Starting Out in the Thirties
With Starting Out in the Thirties Alfred Kazin reverts to the reminiscent vein of A Walker in the City, which means that he is back in his best form. The new book is inevitably somewhat cooler and less intimate in tone, since it deals with the world of public conflicts and adult responsibilities. The warm cocoon of childhood has been broken. In a central passage the twenty-year-old Kazin takes Otis Ferguson of The New Republic back to Brownsville for dinner with his family. To his dismay, Ferguson refused to find anything exotic or out of the ordinary about the experience. A trivial episode in itself, it was evidently an important landmark for the author on the road which we all have to travel, of learning that we are less unique than we like to think. And as the sense of uniqueness diminishes, so does the sense of magic with which Mr. Kazin invested the city streets in his earlier memoir.
To offset against this there is a crisp new objectivity about the portraits of Thirties personalities—some of them great names in their day, such as John Chamberlain and George Goetz alias V. F. Calverton, others obscure but no less interesting, like Harriet, the brilliant and scornful narodnik who eventually found her niche working for Time. If nothing else, Mr. Kazin has put together a spirited sketchbook of the decade. But in any case, one can make too much of the break between first and second installments of his memoirs. Compared with most autobiographies, the style of Starting Out in the Thirties is vivid and highly charged. Scenes are conjured up with a novelist’s precision: the basement at City College, with its political wrangles and ping-pong marathons and smell of oily sandwiches, or the lean, ruddy-complexioned Yankee individualists at Calverton’s parties standing out among all the “sour, sedentary, guarded” European faces. (“Norman Thomas’s laugh could be heard from one room to another.”) And the early pressures of home and family still make themselves felt, most notably in the picture of Sophie, Mr. Kazin’s unmarried aunt. Where his mother accepted life’s blows with dour fatalism, Sophie burned, suffered, oscillated between joy and despair. She was the “Russian” in the family, the one with soul. In the eyes of her nephew a sultry glamor clung to everything about her: her velvet skirts and embroidered blouses, her mandolin-playing and Russian novels with their stippled blue bindings, the scent of musk and patchouli in her tiny room, the painting of Hope by George Frederick Watts hanging over her bed. She first made an appearance in A Walker in the City, but here she is treated with greater depth, and her story is carried to its tragic conclusion: an unaccountable elopement, followed by mental collapse and long years of twilight in a distant asylum. The pages devoted to her are the most powerful in the book.
It is hard not to see some of the boyish intensity which Sophie inspired …