Ellen Cantarow Interview

Sojourner (Boston)
April, 2002

 

 
      Meredith Tax first published RIVINGTON STREET in 1982 (William Morrow). This best-selling family saga focused on the lives of Hannah and Moyshe Levy; of their daughters Sarah and Ruby, and of their daughters’ friends, comrades and lovers. It swept its readers from a turn-of-the-twentieth-century pogrom in the Levy family’s native Russia to New York’s Lower East Side and the early union movement; clashes between young women strikers, police and Jewish gangsters hired by the bosses; fledgling socialism; suffrage; changes in fashion and technology (including the invention of Kotex and the brassiere), and World War I.
 
      UNION SQUARE, a sequel to RIVINGTON STREET, appeared in 1988, bringing the earlier novel’s characters from World War I through the beginning of World War II. It carried Hannah and Moyshe into middle and old age; Sarah, Ruby and their friends into romance, marriage, separation, childbirth, and re-coupling. Both novels brought in real, historical figures to mingle with their fictional counterparts –banker Felix Warburg, early Zionist Chaim Arlosoroff and many more.
 
      Two years before RIVINGTON STREET Tax published a history book, THE RISING OF THE WOMEN. It dealt with the contradictions between early socialism, feminism and suffrage, frequently focusing on individual historical figures like union organizers Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Rose Schneiderman. Tax’s massive scholarship is also evident in the novels, but so skillfully interwoven is it in her portrayal of characters and the forward drive of her plot that it rarely feels laid-on.
 
      All the major characters are driven. Hannah saves pennies in secret in Russia, hiding her slowly growing fortune in a chicken coop outside the family’s wreck of a hut near the town, Kishinev; finally using it to carry the family to a precarious safety of poverty and toil in America. Hannah and Moyshe’s fiery daughter, Sarah, rises to prominence as a union organizer in the garment trade. Ruby, the Levys’ youngest daughter, becomes one of America’s first and most successful women fashion designers. Rachel, Sarah’s best friend, escapes her abusive, Orthodox-Jewish father to become a columnist for the Yiddish FORWARD. Aristocratic Tish Sloate, whose feckless brother Denzell marries Rachel, rebels against her family, becomes a suffragist, lives in Left Bank Paris, there to pursue her love of women. But all of these dashing characters suffer in their personal relationships. Hannah is tormented by the breakdown of intimacy with Moyshe, has an affair, then an abortion. Sarah’s marriage also founders in the midst of the couple’s growing political differences and sexual estrangement. After Denzell is killed in World War I, Rachel drifts for a long time into a “bohemian,” but also an alcoholic, life. Tish is abandoned by the young woman she has found in France.           
 
      The books are real page-turners in the truest tradition of historical romance. When they first appeared, my mother-in-law, herself a holocaust survivor who came to the US in 1939 and worked in the garment industry, loved them and couldn’t put them down. My own experience of them was similar. In 2002, when 1960s feminism and the struggle for reproductive rights (let alone the momentous history Tax recapitulates) are all but forgotten, it is wonderful that they have been reprinted.
 
      EC: HOW DID YOU CONCEIVE RIVINGTON STREET AND UNION SQUARE?
 
      MT: The idea for RIVINGTON STREET came right out of my previous book, THE RISING OF THE WOMEN. There were a couple of sections [in RTW] that focused on the Lower East Side and the shirtwaist strike. It was published by Monthly Review Press and it was used in colleges. But I wanted the story to reach more people. I was in a women’s group with a friend, Kris Glen, who had a friend who was a literary agent, Harriet Wasserman. She was big-time, Saul Bellow’s agent. Kris said, “Why don’t you write an outline for an historical novel?” I was desperately poor, living in New York and working odd jobs, I was a single mother. I had always read historical novels from childhood and had even been reviewing them for Kirkus Review. Most of them were just awful. I thought, “I could do better than this with my eyes closed!”
 
      I didn’t know how you were supposed to do an outline; I had the main characters and the main events conceived, pretty much the way the book came out. I presented it in as commercial a way as I could. I said I wanted it to reach lots of readers, Jews, and women, as wide an audience as I could. [Harriet] said it was the best outline she had ever seen. She sold it for 50 thousand dollars. That enabled me to stop doing the odd jobs and concentrate on the research and the writing.
 
