in the universe,” lifted “a cloud of obscurity” from her soul. (“That’s how she put it: a cloud of obscurity.”) Even the unhappily married women of the Bronx kept the faith, Gornick wrote in The End of the Novel of Love. “Our lives might be small and frightened,” they seemed to say, but


in the ideal life…the educated life, the brave life, the life out in the world, love would not only be pursued, it would be achieved; and once achieved transform existence…. The promise of love alone would one day give us the courage to leave these caution-ridden precincts and turn our faces toward: experience.

When Gornick was thirteen, her father died of a heart seizure. This, too, was experience, from which Bess never recovered. At the age of forty-six, she went back to work clerking in an office, passing nights and weekends on the living room couch in an exquisite mourning that became her passion. Her depression “leak[ed] into the air like the steady escape of gas when the pilot light is extinguished.” Gornick breathed it in daily. Her refuge was the fire escape facing the street, where she sat on summer nights and dreamed up tragic stories.

Gornick was always a reader. When she was “quite small,” Bess introduced her to the local branch of the New York Public Library, and by the time she graduated high school she had “read [her] way around the room.” At seventeen, she started City College, where she met a new world of ideas. Gornick’s sentences grew longer, with words her mother didn’t understand. Bess had hotly defended her daughter’s right to “an education” to her family (“Where is it written that a working-class widow’s daughter should go to college?” one of Gornick’s uncles asked), but this referendum on her own intelligence was not what she’d had in mind. One afternoon, she lay on the couch and asked Gornick what she was reading. “A comparative history of the idea of love over the last three hundred years,” she said. “That’s ridiculous,” Bess replied. “Love is love.” When Gornick shot back, “That’s absolutely not true…. It’s only an idea, Ma. That’s all love is. Just an idea,” Bess was off the couch so fast her daughter didn’t see her feet hit the ground. She chased Gornick through the apartment, crying, “I’ll kill you. How dare you talk to me that way?” Gornick reached the bathroom—the only room with a lock—but her mother couldn’t stop in time. Her arm collided with the door. “Blood, screams, shattered glass on both sides of the door,” Gornick writes. “I thought that afternoon, One of us is going to die of this attachment.”

Gornick went on to NYU for a master’s in literature, then to Berkeley for a Ph.D. She wanted to write seriously, but all that talk of love had wormed its way into her brain. She felt she could not work—really work—until she’d found the man to support the dream. She settled on a painter, an art student living in North Beach, whose “missionary zeal for painting appealed strongly” to her own moralism about the seriousness of literature. They married in the Bronx and returned to California, whereupon they realized their mistake. Vivian didn’t want to merge libraries; her husband didn’t want to walk on Sundays. (“‘Only a bourgeois must go walking on Sunday,’ he said, ‘not an artist.’”) Gornick stared down a future of baking casserole recipes clipped from women’s magazines and balked. Worse, she couldn’t write. Her one moment of breakthrough occurred in the second year of her marriage, and her account of it, in Fierce Attachments, is sublime:

I was writing an essay, a piece of graduate-student criticism that had flowered without warning into thought…. The sentences began pushing up in me, struggling to get out, each one moving swiftly to add itself to the one that preceded it. I realized suddenly that an image had taken control of me: I saw its shape and its outline clearly…. My insides cleared out into a rectangle, all clean air and uncluttered space…. In the middle of the rectangle only my image, waiting patiently to clarify itself. I experienced a joy then I knew nothing else in the world would ever equal…. I understood everything I needed to understand in order that I might act, live, be.

The feeling didn’t last, and the husband didn’t help. The transformative power of love fell short of its promise: there would be no diving “down into feeling” and coming up “magically changed,” no escaping the painful effort of learning how to write and how to be. The couple fought, agonized, split. At thirty, Gornick dropped out of graduate school and moved back to New York, where she began to write in earnest. The effort was still torture to her: “Though I could talk a blue streak that often made a listener say ‘You should write that up,’” she writes in Unfinished Business, “when it came to it, I’d almost invariably suffer a paralyzing case of self-doubt.” Only occasionally did a “burning sense of necessity” allow her to finish a piece of writing.


