Interview with Phyllis Kriegel

New Directions for Women
Sept.-Oct. 1982

             Meredith Tax considers herself lucky to be making a living today as a writer. From the evidence, her literary future looks bright. With its good press and selection by the Literary Guild, her recently published first novel is on the road to commercial success. And why not? Rivington Street (Morrow) provides a richly-textured saga of Jewish immigrant life, union organizing, and feminist strivings; its characters and incidents faithfully capture "the world of our mothers" so often ridiculed or sentimentalized by their writer sons.

            Indeed, the story emerges through the lives of the Levy women—Hannah, Sarah, and Ruby—and their friends who came to New York's Lower East Side from Russia in the early 1900s. As it turns out, the revolutionary fervor of the "firebrand" Sarah matches the author's own desire to shape the world more to her liking—to push for radical solutions to the problems that make survival difficult for women and their children.
 
            But, as Tax tells it, her own political consciousness developed slowly: Fueled first by personal experience, and later by the struggles and confrontations unleashed by the war in Vietnam.
 
            "Growing up at the time I did (the Midwest in the 50s) meant that if you were a girl, it was really considered 'off the wall' to want to be anything else but a wife and mother," Tax explains, admitting that life in Whitefish Bay, WI, was hard for an intellectual Jewish girl "who wasn't particularly good at dating and wasn't a cheerleader. It was dogma in those days that no boy would want to go out with a girl who was smarter than he was," she adds.
 
            "I was continually feeling that there was something wrong with me, that everybody saw it, that there was nothing to be done about it except leave," she recalls. "I felt very much a reject and sort of helpless." Determined to use her wits and imagination to break out of a milieu she found uncomfortable (at times even painful) Tax says she first found escape in reading novels and plays that "celebrated the Bohemian life of Greenwich Village in the 20s and other
glamorous places like Paris. Clearly, there were other places in which I would get on better," she says with ironic understatement.
 
            About winning a Merit Scholarship which brought her East to Brandeis University, Tax observes, "School was the main way I found to get away from home," because as the daughter of a physician father and a mother who joined the middle class when she married—there wasn't any other way that was appropriate for who I was."
 
            Yet like so many of the young maverick women of her generation, Tax was uncertain about what to do with her life. "While the men in my class had their sights clearly fixed on specific goals, the interesting and intelligent women wanted to do something, but they weren't clear just what." 
 
            She confesses that she fastened on graduate school because she couldn't think of anything else, afraid, too, that she'd "end up being a secretary to some boy in my class."
 
            Once again, academic achievement offered a ticket out; and she spent four years in England on fellowships (Fulbright and Woodrow Wilson), doing a dissertation on Restoration Comedy at the University of London. This was the time—the early 60s—when anti-war sentiment surfaced in England (somewhat before it did in America), and Tax recalls feeling deep discontent with qualities in American life. "I had no politics at the time. But 1 became very upset about the war in Vietnam," she remembers, adding "the things that had distressed me about Whitefish Bay and my family all seemed to connect with the war in a way that was a criticism of so many things in the society and in the way I grew up."
 
            If the events of the 60s radicalized so many of the best and the brightest, in Tax's case they proved a turning point. She recalls feeling "I can't insulate myself from political reality and just be an academic, because it's not working.” The only way to continue was "to pretend that there wasn't anything more interesting or important."
 
            When she decided to scrap academic life, Tax returned to the US and plunged into the antiwar movement in Boston. She became involved in the socialist feminist collective Bread and Roses and hit on the idea of writing a book, as she puts it, "to make money and devote full time to the women's movement. It was a wonderful time." She recalled the heady ezcitement of the early days of the women's movement, '''The minute you'd put up notice of a meeting, a hundred women would appear out of nowhere."
 
            From the flow of ideas generated by the shared experience of Bread and Roses, Tax's first published work emerged, "Woman and Her Mind: A Story of Daily Life" (New England Free Press, 1970). A radical critique of society and of the institutional sources of women's oppression, the widely circulated pamphlet quickly became a major document of the Women's Liberation Movement.
 
            "I was trying to put together things about being on the left and being a feminist, in a way that wasn't acceptable in many circles," she says, explaining how difficult it was to get "Woman" published. "You were supposed to be on one side or the other."
 
            As she struggled to carve out a career as a writer (and be an activist) her problems escalated   when her daughter was one-year-old and Tax joined the vast army of single mothers. "I sure wasn't getting much child support," she says ruefully. She took on a variety of jobs—factory worker, nurses' aide, teacher, secretary, editor—during the decade she calls "the 10 lean years" spent researching and writing The Rising of the Women (Monthly Review Press, 1980)—a book intended to do double-duty as a history and as a search for strategies.
 
            What animated her to take the stuff of The Rising of the Womenthe intersection of socialism, trade unionism and the suffrage movement, circa 1880—and transform it into a novel, to vivify movements and marches, issues and ideas? "I always wanted to write a novel, on one level," she explains. "I think a lot in fictional and dramatic terms. But it was more a question of whether I would have the opportunity to do it. '”The economics of it were critical," she says, here quoting Tillie Olsen: "Unless you have the money to write, you can't write, because you can't buy the time to write."
 
            "A friend with lots of money offered to stake me if I wanted to try and write a 'best seller.' Another friend found an agent who loved it, sold it, and so I had enough money to write."
 
            Meredith Tax chose the storyteller's craft to recreate through the lives of her characters some of the transforming events and movements of our century. She dug in archives and libraries and delved into family memories ("the voice is really that of my grandmother, my mother, my aunts") to capture the distinctive flavor and vitality of the Lower East Side Jewry. In the process, she says, she discovered the significance of Yiddishkeit (Jewish culture) as well as the strain of secular reforming passion in the Jewish tradition which closely paralleled her own impulse to social protest. “That tradition wasn’t strong in my family, but it is one I love.”
 
            As to the future of novel writing, Tax says that Rivington Street is the first of a proposed trilogy. “All the people will go on until World War II.” But she suspects that the project will get more difficult, conceding, “I don’t know the history as well. For me, fiction comes very much out of knowing what really happened. I don’t want to write anything that isn’t really true in some way.”
 
            Tax admits that she is ambivalent about the prospect of success ("anybody who comes out of my tradition is enormously worried about good luck") but she is not diffident about writing a crowd-pleaser. "I want to reach the people who ride the subways, who don't go to the library a lot who read what they can buy in a drug store or bus station. If you want them to read what you have to say, you somehow have to get your stuff into those places."
 
            In one way or another, Tax's books have come out of her life. When she became a single mother, she was drawn to write Families (Atlantie, Little Brown, 1981), a children's book designed to show, as she put it, that "families come in all sizes and all shapes." Her intent was to reflect the reality of her young daughter's life ignored by most children's fiction.
 
            With her recent marriage to writer Marshall Berman, the shape of her family life has changed. Despite the deep skepticism about male-female relationships she voiced in "Woman and Her Mind," Tax obviously is taking her chances. “I don't feel it’s hopeless," she says, laughing.  “But I think it’s very difficult— human relations are difficult. There are certain kinds of support you get from a few women friends that you really don’t get from anyone else. But there are certain kinds of things you get from living with a man, especially if you have kids, that are very important.” She pauses. “Families are one of the ways that you are rooted in society.”
 

 

Copyright © Meredith Tax 2010. All Rights Reserved.