Starting Out in the Thirties Critical Essays

Alfred Kazin


(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...

(The entire section is 815 words.)