Gornick’s first article for the Village Voice, the amazingly titled “An Ofay’s Indirect Address to LeRoi Jones,” was one such instance. In March 1965 Gornick had attended a talk called “Art vs. Politics” with the writer LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), the artist Larry Rivers, the musician Archie Shepp, and the filmmaker Jonas Mekas. Jones and Shepp laid into the white, middle-class bohemians in attendance for their complicity in racism in the arts, and the room exploded in indignation. “I’ve paid my dues,” one writer shouted, “and you know it, LeRoi.” When others asked what more they could do—like the bespectacled man, “shaken with emotion,” who said, “As a Jew and a white man, I hear you”—Jones and Shepp said, “Die baby. The only thing you can do for me is die.” Gornick absorbed it all, went home “burning with a sense of urgency [she] couldn’t really account for,” and “sat up half the night” writing. In the morning she mailed her report to the Voice. From that point she had the editor’s attention. What would she write next?

Here was her “open invitation to face down this painful disability and begin to realize the lifelong ambition of writing professionally.” Instead, more self-evasion: she got married again. Within two years she was divorced a second time and back in the city, asking her editor at the Voice for a job. “He said, ‘You’re a neurotic Jewish girl, you produce only one piece a year, how can I give you a job?’” she writes. “I said no, not any more, I’d do whatever he wanted—and as it turned out, I meant it. Two assignments later the job was mine.”

By the late 1960s, Gornick was equipped with a number of lenses through which she could understand the world. The Marxism of her childhood set a high bar for clarity and breadth. Literature complicated the picture, loosening the hold of “the sole reality of the system” on her mind. Existentialism, first encountered in college, eroded lingering notions of an essential self. Then came psychoanalysis. Gornick is a little cagey in her memoirs about when she began to see an analyst, but she drops hints in her critical writings. In the The Men in My Life, she writes:

I entered college, and somewhere in my junior year something interesting happened: a drama of internal anguish that subsumed all else began to unfold. The words “anxiety” and “depression” entered my vocabulary…. In no time at all an unimagined universe of interiority opened before me, one equipped with its own theory, laws, and language, and constituting a worldview that could account for: everything. This was strong stuff.

For all its depth, however, psychoanalysis did not account for everything. Gornick was still “abstract” to herself, for reasons she could not describe. Then, in 1969, the Voice assigned her a piece on the “women’s libbers” gathering on Bleecker Street. (“What’s a women’s libber?” she asked.) Within days she had met Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, Ti-Grace Atkinson, and other downtown feminists, and emerged from the assignment a convert. Feminism struck Gornick like an epiphany: here, finally, was the lens that clarified her to herself.

The feminists’ argument was simple. From childhood on, women were taught not to “take their brains seriously,” and so they pinned the needs of their egos on love, marriage, and motherhood. When those failed to satisfy, they took it as a personal failure. But overinvestment in heterosexual achievement was not a natural product of women’s “peculiar child-bearing properties” or their “so-called unique capacity for loving.” Not at all: it was a rational response to an architecture of law, economy, and custom so deep that it worked on the mind undetected, coercing women into reproductive roles when it wasn’t forcing them outright. So great was the damage that when other means of self-realization did present themselves—in work, politics, or art—women hardly knew what to do. Gornick wrote in her article for the Voice, “The Next Great Moment in History Is Theirs,”

We have never been taught to expect the development of what is best in ourselves because no one has ever expected anything of us—or for us…. In order to live you’ve got to have nerve, and we were stripped of our nerve before we began.

This was a psychological argument for feminism that spoke directly to Gornick’s paralysis of will. There was much in it to object to: the generalizing sweep of the “we”; the comparison of women’s “inertia of spirit” to that of “the American black,” which seems to preclude the possibility of being both. It is only fair to say that Gornick misrepresented the situation of Black women, whose oppression, the feminist Frances Beal wrote in her pamphlet Double Jeopardy that same year, was more than “an intellectual persecution alone.” (“The movement is not a psychological outburst for us,” Beal continued; “it is tangible; we can taste it in all our endeavors.”)

But somewhere between Gornick’s own person and “half the members of the human race” was a considerable number of women for whom she did speak: mostly white women, often middle class, who saw their experiences reflected in one another’s to an uncanny degree. “I found myself daily uncovering evidence of a culture within that had been hidden, so to speak, in plain sight,” she writes in The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

All men possessed an internal “psychic energy,” Gornick wrote in that 1969 Voice article, that if left unexpressed caused them to “shrivel up and die.” Women were no different. Yes, a revolution in legal rights was in order. (“Did you know,” she wrote, “that rape by a husband is legal, but if a woman refuses to sleep with her husband she is subjected to legal suit?”) A revolution in consciousness promised more. Women had lived a half-life so that men “might gain the courage to pursue a whole one.” To set the record straight—to describe the world as it really was—required seeing everything anew. Gornick stood at the threshold of this enterprise and felt she had arrived—“as though light and music were bursting across the top of my skull…. Life felt good then.”

