Herbert Gold was born in the "Paris of Northeastern Ohio," or Cleveland. Raised in the community of Lakewood, he was a member of the sole Jewish family around, and noticed the difference early on. While other fathers wore suits and ties to work, his dad was a workingman who owned his own store; while other parents spoke in the flat-tongue style of Midwestern American English, both of his immigrant parents had accents. Rather than see this as a liability, Gold used his "outsider" status in his writing. He writes, he says, "to master the world," but adds, "You don't write just for yourself, because you want to communicate. It's an act of sharing with others."
Gold suspects it was his younger brother who first put him into permanent "story-telling mode." They shared a bedroom and would stay awake at night telling each other funny and scary stories. He crafted his own experience in Cleveland, hanging out in a candy store frequented by "odd" citizens, and by writing poems to send to New York literary magazines. When, at seventeen years old, he learned that several of his poems had been accepted, he traveled to New York and went to a party given by the editor and attended only by other poets. That night, he met poet and author Anais Nin, who softly asked him to come with her to her houseboat in Hoboken. He agreed and followed her out of the party. "I was ready for whatever came next," he remembers. "…then, near the bottom of the stairwell, she spoke the fateful words which abruptly altered my fate. 'You remind me…' she whispered. 'Remind me…of my…remind me of my father.'… It was the most terrifying declaration she could have uttered."
After his brief introduction into the East Coast literary scene, Gold defied his mother's vision of him as a doctor and moved there to study philosophy at Columbia University. He served a brief stint in the military and continued writing. In New York, he fell in with the upcoming Beat Generation, hanging out in jazz clubs and reading his poetry at coffeehouses. Around that time he met a fellow writer with whom he would form a lifelong friendship -- Allen Ginsberg. They would sit in a bar near campus and argue about writing, and in particular, Jack Kerouac ("I was not enthusiastic about Kerouac, and Allen was basically in love with him").
Gold won a Fulbright fellowship and moved to Paris with his new wife (he had returned to Cleveland briefly to marry a Detroit schoolteacher). There he attended graduate school and worked on his first novel, which he mailed off to Viking Press when completed. Birth of a Hero was published in 1951; it was Gold's reflection on growing up in Lakewood, Ohio. "The best part about it," he says, "was that it enabled me to proclaim, 'I am a writer,' but now I get a little nauseated when I try to read it." Viking agreed to publish his next book, but Gold wrote Therefore Be Bold in a very different style than his first book and they rejected it. Several years afterward he resubmitted the manuscript to Dial Press, which published it and translated it into different languages.
Though Gold received a great deal of popular acclaim from his first books, his most successful book is Fathers: A Novel in Form of a Memoir. It is his account of a father and son dealing with immigrant life in America. The father leaves Ukraine to start a grocery store in Ohio, raising his American son in the face of bigotry and World War II. The book is both a memoir and fiction. In it, Gold writes, "This is an imaginary history. And real. And twice imaginary." Despite its very specific story, it appealed to Americans everywhere, and hundreds of people from different ethnic backgrounds wrote letters to Gold, thanking him for describing "their experience."
Gold moved around for some time, living in Haiti, Detroit, and hitchhiking around America, until he eventually settled in San Francisco. He became one of the area's cultural landmarks, writing nonstop about the country, his Jewish heritage, and the Beat/hipster/hippie/carnival generation he was both participant in and observer to. He published more than twenty novels as well as countless short stories, essays, articles, and memoirs. Today he is a favorite commentator on American culture, harking from all sides of the country: He is from Ohio, New York, and San Francisco; he is Jewish, a Beat poet, a father, an expatriate, middle-aged, married, and divorced. In such a confusing position, it makes sense that Gold writes to master his world: "I need to make sense of the world, to make the world magic…. I want life to be funny -- or at least interesting."
Photos courtesy of Transaction Publishers.