Starting Out in the Thirties Analysis
by Alfred Kazin

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Starting Out in the Thirties Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In his work, Alfred Kazin traces the influence on his life of two important themes during the 1930’s. Through his description of individuals, he shows how strongly social change and specifically Socialism shaped him and those around him. It loomed for Kazin as a utopian goal, a kind of American Dream that seemed to provide hope among intellectuals in the midst of Depression-era America. He also traces artfully how the hopes of Socialism raised by the Russian Revolution of 1917 begin to fall quickly as power struggles developed in the Soviet Union. As the Stalinists gained more power and as the Moscow trials of 1936 turned darker, Kazin’s own hopes for America soured. In his portraits of Mary McCarthy and other writers for the Partisan Review, he shows how their social criticism lost its optimism. For Mary McCarthy, criticism seems only a way of showing her superiority over an opponent; she makes Kazin realize that “it would be possible to be a radical without any idealism whatsoever.”

A second theme that permeates this work is isolation. Two female members of his family reveal how this isolation is associated in Kazin’s mind with his Jewishness in America. His mother constantly worries so much about others that he sees her as “a slave to other people.” Never is she able to enjoy any happiness of the moment. Kazin’s own thoughts echo this outlook on life when he describes his viewing a newsreel of liberated prisoners from the Nazi concentration camp at Belsen in 1945. Amid the joy of the liberation Kazin feels embarrassed and describes the sight of these Jews who look like “sticks” as “unbearable.”

In contrast to his mother, his cousin Sophie is alive, active, open to the world, and full of emotion. Fellow dressmakers from the surrounding factories gather in the young Kazin’s home in the evening to drink tea and listen to Sophie entertain them on her mandolin. The vibrancy that exudes from Sophie at these times is in Kazin’s mind the central emotion he associates with his memories of her. This is also the emotion Kazin has for the intellectuals he finds so stimulating in their discussions of Socialism and social change during the 1930’s.

Because Sophie is unmarried, Kazin’s mother sees her as incomplete, unfulfilled, and enduring a plight that only marriage can cure. In “1937,” Kazin reveals Sophie’s fate. After being rejected by many potential suitors and in middle age, Sophie accepts an offer to pose as the wife of a man who will try to begin a new life in the Midwest. In a few months the man deserts her, and she goes insane from the emotional shock. For the next twenty years until her death, she lives in the state insane asylum.

In Sophie’s bedroom, which became Kazin’s after her departure, hang two pictures to which he often refers. These symbolize the two major themes of the book. The first picture is Sir George Frederic Watts’ Hope: “. . . a blindfolded young lady with bare feet sat on a globe earnestly listening for the vibration of the single string on her harp. . . .” The second picture is Pierre-Auguste Cot’s The Storm. In it two lovers run together from an approaching storm with a gauze veil held over their heads. The hope in the first picture comes through strongly in Kazin’s belief that American life can be improved by Socialism and that he can help foster this improvement through his writing. Seeing a performance of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing in 1936 confirms his belief that this can happen, because in the play everything comes together: “Art and truth and hope could yet come together—if a real writer was their meeting place.” In his life with his wife in Provincetown and in his own writing, he seems to have achieved this dream of hope. In Sophie’s plight and his mother’s constant guilt over it, however, Kazin is drawn much more strongly to the concept of loneliness. His mother’s belief that “you were lonely as a Jew and lonely in a strange land, lonely, always lonely even in the midst of people” teaches him “the picture of a woman or man as an abject soul wandering about the world looking for the other” and seeking protection from the coming storm.

In the 1930’s Socialism and literature offered hope to Kazin, but World War II was the storm which finally arrived and changed his world. In “1940,” he says of the radicals such as Philip Rahv and Mary McCarthy that they are certainly intelligent, but they lack a desire to suffer for mankind. They are “sour outsiders” who “shift back and forth amid the ideologies like a fevered patient trying to find a cool place in bed.” Most important, they lack “the faith in a wholly new society” which those radicals of the 1930’s had.