For the next eight years she was a writer “on the barricades for radical feminism.” More than a movement or a cause, feminism for Gornick was “a profoundly new way of interpreting human experience,” a “new form into which one pours old knowledge”—in other words, a new way of reading. She began to reread everything, from history (“our own, America’s, the century’s, anybody’s”) to the novels she’d grown up with to biographies of accomplished women. Everywhere she looked she saw sexism. She “wrote and wrote and wrote.”

How did the feminists feel, in Gornick’s account? Relieved, thrilled, and enraged by the realization “that what had always been taken for symptoms of personal unhappiness and dissatisfaction…could just as well be ascribed to cultural causes.” How were the feminists received? With apathy, resistance, and dismissal. To Gornick and her peers, the fact that even educated leftists blew off feminism only proved its significance. Why else would people say on the one hand that Women’s Liberation was frivolous, and on the other (as one “educated, urbane, and somewhat famous” man said to Gornick) that “if Women’s Liberation wins civilization will simply be wrecked”?

Demonstrators at the Women’s Strike for Equality, New York City

Eugene Gordon/New-York Historical Society/Getty Images

Demonstrators at the Women’s Strike for Equality, New York City, August 26, 1970

In those years, women were “the most interesting people around,” Gornick wrote, “because they [were] experiencing a psychic invigoration of rediscovery.” Her articles between 1969 and 1975 tell of women stopping in the street struck by insight; of breakthroughs and laughter in consciousness-raising groups (one memorable line in “Consciousness,” a transcript of a meeting published in The New York Times Magazine, reads, “A CHORUS OF VOICES: You bit him????”); of nights sitting up past 3 AM talking “movement talk,” which is

of necessity…a constant intertwining of personal experience, tactical speculations (regarding activity in and out of the movement), and theoretical projections, all being fed continually through the mill of observation and analysis.

Gornick’s writing from that era, published in the Village Voice and elsewhere, was collected in Essays in Feminism (1978), now out of print. Decades later, the book is striking for its optimism: “If the ERA does not pass this year, it will pass next year. Of that there can no longer be any doubt.” That was in 1975. Gornick’s faith in the power of individuals to transform the world through their own altered consciousness is also painful to observe. As decades of scholars have pointed out, that same emphasis on individual consciousness made feminism susceptible to appropriation by opportunists, particularly the leaders, economists, and policymakers whose selective fulfillment of feminist demands helped legitimate their political project. (Yes to women in the workforce, political representation, and the rhetoric of flexibility, opportunity, and choice; no to a family wage, a social safety net, universal child care, and reproductive justice for all.) But how was Gornick—or any feminist of the time—to know what lay ahead?

Feminism gave Gornick many things, but two in particular changed her life: the confidence to forgo romantic love and the chance to find her footing as a writer. Feminism made Gornick expressive: it gave her a voice, a style, a subject. She was prolific in her writings against dogma, which she admitted was a “somewhat obsessive preoccupation” of hers. The exclusion of lesbians in the movement was intolerable to her, but so was militant separatism. She chafed against those who imposed a party line, and took offense at the notion that women’s writing could only be judged by other women. Feminism was about seeing the world with unsparing honesty. What good was it if it replaced one set of received ideas with another? Rigidity and victimhood were, to her, signs of arrested development. In her 1970 article “On the Progress of Feminism,” she compared the new convert to feminism to “the novitiate into psychoanalysis,” who, after “the stunning point of initial conversion,” must face down the “hard, drudging work” of undoing one’s habits of mind. Getting stuck on man-hating was like getting stuck on blaming your parents. It might be justified, but it would not give you your future.

