For Vivian Gornick, self-narrative is a form of cultural criticism: The personal is decidedly political. As a staff writer for the Village Voice during the early 1970s, Gornick reported on the explosion of American feminist consciousness through the prism of her own experience, and her willingness to use her own life experiences to tell a larger social story has become the hallmark of her writing. While she acknowledges her Jewish background in much of her work, Gornick marks the urgency of her feminist struggle for “possession of the self” as the force that drives her creative endeavors (Essays 169). “It is here, on the issue of being a woman, not a Jew, that I must make my stand and hold my ground,” she explains in Tikkun (1989).
Vivian Gornick was born on June 14, 1935, in the Bronx, the youngest of Louis and Bess Gornick’s two children. Her Ukrainian-born parents, whom Gornick describes as “harried, working-class immigrants,” were committed socialists who met and married in New York. Her father worked as a presser in a dress factory for thirty years, and her mother was a bookkeeper and office clerk. When Gornick was thirteen years old, her father died suddenly of a heart attack. Her memoir, Fierce Attachments (1987), paints a vivid picture of growing up in “a building full of women” with a mother immersed in her own mourning.
Gornick received her B.A. from City College of New York in 1957 and completed her M.A. at New York University in 1960. After teaching English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1966–1967 and at Hunter College in 1967–1968, she worked as a reporter for the Village Voice from 1969 to 1977 while also writing for publications such as The Nation, the New York Times, and the Atlantic. Many of Gornick’s articles from this period are collected in Essays in Feminism (1978) and reflect the revolutionary excitement of the growing women’s movement. Since leaving the Village Voice, she has divided her time between free-lance writing and teaching in creative writing programs. Gornick has been married and divorced twice.
Whether she is writing impressionistic journalism or memoir, Vivian Gornick explores the actual and metaphoric significance of being an outsider—perpetually “half in, half out.” Her groundbreaking anthology, Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, coedited in 1971 with Barbara K. Moran, places women alongside the prototypical Wandering Jew and Noble Savage, symbolically “beyond the pale of ordinary human existence” (71). Such a vantage point not only provides valuable perspective for critiquing society, it also encourages “the camaraderie of the outsider” that allows her to write sympathetically about all marginalized groups (In Search of Ali Mahmoud 7). For In Search of Ali Mahmoud: An American Woman in Egypt (1973), Gornick traveled to Egypt to explore the culture of a former lover, which she depicts as simultaneously exotic and familiar. Her impression that American women and Egyptian men experience similar kinds of powerlessness is heightened by her perception of herself as “the original stranger” (94)—a Jew in an Arab land. Interviewing one hundred former communists for The Romance of American Communism (1977), Gornick examined how their politics enabled them to live “at a level of intense expressiveness” (Perry 118). This passion for understanding what allows the outsider to become an “experiencing self” is echoed in Women in Science: Portraits from a World in Transition (1983), where science—like feminism—becomes a means of “demystifying the self and the environment” (162). Fierce Attachments: A Memoir (1987) portrays Gornick’s own determination to lead a life of the mind and to transcend “the daily infliction of social invisibility” that women experience as outsiders (“Twice an Outsider” 123). Weaving together past and present through a series of conversations and encounters with her mother, Gornick uses their complex relationship as the frame for her exploration of the meaning of success, freedom, and love. Her collection of essays, Approaching Eye Level (1996), depicts Gornick’s ongoing effort to attain “the dense and original quality of life on the margin” by experiencing the action and rhythm of the streets of New York.
Gornick’s work powerfully evokes the urban Jewish American milieu of her childhood and reflects unflinchingly on the parallel humiliations of antisemitism and sexism. Despite her claim that “feminism absolutely ended” her emotional attachment to Judaism (Swenson, 16), the experience of being “twice an outsider”—both Jewish and a woman—serves for Gornick as a powerful lesson in marginality. “Being Jewish ... lives in me as a vital subculture,” she explains, “enriching my life as a writer, as an American, and certainly as a woman.” (“Twice an Outsider” 125).
Approaching Eye Level (1996); Essays in Feminism (1978); The End of the Novel of Love (1997); Fierce Attachments: A Memoir (1987); In Search of Ali Mahmoud: An American Woman in Egypt (1973); Introduction to How I Found America: Collected Stories of Anzia Yezierska (1991); Introduction to Wasteland, by Jo Sinclair (1987); The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001); “The Reliable Reporter and the Untrustworthy Narrator.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 76, no. 2–3 (Summer/Fall 1993): 267–280; The Romance of American Communism (1977); “Twice an Outsider: On Being Jewish and a Woman.” Tikkun: A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture & Society 4, no. 2 (March/April 1989): 29+; Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness, coedited with Barbara K. Moran (1971); Women in Science: Portraits from a World in Transition (1983).
Burstein, Janet H. “A Response to Vivian Gornick.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 76, no. 2–3 (Summer/Fall 1993): 285–288; Cousineau, Diane. “Women and Autobiography: Is There Life Beyond the Looking Glass?” Caliban 31 (1994): 97–105; Laufer, Pearl David. “Powerful and Powerless: Paradox in Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments.” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman (1989); Perry, Donna Marie. “Interview with Vivian Gornick.” Backtalk: Women Writers Speak Out (1993); Porter, Dale H. “A Response to Gornick.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 76, no. 2–3 (Summer/Fall 1993): 281–284; Swenson, Linda Fader. “Facing Down Secret Fears and Unbearable Wisdoms: An Interview with Vivian Gornick.” Hayden’s Ferry Review 12 (Spring/Summer 1993): 7–19; “Vivian Gornick.” Contemporary Authors: A Bio-Bibliographical Guide to Current Writers in Fiction, General Nonfiction, Poetry, Journalism, Drama, Motion Pictures, Television, and Other Fields, edited by Frances C. Locher. Vol. 101 (1981); The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001).
How to cite this page
Grauer, Tresa. "Vivian Gornick." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 5, 2016) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gornick-vivian>.