The Bitter 30's: From a Personal History
One of the ranking literary critics in America, ALFRED KAZIN Was educated at the College of the City of New York. He began his literary career as a book reviewer for the NEW REPUBLIC in the hot, desperate summer of 1934. Here he tells of his coming of age in the Depression and of the excitement, aspiration, and loneliness which beset him by turns during this revolutionary period. A collection of his critical essays, CONTEMPORARIES, appears this month under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.
ONE hot June day in 1934, a Depression summer, I had just completed my college course for the year and was desolately on my way home to Brooklyn when a book review in the New York Times aroused me. I was nineteen years old, my briefcase was full of college essays on Henry Vaughan, T. S. Eliot, John Donne, and other Anglo-Catholic poets who had come into fashion, and I had no prospects whatsoever. Although I was a “socialist,”like everyone else I knew, I thought of socialism as orthodox Christians might think of the Second Coming — as a wholly supernatural event which one might await with perfect faith, but which had no obvious relevance to one’s immediate life. “Socialism" was a social activity, since everyone i knew was a “socialist,more or less; but I was remarkably detached from it intellectually, and spent my days reading Blake and Lawrence and Whitman. I felt moral compulsions to be a socialist, since the violently disordered society I lived in did not seem to admit of saving in any other way; but the compulsion, though I felt it deeply, did not seem to require any conscious personal assent or decision on my part. I felt myself to be a rebel, not a doctrinaire; I was proud of the radical yet wholly literary tradition to which I knew that I belonged, with Randolph Bourne and Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson. If anyone had pointed out contradictions in my roster of literary affinities, I would not have been ashamed.
It was the militant sociological emphasis of the review in the Times that aroused me. The reviewer was John Chamberlain, who had become important to many of us for the brilliance and liveliness with which he had inaugurated a daily literary column in the staid old Times. Chamberlain described a recent book on America’s youth by a professional youth leader who had been a fascist and was presently (at least I guessed this from the review) a Communist. I knew all about professional youth leaders; the City College saw many of them, four and five years after graduation, holding forth at street corners just outside the college walls. Youth leaders never seemed to graduate out of the class of youth. One of them, expelled from college because he had led a physical attack on Italian fascist students visiting American colleges, could be seen any day of the week, either at City College or Columbia — he was literally a professional agitator — working on a circle of students with a look of detached and professional hauteur. His personal arrogance had always infuriated me; and it was this same arrogance and knowingness, which had oozed out of the professional youth leader into the review of John Chamberlain, whom I usually admired, that woke me from my torpor that hot afternoon in the subway. I hated all abstract talk of youth and the problems of youth; I was youth, afraid to go home, without a job. Chamberlain’s programmatic remarks seemed to me condescending, his manner unfeeling; I was convinced that he knew nothing about the subject, and that even his concern with such a book showed a highly abstract mind. I was youth —youth out of college for the year, useless, driven as an alley cat. What the hell does this fellow know about it anyway?
On a sudden impulse 1 got off at Times Square and made my way up to the Book Review, and to my utter astonishment found Chamberlain in and prepared to hear me out. Chamberlain was just over thirty then, but he looked twenty and was so boyish and unpretentious in his manner that all my anger at his inhuman “progressivism” quickly vanished in the glow and excitement of that afternoon’s talk. To be able to talk to him was so unexpected that I tumbled over in my excitement, went deliriously from subject to subject, but always returned the talk to youth for fear that he might think I had exhausted my reason for coming. Chamberlain astounded me; in those days, he astounded everyone. He looked so young, so ingenuous, so carelessly one of the boys, with his tousled blond hair and his torn white shirt, that it was not until I got to know him better that I realized how abstract his mind was. He lived on ideas, so completely missing the color and emotion of the human crisis behind them that it was possible to talk to him about anything, to talk to him all the time, without his entertaining the slightest curiosity about the human beings you described.