Not everyone shared her perspective. At a two-day conference in Boston in the early 1970s, Gornick stood up to argue that patriarchy, not men, was the enemy of women’s liberation. A panelist responded by pointing a finger and saying, “You’re an intellectual and a revisionist!” The episode stunned Gornick—she hadn’t heard these words since childhood—and gave her new compassion for the American Communists of her parents’ generation. “So this is how it all happened,” she thought, watching the dynamics of party life play out again among the feminists. In 1974 she traveled across North America to interview former CPUSA members, now in middle or old age, “about their lives, the origins of their political attachment, their years in the Communist party: seeking to reduce the abstractions.” The resulting oral history, The Romance of American Communism—published soon after and reissued this year—reads like a series of case studies delineating a shared affliction.

Despite their different backgrounds, the Communists shared “an overriding likeness of inner circumstance.” All passed through the same phases of life in the party—infatuation, disillusionment, heartbreak—and experienced themselves in the process. The more they identified with the group, “the more each one came individually alive.” When former CPUSA members spoke wistfully of their years in the party, Gornick believed it was this vitality—this expressiveness—that they mourned. “Of all the emotions I’ve known in life,” one subject says, “nothing compares with the emotion of total comradeship I knew among the fruit pickers in the Thirties, nothing else has ever made me feel as, as coherent.” Another, an organizer, says, “I so loved being good at my work.”

The feeling of total comradeship, of being alive, coherent, and good at one’s work—how better to describe what Gornick loved about feminism? Perhaps she knew then it wouldn’t last.

Around 1980, “the unthinkable happened”: the feminist solidarity that had emboldened Gornick to write began to unravel. “Meetings became tiresome, parties less inviting,” she writes in Approaching Eye Level. “One day I woke up to realize the excitement, the longing, the expectation of community was over.”

Depressed, she turned again to literature. Literature offered company in solitude. Something about the “longing for coherence inscribed in the work”—the “haunted imagining…of human existence with the rift healed”—gave Gornick “courage for life.” The insights of feminism had altered her, but “ideology alone” could not cure her of “the pathological self-doubt that seemed every woman’s bitter birthright.” Work was the only cure. She commanded herself to sit down at the desk. From the wall, a quote stared back at her, paraphrased from a letter Anton Chekhov wrote to a friend. “What aristocratic writers take from nature gratis,” the original reads, “the less privileged must pay for with their youth.” He then gives himself a prompt:

Write a story about a young man, the son of a serf…raised on respect for rank, kissing the priests’ hands, worshipping the ideas of others…. Write about how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop and how, on waking one fine morning, he finds that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave, but that of a real human being.

Gornick had tacked a version of this last line above her desk in the early 1970s: “Others have made me a slave, but I must squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop.” What men were born with, women had to struggle to attain, and only through unlearning the adaptive behaviors of the subordinated sex could they become full people. In a 1973 essay on women’s fiction for the Voice, Gornick wrote that “the business of contemporary feminism” is “the re-creation in women of the experiencing self”: the “absence of that self is the slave that must be squeezed out drop by drop.” For female writers, that meant laying down their defensive postures, from aloofness (Joan Didion) to “tough” pseudo-honesty (Lois Gould) to retreat from what was hot to the touch (Anne Roiphe, Margaret Drabble). “Rarely in the work now being written by women does one feel the presence of writers genuinely penetrating their own experience,” wrote Gornick, “risking emotional humiliation and the facing-down of secret fears.” Like Chekhov in his letter, she seemed to be instructing herself.

But in the 1980s, the quote took on new meaning for her. It was no longer the work of deconditioning that held Gornick’s attention, but the “miserable daily effort” of showing up at the desk to write, even if it meant a low yield. In 1983 Gornick published Women in Science, the fruit of one hundred interviews with female scientists, which marked a turning point in her work. She was fascinated by how much the scientist’s inner life resembled the writer’s: both ruminated “continuously on the nature of physical or imaginative life”; both endured “grinding, repetitive” work in hopes of breaking through. Both caught insight by surprise—in the shower, at 3 in the morning—and felt elation and relief when they did. Gornick was moved by the perseverance of the women who had occupied “peripheral, often humiliating positions” for decades just to feel the pleasure of their own minds at work. It was “touching and important that this information was coming to me through women,” she wrote. “Art, science, feminism: they came to seem metaphors for each other.”

