Still Dreaming: Frances Goldin and the Book She Had to Have

John Tarleton Jan 24, 2014

When Frances Goldin moved from Queens to the Lower East Side as a young woman in 1944, she took to the culturally diverse neighborhood and its leftist politics like a fish to water. 

“It was nirvana,” she recalled recently as she sat at her kitchen table, a wisp of purple lighting up the front of her short, silver hair. 

In the years that followed her arrival on the Lower East Side, Goldin ran for a spot in the State Legislature on the same American Labor Party ticket as W.E.B. Du Bois, successfully battled Robert Moses over the future of her neighborhood and raised a family. She also built a career as a successful literary agent whose achievements include launching Live from Death Row, the book by former Black Panther and Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal that brought him international renown

“I want books that change the world,” she said. “If you look in the literary marketplace, there must be 300-400 agents but there is only one who says I handle nothing racist, sexist, ageist or pornographic.”

Goldin’s 70 years on the Left haven’t dented her innate optimism. But like many others she is deeply troubled by the rightward shift in U.S. politics and the growing influence of the super-wealthy. Now 89, Goldin says she has two goals left that she wants to realize in her life — publishing Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA and freeing Mumia. Anything she makes from sales of the former, she says, will go to help fund work on the latter.

John Tarleton: Why publish a book about socialism in 2014?

Frances Goldin: Things in this country are getting much worse. Instead of becoming a more open, democratic country, we are becoming less so. For example, some states are bringing back voting restrictions for blacks. It’s insane. We already won that battle. So if the Koch brothers and the right wing can try to take us back 50 years in time, why can’t we go forward 50 years to a socialist USA? From the way people vote, I think they are unhappy with what’s going on. And I thought, what if we pulled together a book that said, “Imagine living in a socialist USA” and clarified what it means to have a socialist country? 

I knew it would be a big job so I called my comrades Michael and Debby Smith. They thought it was a great idea and agreed to work on it with me. I then went to HarperCollins twice and they told me “No” each time. I contacted them a third time and said, “I have given you the best fiction writer in the country in Barbara Kingsolver. And I have given you a children’s book, Goodnight Moon, that has sold more copies than any book in the world except the Bible, and you have the nerve to say no to me?”

So the vice president of HarperCollins picks up the phone and says, “Frances, your passion and your persistence have won out. We’ll do it.” So that’s how I got my publisher. (Laughter) And from then on it’s history. 

JT: You’ve been a literary agent for a long time. Do you think this book is going to be a success?

FG: The reviews have shocked me. They have been wonderful. Many of the writers in this book are professors. They are taking copies to academic conventions or making it required reading at their colleges. I think that people are so fed up with what’s wrong and want an opportunity to read an alternative and get the truth for a change instead of baloney. 

JT: Capitalism and its underlying values of greed and competition are constantly glorified in our culture. Yet, you believe it’s possible for us to shift away from that.

FG: Capitalism can’t work. It’s a system where you can never have enough. You always need more. It’s why wealth is flowing upwards into the hands of the 1% while the average worker’s real wages are less than they were 40 years ago. The nature of the system is to expand. It’s why we are an empire. In time, all empires disappear. I just want it to happen faster.

JT: So what does socialism mean to you?

FG: Done properly, socialism is the highest form of democracy, because everything is decided by the people who are involved and there is no big boss or big government or anything that overrules their decision, whether it’s how to run a factory or a neighborhood or how to get housing. 

A true socialist country would not be like what happened in Russia nor in China. Then again, they didn’t have the opportunities that we have here, the material abundance. I think the future is exciting and that once people are educated and they know there is an option other than capitalism, it’s going to open their eyes to be more willing to struggle. The only way we are going to see a socialist USA is if the masses of people are in motion demanding it. It can’t be handed down from above.

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper that publishes 13 times a year. To subscribe, click here. To make a contribution, click here.



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