Chamberlain was the golden boy of a generation of ideologues; he was surrounded by radical intellectuals, but he looked like Charles Augustus Lindbergh shyly starting out alone for Paris, like Gary Cooper in a Western warding off a kiss. He was awkward, kindly, ingenuous, modest. Yet his conversation was all Veblen, Marx, Pareto, Beard, Sorokin, Spengler. He never seemed to tire of turning over ideas, for, like many another middleclass American who had learned to distrust capitalist society, lie was looking hard for alternatives. His extraordinary and much-admired success as the radical book reviewer of the Times—in no period but the early thirties could Chamberlain’s reviews have been a daily feature of the Times — was due to a stimulating, unorthodox, generous interest in ideas that made people grateful for his good faith in considering every social idea without lending himself abjectly to any one. Yet he looked like a Yale man’s idea of a Yale man, and, except lor his careless clothes, like his classmates on Madison Avenue who spent their days thinking up slogans designed to make you buy toothpaste, soap, and deodorants.
It was easy to mistake Chamberlain for merely a mechanic of ideas, a braintruster, perfectly disinterested. He seemed so perpetually in discovery of new ideas that he had become an intellectual journalist, a type as peculiar to the thirties as Mencken had been to the twenties; he personified the crisis of the American middle class, of the old bourgeois faith. His father was d wholesale furniture dealer in New Haven; the Chamberlains had been battered by the Depression. The chilling deliberateness with which John Chamberlain was able to analyze the formation ol’ American Communism, the possibilities of taking power, the use of inherited wealth, showed a bankruptcy of the normal standards of middle-class Americans from small towns, of Yale graduates, which had taken the form of an almost aimless empiricism in ideas, a willingness to consider anything, so long as it kept alive the possible use of ideas in creating a new society.
Chamberlain was interested in me that afternoon because I seemed to have an idea; at least I talked about ideas. As I was to learn later, one could never talk to Chamberlain about imaginative literature, music, painting, women; he never talked anything but shop. He was so carried away by our talk that he had forgotten to finish his daily piece, and when it became urgent for him to send his copy down, I watched with awe as he banged out his piece for the next day, rattling down hard on the keys like a man who never had to stop for a moment. When the thing was done and he had sent it down, he leaned back in his chair eagerly to finish the point about Veblen that he had been making. It was only when evening came on, and he realized that it was time for him to go home, that it occurred to me to ask him for some help in getting a job. He looked at me with a puzzled frown when I showed him my papers on Eliot and Donne; then he laughed and sent me down to the New Republic with a scribbled note — “here’s an intelligent radical” — and a recommendation that I do book reviews.
So, thanks to Chamberlain, I became a literary journalist, and that hot and miserable summer I had dreaded so much I managed to earn what I needed each week writing book reviews for the New Republic, Scribner’s, and the Sunday papers. It seemed an incredibly glamorous life: my name appeared regularly in print; above all, I had a chance to meet writers in a social world which in 1934 was still not far removed from the old Bohemia of Greenwich Village and Chelsea. I would often return from a party in the Village, or drinks in the garden of the New Republic on West Twentyfirst Street, drained by my excitement, my incredulity, exhausted by my effort to understand social and intellectual connections in the literaryradical world around me for which I lacked the knowledge and the simple social experience. Although the country was deep in the Depression, there was a heady excitement in the air, a spirit of literary crusading, the sense of a movement. Marxism was in the air, turnover was in the air, and whatever else you could say of them, the writers I knew had the look of being part of a common atmosphere of ideas. it was the age of militancy. So many of the writers who seemed to me, when I was twenty, really to be writers wore proletarian scowls on their faces as constant as the cigarette butts pasted in their mouths. There was a proud and conscious carrying on of the literary groups and cenacles of the nineteen twenties, an atmosphere of dash, a writer’s sense of a common destiny, that I saw reflected in the faces of James T. Farrell and Robert Cantwell, of Clifford Odets and Elia Kazan. The excitement of literary life was not only in the proud radical Bohemianism of the time but in the particular fury with which Irishmen like Farrell, Jews like Nathanael West and Edward Dahlberg, Armenians like William Saroyan, Negroes like Richard Wright, writers with recent working-class experience like John Steinbeck, writers from the depressed South like Erskine Caldwell, people with extreme experience of the Depression like Nelson Algren and Henry Miller were coming into American literature.