To “squeeze the slave out of oneself” thus came to mean something closer to the persistence of the scientists, for whom failure was a given and labor a reward in itself. Like the Communists, the scientists refined Gornick’s understanding of the expressive self. Possibly they gave her even more. In describing how their mothers urged them to get an education only to feel betrayed when they became scientists, the women Gornick interviewed gave her the occasion to think about Bess. In the book, she observes that “every woman receives a mixed message about love and work in her youth”—the germ of essays to come. Then, casually, she pivots to an ecologist’s work on trees. The trees were growing in clumps, the ecologist explained, because winds were too low to disperse their seeds far. Baby trees grew close to the mother, and, for mysterious reasons, were dying. The ecologist discovered the cause: a pervasive infection “emanating from the mother” that “was killing off the ones growing close beside her.” The trees with more distance survived.

Within a few years, Gornick was writing Fierce Attachments, the memoir about her mother that would be her first masterpiece. In it she found her narrator, a proxy-voice that gave her the distance she needed from her subject: close enough to see the main players, far enough to see past their contours.

No writer is without flaws. Gornick’s is repetition. Take, for instance, the range of experiences she describes as having no parallel: there is the joy of writing well (“not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it”), the clarity of scientific discovery (“there is not an ‘I love you’ in the world that can touch it”), feminism in the early 1970s (“not an I-love-you in the world could touch it”), the companionship of books (“nothing can match it”), and the inner clarity of the expressive radical (“no reward of life, neither love for fame nor wealth could compete”). More substantial repetitions appear across multiple books, which Gornick has come to acknowledge. In a slightly defensive note at the beginning of Unfinished Business, she warns the reader that some paragraphs, indeed entire pages, may be familiar from previous books, adding, “I sincerely hope the reader will not find this practice off-putting.”

I did not want to be the kind of reader who found it off-putting. Encountering the same paragraphs in two, three, or four different books, however, eventually took its toll. Does she think I’m not listening? Have I read this before? Surely I am losing my mind? I cross-checked books, dog-eared pages. Above all I wanted the repetitions to signify. Occasionally, they did. The most repeated passage in the Gornick oeuvre is a version of her theory of the expressive self: a now familiar observation about writers, artists, and radicals for whom the inexpressive life is not worth living. Gornick is a Romantic in that she prizes the individual, but she is also, as the panelist said, an intellectual and a revisionist—if not in the sense that was meant. She is a harsh critic of her own writing, and admits to being pained by the excesses of her early work (the “emotionalism is so thick you can cut it with a knife”; “where one word would do, three are sure to appear”). When a piece of understanding resists revision, appearing in the old form in a new book, it has the stubborn, polished quality of calcified thought. Are these relics of hard-won wisdom or hang-ups she can’t let go of? It’s left to the reader to decide.

In the thirty-three years since Fierce Attachments was published, Gornick has continued in the genres she first discovered as a writer for the Voice: memoir, criticism, biography. Her prose has become tighter, more wrought, which suits her: the tension between her grand themes and compact prose recreates in the reader the combustion of original thought. Her gifts for synthesis and analysis—both harder than they look—are clearest in her biographies. From the immaculate The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the surprisingly funny Emma Goldman to the capsule portraits in The End of the Novel of Love and The Men in My Life, Gornick captures the vital parts of a person’s life—the story in each person’s situation—with the few, decisive strokes of a drawing master. All those portraits of Communists and scientists were not for nothing. Take the first lines of this essay on George Gissing:

One of the great neurotics among nineteenth-century English urban novelists is George Gissing, a writer whose damaged ego forced him into an isolation of his own making from which, paradoxically, came books of immense social intelligence, motivated by the keenest of psychological insights.

Or this paragraph from one on Allen Ginsberg:

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey…to Louis and Naomi Ginsberg. The father was a published poet, a high school teacher, and a socialist; the mother an enchanting free spirit, a passionate communist, and a woman who lost her mental stability in her thirties. Ultimately, she was put in an institution and lobotomized.

How’s that for getting to the point?

The job of the capsule biographer was perhaps made easier for Gornick by her choice of subjects. Most were writers, activists, and thinkers for whom “the work” was everything, as it was for her. Her presence isn’t obtrusive, but it is noticeable, like a person’s faint reflection in a darkening window. Some might find it detracts from the view, but to me, it clarifies her subjects. George Gissing’s neurotic solitude, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s passion for women’s rights, Randall Jarrell’s responsiveness to literature, James Baldwin’s psychological acuity—all speak to Gornick’s inner life, and help her to animate theirs.