      I got the contract in 1979; RIVINGTON STREET was published in 1982. It became a dual selection for The Literary Guild. In terms of the political context, this came at the tail-end of the women’s movement. The reproductive rights movement, which I was very involved in, was going strong. I was active in CARASA which I had helped start -- the Committee for Reproductive Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse. This was one of the early reproductive rights groups with an analysis that went beyond just abortion. It was during the period when the Hyde Amendment had passed.[1]
 
      EC Could you talk about the way you integrate historical fact with fictional narrative in the novels? Early in RIVINGTON STREET, for instance, you introduce New World foods to show how poor Hannah and Moyshe are: Hannah is thinking:
 
 
 “What foods they would eat when they became rich: that American sugar, soft to the touch, not having to be hewn with a knife out of the rocklike brown ore they called sugar at home . . . And soft rolls, bread, sweet cakes of the twenty different kinds they made in New York . . . ‘Give me one more year and we’ll be all right.’ If Moyshe returned. She wondered where he was now . . . Plenty of husbands ran away in America; the papers were full of ads looking for them.” [RS p. 60]
 
Did this stuff just sort of flow out of you, or did you have to think about it?
 
      MT Hannah was hungry and scared. She was all of a sudden taken from a village, plunked down . . . In Russia they’d eaten beets, potatoes, every once in a while a chicken if they were lucky. They were really poor! So when you’re poor you think about food. Some of that I got from reading the experiences of people who were hungry and poor. Coming from a village into a consumer society where there was all this stuff they’d never seen. Oranges: they were tropical fruit, you didn’t get them in Russia!
 
      EC What was the writing process like? Were you able to work for long stretches on these books or did you have to interrupt yourself? Was it hard to get your characters out of your mind when you weren’t writing?
 
      MT I was living in a daze a lot of the time. I had kids so I never had the luxury of just writing. I wrote whenever I could. I would write in the mornings when my kids were at school, though I’m much more a natural night person. My first book [THE RISING OF THE WOMEN] was written under very difficult circumstances. I’d get up in the middle of the night to write it!
 
      EC: One of the most striking things about these books is the way you weave the historical and the fictional elements. I wondered if you could talk about “the Kotex passage” in UNION SQUARE:
 
            “When [Ruby] lived at home, her mother always left her clean white rags, folded into the right shape, to pin inside her drawers. But she soaked through. That was awful. And washing the rags was a torture . . . .
 
            “This new product . . . was a gauze pad filled with some sort of paper material called Cellucotton. According to the brochure, Cellucotton had been developed as a bandage material during the war. The picture showed a soldier in a wheelchair being ministered to by a nurse, while a lady in a garden-party hat sat pensively by. . . .
 
       “Ruby loved the fact that they came wrapped; the wrapper somehow sanitized the whole process, and the cotton was so thick and white. She could fold up the used pad without looking at it, wrap it up, and throw it away . . . She used the new pads in November and December, 1921 . . . and waited for January to complete the trial. Nothing happened. She looked back over her calendar to figure at the date of her last period . . . February passed. By this time she was overcome with the familiar lethargy, the drugged exhaustion so overwhelming she could not think straight enough to care or be angry or do anything but sleep away the nine months, sleep away her life if she could.
 
“When she realized she was pregnant again, she broke down. Ben was concerned. She begged him to understand: It was not that she hated children; but she was not cut out for motherhood. He had to make sure this was their last child. And once it was born, they must try, together, to think of some way she could go back to the store.” [pp. 80, 81, UNION SQUARE]
 
      MT: I was always interested in technology; I did research on lots of things, including ones I never used. I didn’t just want to put Kotex in: here, it’s all integrated with Ruby’s feelings about herself and her body, and with her feelings about her sister’s death. Her sister was raped and murdered. And Ruby can’t stand being pregnant, she has this doctor who’s very sexist, an idiot. And it’s all mixed together in her mind. At the end of the book you probably wouldn’t say, “Oh, in those days there had been no Kotex,” but you might say, “This was how Ruby was messed up, and these were her feelings about her body.”
 
      EC: Could you talk about Ruby? She’s a very complicated character – not a leftist like her sister was, or like you and I were.
 