What young writers of the thirties wanted was to prove the literary authenticity of our own experience, to recognize the possibility of art in our own lives, to feel that we had moved the streets, the stockyards, the hiring halls into literature — to show that in us continued the radical strength of American writing. And it was just here that the influence of Malcolm Cowley, then literary editor of the New Republic, was so fundamental. For Cowley had just published his autobiography as a chronicle of the expatriates — he had belonged to the lost generation in Paris — and each Wednesday afternoon at the New Republic, when I waited with other hopeful reviewers for Cowley to sail in after lunch with an affable smile on the face which so startlingly duplicated Hemingway’s handsomeness, the sight of Cowley in his rumpled seersucker suit superintending so many Communist hacks, writing genial editorials condemning the prisoners in the Moscow Trials, retailing his memories of the Dôme and the Select, hinting at the real names behind the characters in The Sun Also Rises, seemed to unite, through his literary assurance, the brilliant twenties and the depressed thirties.
The summer of 1934, that bottom summer, there were so many of us wedged onto the single bench in the waiting room downstairs at the New Republic, so many more of us than he needed for reviews, that Cowley, not knowing what else to do for the hungry faces waiting to see him, would sell the books there was no space to review and dole out the proceeds among the more desperate cases haunting him for review assignments. This kindliness was also a conscious symbol of the desperate times. Everything Cowley ever did seemed to be a conscious contribution to literary history, to the felt quality of an immediate period. He was the greatest possible connoisseur of the externals of literary history, and had never forgotten, nor was he ever likely to have new writers forget, that he had been at Harvard with Dos Passos, had drunk in Paris with Hemingway, had fought the flics with Aragon, had walked the Village with Hart Crane. Just as he lived in Connecticut (now that the writers had moved from Greenwich Village to Connecticut), so he was unable to lift his pipe to his mouth, or to make a crack, without making one feel his appreciation of the literary situation involved.
Wherever Cowley moved or ate, wherever he lived, he heard the bell ofliterary history sounding the moment and his own voice calling possibly another change in the literary weather. Cowley had, more than most, the critic’s love of writers, of the literary life, the need to recognize the moment, to appropriate and to share in the literary feast. And it was this incredible feeling for literary calendars and literary chronology that made Cowley redirect the literary side of the New Republic so firmly in the direction of a sophisticated literary Stalinism, since for Cowley revolution was now the new stage of literary development. In Cowley’s reviews and essays not only was there no abdication from the standards of the aesthete generation; there was a constant reminder of Baudelaire on the barricades in 1848, of Wagner the revolutionary, of Marx’s own profound literary culture. Cowley was a poet, and he had such a gift of clear style, he had translated so many books from the French, he had known so many writers and worked on so many magazines, that on those torrid July afternoons in the backyard of the New Republic on West Twenty-first Street, when the staff would play deck tennis and drink gin and tonic before going out to John’s restaurant on the lower East Side, I felt, listening to the conversation, that I had been led up to the most immense spread of literary tidbits.
To Cowley, everything came down to the literary trend, to the forces that seemed to be in the know, and to himself in the lead. He was so versed in these questions that he conferred upon even the beggarly reviewers waiting at the New Republic the feeling that in his person history was recognizing us, that we had a share of the literary movement far more significant than we knew.
WHAT made Cowley’s literary person particularly vivid to me was the razzing he got from his assistant, Otis Ferguson — a sandy, caustic, wild ex-sailor from Worcester, Massachusetts. Ferguson was mad about jazz and movies, and whenever he had to write in the New Republic on a “serious” book, he practiced a tone of bristling irony, of just barely veiled obscenity, that overturned the literary idealism, the note of high culture, that had always been traditional on the New Republic.
Ferguson was one of the few real roughs of the thirties — not because he had been a worker, but because he really feared and despised high culture. His jazz, his movies, his radio, the reviews he wrote in a style full of “kicks,” slambang effects, weird and orgiastic puns, the violent razzle-dazzle of his style — all this, wonderful as it often was as force, as humor, as musical sound, was his way of saying “Nuts to you.” He believed in nothing; he thought all literary intellectuals simply pretentious. He never tired of making puns on the names of eminent literary critics and of playing practical jokes on the literary dignitaries who visited the office. Everything about Ferguson radiated a desire for “kicks,” for the ultimate sensation, and he had quickly gathered about him, in his brief time on the New Republic, a group of aficionados who read him with the same avidity with which they listened to certain jazz bands.
