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This second in a series of autobiographical works by Alfred Kazin covers his life from the summer of 1934 to the end of World War II in 1945. It includes a series of portraits of people whom he met each year and traces his career as reviewer, critic, and teacher during this time.

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Each of the six chapters and the epilogue are titled with the dates of years during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The opening scene of the first chapter, “1934,” captures the exuberance and vitality of the young Kazin. As he brashly enters the office of John Chamberlain, reviewer for The New York Times, the nineteen-year-old Kazin is full of intellectual ideas and hopes to convince Chamberlain to help him obtain a literary job. In a summer of the Dust Bowl and the rising Nazism of Adolf Hitler, the young socialistic Kazin is full of optimism in the power of the world. He looks “to literature for strong social argument, intellectual power, human liberation.” In the series of portraits he gives of the literary intellectuals he meets and in the discussions of social issues he recounts, Kazin provides a kind of intellectual history of the 1930’s. The strong political optimism he shares with others in this period of harsh social upheaval finally dissipates at the end of the book, with the revelations of Hitler’s concentration camps.

Each of the chapters and the epilogue focus on major influences in Kazin’s life and on major intellectuals of the New York literary scene. He praises Malcolm Cowley, editor of The New Republic, for his ability to bridge the worlds of 1920’s and 1930’s writers. The former were generally disgruntled upper-class writers, but those of the 1930’s came from the working class, the lower class, and the immigrant class. James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, is praised for his ability to portray accurately the emptiness and futility of the working class yet include the hope that the “facts will make you free. . . .” Kazin likes William Saroyan because of the exuberance he invests in his writing. Both writers are admired by Kazin because they reject literary traditions in favor of newness and freedom. The chapters also present favorable pictures of Marxist critic V.F. Calverton, who immediately saw the falsity of Joseph Stalin in 1936, and of Ralph Bates, a British novelist-adventurer, who speaks movingly in 1937 at a party to garner support for the Communists in the Spanish Revolution. Other critics, such as Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Bert Wolfe, and Mary McCarthy, who were associated with the Modern Monthly and Partisan Review, are discussed.

The negative effects of the intense ideological debates of the 1930’s are shown in the character of Francis Corcoran, a Catholic interested in Jews and a pedant drawn to Communism. Corcoran believes that all printed matter is the truth, and he is completely deceived by the accounts of the Moscow trials of 1936. By 1939 he rejects Communism, turns to new forms of authority, and becomes an informer during the rise of McCarthyism.

This work traces Kazin’s life from his first summer of reviewing for Malcolm Cowley at The New Republic, through his sense of isolation as a Jew of parents not intellectually oriented, and to his attempts to become a literary critic. Kazin discusses his associations with various young women whom he considers marrying, and these culminate in his marriage to his first wife in 1938. Her Russian heritage, her beauty, her attachment to science as a bacteriologist, and her fervor for women’s rights attract him. Kazin discusses fully his intense hope that the Soviet workers’ state will become the climax toward which history has been moving. Eventually he will reject the Communists because of the Moscow trials of 1936 and the Soviet Union’s signing of the nonaggression pact with Hitler. Kazin also describes his teaching and living with his wife in Provincetown in 1940 as he prepares a book of literary criticism on American writers of the 1880’s and 1890’s. William Dean Howells and Henry James appeal to him because they include much social criticism in their writings. By 1945, Kazin finally accepts the belief that American society and its radicals have changed since 1940. The world can never return to the idea of a better life in the future because of society’s loss of optimism and because of the events of World War II.

The epilogue, titled “1945,” a time five years after the final chapter of 1940 and America’s entry into the war, gives Kazin’s reactions to the events of World War II. He sees the rearmament of the United States as a protection against the mass unemployment and social hysteria of the 1930’s. For him it was “a sacrifice to progress” which the more accomplished society of the 1940’s demanded, but the intellectual optimism of the 1930’s could not be maintained with it.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69

Capouya, Emile. “The America with Some Regret,” in Saturday Review. XLVIII (September 18, 1965), p. 101.

Kauffmann, Stanley. “Young in the Thirties,” in The New Republic. CLIII (September 18, 1965), pp. 17-20.

Kramer, Hilton. “The Age of the Intellectuals,” in The New Leader. XLVIII (September 27, 1965), pp. 23-24.

Kronenberger, Louis. “Thirties: Frayed Collars and Large Visions,” in The Atlantic Monthly. CCXVII (January, 1966), pp. 79-81.

Marx, Leo. “A Literary Radical,” in Commentary. XL (December, 1965), pp. 118, 120-123.

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