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Four Fall Talks with Vivian Gornick


This fall, author Vivian Gornick is leading a series of four Tenement Talks on important works of Jewish immigrant fiction. We kicked off the series this Tuesday with a discussion of Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky. Join us for the next installment on November 5, when we’ll discuss Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska. Tenement Talks Assistant Meredith Heil tells us a bit more about the author and her work.

Everyone’s a critic, as the saying goes. But, unlike Vivian Gornick, not everyone is also a memoirist, an essayist, a journalist and a talented speaker.

Author Vivian Gornick

Author Vivian Gornick

Gornick is something of a Tenement Talks darling (albeit a fierce, whip-smart darling) – she’s headlined several events over the past few years, speaking on panels, leading discussions and presenting on her own work. Because I’m new to the Tenement Museum staff, I missed out on those past talks but I couldn’t help but notice everyone’s enthusiasm around her return.

“Vivian spoke here on her book bio of Emma Goldman,” Tenement Talks Manager and Curator Amanda Lydon told me. “It was awesome. We were so inspired that we wanted her to come back again and again.”

I dug through the podcast archives for Gornick’s talk on Emma Goldman. After listening to the first five minutes, I was totally hooked. Her perspective on the famous anarchist activist was detailed and refreshingly personal – fitting for a woman who outright challenged the stern Bakunin philosophies that preceded her and demanded dancing at her revolution. While chatting about Goldman, Gornick proclaimed in a measured tone, “I didn’t adore her….” It was clear that through her research, Gornick, a memoirist at heart, had formed an intimate bond with Emma Goldman, and their relationship enriched every line. Her portrait wasn’t just reverent – it was real. This was the stuff of great biography.

Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman

Vivian Gornick’s CV is full of interesting books and talks, teaching positions and insightful journalism. She currently teaches writing at The New School, my alma mater and the first place I encountered Jewish literature.  I read Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep during my sophomore year of college, and the novel has stuck with me for years. Roth painted a picture of Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side that sparked my interest in the grittier parts of New York ‘s past and drew me to places like the Tenement Museum. The book’s young protagonist, David Schearl, is simultaneously precocious and timid, and his coming-of-age acts as a window into early 20th century tenement life. It’s no wonder that Gornick chose this masterpiece as the subject of the final installment in the series.

Call It Sleep

Henry Roth's "Call it Sleep"

Other titles in the series of talks include Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska and Mike Gold’s 1930 proletarian novel, Jews Without Money. During each talk, Gornick will lead a panel of hand-chosen critics, writers and historians in a guided discussion about the novel’s narrative impact, historical context and contemporary value. To make things more interactive, the audience is encouraged to read along on their own as the series unfolds. If Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life is any indication, these events will be filled with brilliant critique, inspiring debate and real passion. — Posted by Meredith Heil