Ferguson wrote about literature, in fact, as if it were jazz, and he was always looking in novels for the high sustained note he loved in Bix Beiderbecke, the slambang moodiness of Gene Krupa. He radiated the restlessness of a jazzman, and from the moment he came up to you in the office, you felt yourself shaking with him, knees, hands, and arms jangling in rhythm to some private tune; his mind seemed to be constantly dancing and darting, moving and shaking. It was the flow of this in his writing, this jazzy, shaky, caustic, humming movement in words, that Ferguson’s admirers loved. He was the only critic who gave readers the same sensation they got from listening to jazz, and every true Ferguson piece was a kind of public improvisation, wild, all the stops out, words flung out like blaring, sharply colored notes which sooner or later — if Ferguson was in form — mounted to a climax that left the reader exhausted, stupefied with admiration, and happy. The fact that Ferguson could print these utterly original exercises in improvisation was an example of the turnover of standards at the New Republic, for its founders in 1914 had been pompous stylists and literary gentlemen; even Cowley gave the impression not that he approved Ferguson’s pieces but that he indulged them.
Yet Ferguson, who laughed at all literary Communists, was a more revolutionary force on the magazine than any of the good English professors at Smith, the staff critics of Collier’s and Time, who were so anxiously Marxist whenever they wrote a book review for the New Republic. Ferguson was a desperate man, a sorehead, a fatalist. Of all the writers I first met in the thirties, he was the only one who literally threw his fife away in the war; he died in a bombing of his Liberty ship in the Salerno landings, and lie was the only man on his ship to die. The last time I ever saw him, one afternoon in 1942 when we were both waiting for our physicals, he said good-bye to me with that sour, sarcastic, jaundiced, yet vaguely inspiriting look that he had always worn like a rumpled flag, defiant to the last.
ONE summer night in 1935, when I went over to his room to take him out to my parents’ for dinner, I found Ferguson working on a piece with a pint of Four Roses to cheer him up, exactly as I had always pictured him from reading of his wildly plunging pieces. He was honestly loading himself up, like a jazz player, to improve his performance.
He lived over the old Acme Theatre in Union Square, a firetrap that specialized in Soviet films. The Acme was an ancient, narrow, cavernous film theater dating from the silent days. It was so small that it induced a particular feeling of closeness tO the Russian voices thundering from the screen, and whenever you climbed the narrow ladder, just back of the orchestra, that led to the men’s room, the noise of the toilet being flushed rebounded through the theater. But not until that night had I heard the movie from the floor above. Ferguson, small, bantamweight, coekily beating time on the floor, was finishing up a piece, humming away at his desk, while the voices of stern and virtuous Soviet military commanders boomed up through the floor. “Go it, man!” Ferguson shouted, and grabbing his bottle, waltzed around the room. We were hilarious. The whole room boomed and shook with the sound of those crunching, nut-cracking Russian voices. We roared our way down the rickety stairs of the tenement that enclosed the theater and came out into the blaze of Union Square.
I could not help seeing everything that was so habitual to me through Ferguson’s jeering, skeptical, independent mind. He had taken up residence over Union Square the way English milords wear levis in the West — he was sucking the marrow out of Union Square, enjoying it to the full, but he had no respect for it. He had assimilated himself into my radical, proletarian-Bohemian, grubby New York without believing in it, out of curiosity and mockery, almost as a joke; and seeing the everlasting circle in Union Square Park of people clasped together in argument, the bitter hard summer evening light on the picket line in front of the Kitty Kelly and Beck shoe stores, the immigrant men and women, all of whom looked like my mother and father and could have been my mother and father — the women in shapeless housedresses, the men in rumpled cheap sport shirts — I saw them through Ferguson’s ironic eyes. As he walked through the crowd in his Alice-blue shirt, his yellow tie, his bright-green sports jacket, the stump of a dead cigar in his mouth, he looked like a vaudevillian going to see his agent. When I saw Ferguson in his jazziest, loudest, most provocative mood, I felt that he was impersonating a vulgarity he did not really like, just as at the New Republic he had armed himself against the literary intellectuals by playing the sardonic man of the people. He had encased himself against Union Square in his loud jazzman’s costume. Across the street the eternally milling circle of radicals in argument, the crowds always thinning and expanding, but never to disappear altogether, seemed to hold the asphalt down.
