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 spilling over into Mr. Kazin’s feelings, not only for the girl he was to marry—another “Russian”—but even more for the political ferment of the period. He recalls the thrill of watching Soviet films in a fleapit on Union Square:
It was so small that it induced a moving intimacy with the Russian faces on the screen, who seemed lifelike and more “natural” anyway, direct, simple, feeling, angry when they were angry, happy when they were happy, and who could wring your heart as nothing else could when they marched along the dusty road, singing.
Of course, this was hardly a solitary enthusiasm at the time. There is the old joke about New York in the Thirties being a city which tried to shift itself to a foreign country. But where others turned to Moscow for ideological guidance, Mr. Kazin was more of an emotional slavophil. He seems to have had little taste for Marxism as a metaphysical system; he mistrusted Stalin, and saw the Purges for what they were. But the Soviet Union still represented the wave of the future, and in the end the revolutionary spirit of the Russian people was bound to triumph over temporary mishaps or the sins of its leadership. Anyway, could one afford too many scruples when the really pressing danger came from Hitler and his allies? Watching the spread of Nazi power, Mr. Kazin felt that as a Jew he had been thrust to the center of the stage. And he also carried over from his Jewish background at least a vestige of the messianic hope. All the forces of history were converging for the final denouement; the apocalyptic hour was at hand.
Again, this was a feeling shared by countless contemporaries. History was coming to the boil; the masses were marching, marching (or soon would be). Revolutions, as the saying goes, start with a mystique. But in the case of Mr. Kazin there seems to have been only a comparatively limited descent into the dingier realms of politique. He remained in a state of slightly muzzy exaltation:
Every day was like a smoothly rushing movie of the time…I was as excited by history as if it were a newsreel, and I saw history in every newsreel, my love and hatred of the historical actors rising to the music on the sound track like a swimmer to the surf.
The mood is one which can be encountered in other writers of the period, though seldom so effectively expressed. But the underlying attitude is essentially that of a spectator rather than a participant. Mr. Kazin aims to evoke the feel, the flavor, the sensibility of the Thirties; about actual political events and controversies he has very little to say. And while most of the characters whom he discusses were intellectuals, in every case the impact of a man’s personality is made to count for more than the substance of his thought. His book is none the worse for that. On the contrary, we may well feel grateful to him for not rehashing ancient sectarian quarrels. But I can see that anyone who led a more active political career in the Thirties might well object to this account being taken as a representative case history.
The experience of a true writer can never by definition be typical of his period, and Mr. Kazin’s first loyalty has always been to literature. He opens the present book with a sketch of John Chamberlain, and closes with one of Philip Rahv—two very different types, but in each case he has the same complaint to make against them: that they were both men dominated by abstract ideals, for whom a work of art existed as a social weapon rather than in its own right. By contrast, in his own case politics were heavily colored by literature. The most telling argument on behalf of the Communists was that despite Stalin they were still able to command the support of so many fine writers. In particular there was Malraux. Mr. Kazin recalls the tremendous impact which the climax of La Condition Humaine had on him when he read it for the first time (though he admits, which is more than some critics would and a credit to his honesty, that he had been converted in advance by Malcolm Cowley’s review in The New Republic). Later he saw Malraux in New York, holding audiences breathless while he described the war in Spain. Other momentous literary revelations about society are recalled: Silone, Studs Lonigan, Odets. In general Mr. Kazin was unaffected by proletarian naturalism and agitprop, but Odets’s early plays touched a deep Brownsville chord, and I admire him for not betraying a past enthusiasm. One can imagine a more amusing and hard-boiled treatment of the Thirties than this, such as Murray Kempton essayed in A Part of Our Time, with its account of Odets carrying the torch of revolution to Hollywood and then writing film-scripts in which the most inflammatory line was “We could make beautiful music together.” Personally I prefer the exuberance, unqualified by retrospective irony, with which Mr. Kazin acknowledges the debt he and his generation owed to Awake and Sing.
This is primarily a literary memoir, then; it doesn’t pretend to be a political stock-taking. But it rests on the unvoiced assumption that “we—the radical New York intelligentsia—were the Thirties”—at their most vital, anyway. I think Mr. Kazin would have written an even better book if he had stopped to ask how true this now seems. If one were to judge by practical results, the whole idea is plainly ludicrous: at a time when Roosevelt was reshaping large areas of American life, the most substantial end-product of intellectual agitation on the extreme left was hot air. Mr. Kazin and his friends were not impressed by Roosevelt, when they thought of him at all. They were not necessarily wrong in this: it could be claimed that they were looking for a fundamental cure where the New Dealers were merely applying sedatives, or that their vision of society was altogether more profound, in the long run perhaps even more realistic. But the case needs to be argued. By what standards can Calverton or Max East-man be considered more significant than, say, Tugwell and Lilienthal? It is as well to be clear in the matter, especially at present, when the question of the intellectual’s role in politics is once again giving rise to fierce debate.
On domestic policy the intellectuals of the Thirties often proved unworldly. But their record on foreign affairs is another story. Here they understood the dimensions of the crisis better than most professional politicians. They may have been powerless to influence events, but it is to their everlasting honor that they protested and warned. This makes Mr. Kazin’s final chapter all the more of a limp anti-climax. His Thirties ended on the beach at Provincetown in the summer of 1940, surrounded by writers and radicals. His closest friends were “wistfully seeking to stave off American entry into the war…We were all Socialists still, and Socialists stayed out of Capitalist wars.” An Englishman is tempted to add that so do capitalists, so long as they can find other people to fight on their behalf. American neutrality not only prolonged Hitler’s reign, but also ensured that within three or four years an America in which capitalism showed no signs of crumbling emerged as overwhelmingly the strongest nation in the world. Not that it would have made any practical difference if a handful of radicals in Provincetown had argued the other way (as some of them in fact did, very strenuously). But the principle counts, and Mr. Kazin writes as though in retrospect the non-interventionists’ attitude was still something to be proud of, as though they were right to be more disturbed by the assassination of Trotsky than, say, by the fall of Paris. Outsiders, however, may find it harder to think of 1940 primarily as Provincetown’s finest hour. No doubt the passengers talked as though the train were hurtling along the main line of history towards some distant Finland Station. But in reality it had come to rest on a local siding.