      MT: I once gave a reading and someone came up to me and said, “I’m having an argument with my friend. Tell me, is Ruby bad?” Of course Ruby isn’t bad. Nobody in the books is bad. They’re undeveloped or neurotic or twisted because, well, people are. One of the things that’s most interesting to me is, at what point do people start thinking about themselves in a psychological way; at what point does that become acceptable. In UNION SQUARE Rachel begins doing that. She begins seeing a psychiatrist. But most of the others don’t think that way. They just do what they want to do. And they’re fairly driven people, which I think is true of a lot of that generation. Like when Hannah goes to a party and blows the whole story of who the father of Rachel’s boy is, to the father. She says, “I had to do the right thing.” I know people who do that. They say whatever comes into their heads, and they justify it – basically because they want to, not because it serves any purpose. Psychological ways of thinking are so alien to them. That’s a big generational change: our generation doesn’t act like that.
 
      EC: Did you find it hard at all to portray Hannah, the family matriarch, who’s so unreflective?
 
      MT: No, it wasn’t hard to create her, or anyone else, really. Some of them have pieces of me, and of other people I know. Hannah is a primitive, economically driven creature. But she’s very strong. She does what she has to do. She keeps the family together. Somebody who’s more self-reflective might not be as strong. Moyshe couldn’t have kept anybody together! He can’t keep himself together! Ruby is very entrepreneurial in a way that women who started businesses were. She’s not that different from Sarah, the activist, they’re both focused intensely on their work.
 
      EC: Could you talk about your characters’ difficulties with motherhood? Both Ruby and Sarah are driven in very different careers – Ruby as a businesswoman, Sarah as an organizer – and the kids go by the wayside.
 
      MT: Yes, Sarah isn’t any more attentive to the needs of her children than Ruby; she just doesn’t have as much money. Sarah’s children are part of a communist world where they got a little more contact with other people than Ruby’s children, who were cut off from community by money. I talked with lots of women who were communists, and others who were feminists. And they all said, “If I regret anything, it’s that I didn’t spend more time with my children.” If you read what the children wrote or if you talk with them, you find they’re torn between love and furious resentment that they didn’t get more. And it’s all directed at the mother, and they’re still fighting these battles! Sarah is based to some extent on a real character, Clara Lemlich[2], whose children I interviewed while doing research for UNION SQUARE.
 
      Really to me the central theme of the books, beyond the issue of women, is how political differences worked themselves out in a family context. One person would go one way, the other would go another way, and then something like the Hitler-Stalin pact would happen and they’d split. Like Avi and Sarah, or Sarah and her father. Sarah marries Avi partly because she thinks he’s like her father which he isn’t: he’s a more rigid and much less loving person than her father. We all knew people like that in the Movement, people who have deliberately distorted themselves in the service of a cause we all shared. The cause gets all mixed in with what’s good for them personally and the leadership position, the power they want, and they do a lot of damage.
 
      I did a huge amount of research and interviewed Communist women who had never told their stories to anyone. They wanted to see themselves as heroes. I saw them in a much more complicated way. After UNION SQUARE came out there was a conference at Harvard on anti-Communism in 1988. Dorothy Healey[3] was there; she’d read the book and she said, “Oh, Meredith, how could you! How could you show the Communist Party like that?” She meant Avi, Sarah’s husband, though, as I pointed out, Sarah was a Communist too and Avi was like that because he was in leadership. She gave me this curious look and she said, “How did you know that was what they were like?”
 
      EC Could you talk about Tish and the portions of the book that are about lesbian life?
 
      MT When I wrote the books, there were two kinds of novels, one that had no lesbians and one that had only lesbians. And that’s not the way life is. People who are lesbians live among the general population. Tish could have been anybody, but because many people in the suffrage movement were lesbians it felt natural to me to make her a militant suffragist. In any event, I wanted the best for all my characters so I wanted her to be happy, and I found her a nice woman in the end.
 
Ellen Cantarow interviewed Meredith Tax for SOJOURNER. Cantarow has known Tax ever since 1969 when the two were founding members of Boston’s feminist organization, Bread and Roses. From the 1970s she was a columnist for Boston’s THE REAL PAPER and worked as a journalist for THE VILLAGE VOICE, MADEMOISELLE and many other venues. From 1988 to 1998 she was THE WOMEN’S REVIEW OF BOOKS’ associate and senior editor.
 
 
 
 
[1] The Hyde Amendment, passed in 1977, denied state funding for abortions, thereby effectively annulling Roe v Wade for poor and working-class women in the US.
[2] Organizer for The Women’s Trade Union League which was active, among other things, in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory.
[3] Communist Party leader in California.

 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.