I had called at Ferguson’s room to fetch him to my parents’ home for dinner on Friday night. In order to interest him in myself, I had promised him an exotic meal, I had tried to suggest that in our Jewish cuisine there were mysterious delights which he would never discover for himself, and after a good many postponements I had finally been able to pin him down and to get him to come out with me. All through the long subway ride to Brooklyn on that hot, hazy summer night, while the fans in the subway cars whirred around and around in the too brightly lighted cars and chewing-gum wrappers and dust blew through the open windows, I seemed to see everything as if I were Ferguson, for I superstitiously thought ol him as a visitor from the great literary world. As so olten happened with me whenever I was lucky enough to meet anyone who seemed so positive about everything, I automatically tried to switch my mind to his — not because I really valued his opinions, but out of a frenzy of gratitude for my new friend.
It was August, August in New York, and brutally hot. The long subway ride to Brooklyn, to which I had always submitted like an Arab slowly toiling through the desert, seemed to me unendurable for Ferguson’s sake; and as we finally made our way out into the open and walked through the crowded dark streets of Brownsville to my parents’ home, I found myself desperately chattering in order to make up for the silence — and, it seemed to me, the obvious distaste — which Ferguson had put on just getting down the subway stairs. I was eager not only to interest Ferguson but to impress my mother, who with her usual anxiety about my ability to reach the great world wanted concrete evidence. in the shape of the “boss" at dinner, that I was onto something at last. She was nervous about Ferguson’s coming, for she was not sure that a Gentile would like our food and that she would be able to talk to him. We were all nervous; it was a tremendous occasion for us. My mother’s unmarried cousin, Sophie, who lived with us, had hysterically threatened not to appear at all, for as soon as she had learned that the distinguished visitor I was bringing home that evening was not Jewish and was still in his twenties, she had so miserably eliminated all possible thought of him as a suitor that the evening had begun to figure in her mind as an unnecessary ordeal; she would have nothing to say to him. But her little bedroom was just off the dining room, where, for once, we were going to dine, and as she said, it would be impossible for her to spend the evening cooped up in her room while we were all eating and chatting away outside her door.
CZ)UR cousin Sophie was a difficult case. Because she had always lived with us, and had often taken care of me as a child when my mother was ill, I could have thought of her as my other mother, but she always seemed too young, restless, tormented. Although she was certainly not pretty — her long face usually looked sad or bitter, and when she was gay, wildly and almost desperately gay — she radiated, as if it were warmth from her body, a passionate and almost angry vividness. All my life I had seen her, with the long black hair which had never been cut and her embroidered Russian blouses and velvet skirts, against the background of a little room scented with musk, with patchouli, while above the bed covered with an India spread there hung, side by side, two pictures. One (I learned their names only much later) was George Frederic Watts’s “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 other was Pierre-Auguste Cot’s picture of “The Storm.” As the lovers raced before the storm, their heads were apprehensively yet exultantly turned back, and the cloak that the godlike lover tenderly placed over the woman’s shoulders seemed so light and flimsy that it barely covered her nakedness, but seemed woven, in its lightness and transparency, of love itself, so that the gauze veil which together they held over their heads, though too flimsy to shield them from the storm, expressed the deeper knowledge — of desire — that explained the shyness of the woman and the confident protective smile of the man. As they ran together, just ahead of the storm, they seemed to be running not only under the same veil but with the same feet.
I had looked at Sophie under those two pictures all my life, just as I had looked at her blouses, her skirts, and her petticoats — there was no closet — or could smell from her warm and fragrant flesh, as soon as she came near me, the musk and sandalwood, or could feel her presence again whenever I touched her velvet skirts on the hangers and the stiff crinkly surface of the India spread on her bed. She was never easy with anyone, never tender; there was something about her long sweeping hair and the ungraspable scent of her body that was like the resistance of velvet, which retreats back into itself, in soft and recessive lines, after you have touched it. As a child, I had often watched her, while she sat doing her hair in front of the mirror, suddenly in despair let the great mane fall over her face; or else she would sit primly coiling her hair, doubling and then binding with long black hairpins each sheaf she caught up in her hand. Her moods were always extreme. The whole long day for her was like a sundial, either washed in sunlight or cold-gray in shadow; the moody, somber Sophie, in whose face one saw control of her despair, alternated with a Sophie reckless, agonized, violently gay, who as she threw her great hair back, or bent over the mandolin with the little black pick in her hand, or coldly stared at some possible suitor, whom my mother had hopefully brought in, stiffly seated at our dinner table, impressed herself all through my boyhood with that proud and flashing loneliness that I was to recognize immediately when I first saw Carmen.
SOPHIE was not just the unmarried cousin who had always lived with us; her unmarriedness, her need of a husband, of some attachment, were our constant charge and preoccupation. To this my mother gave as much thought as she did to us, and at the center of our household, whether Sophie was off in her room under the picture of the two lovers fleeing from the storm, or in the kitchen with her friends from “the shop,” drinking tea, eating fruit, or beating at the mandolin, one always saw or felt the vividly resentful figure of Sophie. It was my mother, actually, who had impressed all this upon us with an attentiveness, an unremitting anxiety and concern, which from our earliest days had impressed my little sister and me with Sophie’s special need, with Sophie’s unhappiness. For Sophie was unmarried, Sophie needed love; that was what 1 understood so early about her—so early, when did I not know this about her? When was it not made clear that we were to watch out for Sophie, to look after her, to see to it that somehow Sophie’s deepest wish might yet be granted, that her life would find its appointed center at last in a husband? When did I not know this, and whenever did we not feel, my sister and I, like juvenile marriage brokers? Although Sophie lived as far as possible from the kitchen, enclosed in her scent and her foreignness of pictures and books, lodged like a dignitary deep in the corner where she would be least likely to be bothered, there was always, behind our tense and tremulous family life, the obligation to look out for her, to be mindful of her special need, to remember that she had some agonizing lack that others did not have, that certainly my mother did not have.
Every encounter with Sophie was personal and intense; even a little boy could already feel that it was like a love affair to live so near her, for every look that Sophie gave and every look at Sophie herself, as sometimes she lay fully dressed on the India print, staring moodily at the window, had its lover-like strain, its tone and color of feeling, its arousement, its brooding air of imminent rapture and momentary sorrow. All that a man would experience in loving many women — the moodiness, the dark excitement, the constant sense of being stretched to new possibilities of feeling — I first guessed at from being so near Sophie. The best of what I ever knew as a child came from this nearness to Sophie, lay in this brooding, dark, quicksilvery arousement, this sudden brushing of wings, when I felt that it was Sophie, in her insistence on love, in the fierce sullenness with which an immigrant dressmaker, no longer young, lived for love, that made up the living contrast to my mother’s brooding carefulness and distrust.
With my mother every morsel of life was paid for in fear. You calculated the price of everything before you bought it, and even if you bought it, you could not enjoy it for thinking how much it had cost you. The mark of my mother’s character was not caution, which denotes a lack of imagination, but the opposite — an unrelenting remembrance of every hurt, betrayal, and sorrow, unquestioning obedience to the dark god, a fearful pledge of joyless solidarity with all the forces which had ever molded her and all the people she had ever met. If, at any hour of the day or night — it did not matter whether she was feeding her children or had been awakened from a deep sleep — someone should mention a Mrs. Bernstein whom she had not seen since the steerage twenty years before, and of whom she knew nothing, not even her first name, my mother would immediately, like a spider, spin back and forth on the few threads that connected with Mrs. Bernstein; she would brood, brood, brood on her and absorb into the texture of her own present sorrow the life story of someone she had not thought of in years.
In my mother’s world no one ever shrugged his shoulders; no one was ever bored and lazy; no one was ever cynical; no one ever laughed. She was an indentured servant of the emotions, and always a slave to other people. This crushing sense of responsibility operated on everyone near her; so that I could never look at a woman well dressed, proud, sensuous, without instinctively sharing my mother’s condemnation of her as frivolous and unkind. My mother was bent, arthritic, and walked as if she were controlling pain. I seemed always to see her bent to someone’s service. Her whole being expressed so momentously her awareness of the grimness of life that one felt that she had taken a solemn oath never to forget it.
If there was one quality about my mother which characterized her, it was her refusal ever to enjoy anything openly or even to admit that she craved enjoyment. She never ate with us, but waited on us, like a servant, handing in dishes from the stove, and after the rest of us had finished, sat at one corner of the table nibbling at the leftovers. Yet any day at six Sophie would arrive from the shop, sulky and complaining of a headache, as if she had spent the afternoon shopping instead of sitting over a sewing machine high over Seventh Avenue, and having been served by my mother, would lie on her bed moodily watching the lights from the great delicatessen sign across the street flashing on her wall, while she waited for her friends to come in. They were dressmakers from the shop and all unmarried “girls” like herself, who night after night gathered around Sophie in our apartment, made her home their home, and always seemed part of our family, for they boarded around the neighborhood. I loved to see them come in any night, for they were gay and careless and affectionate, rich and warm. Whenever they came in, the house would sparkle, and even my mother looked pleased as she ran about handing out glasses of tea. Sophie would get positively drunk with excitement. Flushed with joy as she sat at the center of the table surrounded by her friends, her head bobbing up and down like that of a swimmer triumphantly racing through the water, her eyes glittery with excitement, she bent her head over the mandolin and flashed the pick back and forth over the tight steel strings while the polished and ornamented wood of the mandolin reflected the lights hung from the ceiling. In the flashing of her thumb back and forth across the strings, in the red faces of her friends sitting too near the stove, and in the songs we sang, I saw that abandonment to enjoyment, that thirst, that awful intensity, with which she would give herself. someday, to the ideal loved one.
Sophie knew that the world owed her something — love, a home, a husband; and she waited fiercely, her arms implacably crossed, her bulging eyes mad with rage and expectancy, waiting for him to come, for her life to reach its necessary consummation. And while she waited, my mother waited on her, nursed her when she was ill, coaxed her back to life when she was depressed, and all day long, whatever else she was doing, always kept between her tasks the pressing thought of finding Sophie a husband, to relieve Sophie of the shame of her unmarried state. I could positively see into my mother’s mind as she went about the streets doing her marketing, or buying material for her dressmaking — I could just see her inspecting every likely-looking man who came along, setting traps for every unmarried man between thirty and fifty (so long as he was a Jew and able to make “a nice living”) who might happen to pass between Rockaway Avenue and Junius Street on a given day. How many candidates she brought news of before she would even dare bring them back for direct inspection — Sophie listening all the while to my mother’s reports with a look on her face at once scornful and disbelieving, like a princess impatiently being fitted for a gown who cannot make the dressmakers, down on their knees with pins in their mouths, understand how trying they are. And how many were the candidates she actually brought home whom Sophie would stare down at dinner because of some minor awkwardness, like eating too noisily, of which the chaimyankel, the poor wretch, had no notion whatsoever as he innocently slurped away at his borsht, not knowing that with each spoonful he was digging his grave. And how sad, sad it always seemed to me that though there were a few candidates whom she actually could approve of, and who in turn did feel something for her, the affair always stopped short even of friendship. Long after Doctor Sheshtov, that pleasantly mustached and philosophic dentist who in his sweet and sage way had allowed her to hope had proved to us — all of whom had followed the affair breathlessly, and who had tried to hurry up the courtship by going to him, only to him, to have our teeth fixed — long after he had plainly shown that he was not the marrying kind after all, it was impossible for his name to come up without such a look of bitterness on Sophie’s face that I could no longer even pass his street without feeling guilty. My mother grimly set her teeth and openly wished him six feet underground for what he had done to our Sophie.
We were all in it with our Sophie, our lonely lonely Sophie! For this was how my mother always spoke of Sophie’s unmarried state: always in terms of need, of the great one who would take loneliness away, of the long loneliness that would be transformed by one human being.
This was what my own parents had sought in marriage, for as my father had been an orphan from earliest childhood and my mother regarded herself as ugly and unwanted, they had made an “arrangement,” looking for someone to love them. My mother once told me how she and my father had made their alliance; they had met in an East Side boardinghouse, they were from neighboring cities in the old country, they married. And on the Saturday night they married, knowing hardly anyone, my mother had gone out to bring some food back to their room and returned to find my father sobbing. Long before I consciously knew anything else, it seems to me, I knew that people married because they were lonely, that people had a right to get married because they were lonely, that loneliness could be relieved only by marriage, and that without marriage you were condemned to your original and catastrophic loneliness. Lonely you were born and lonely you would die — you were lonely as a Jew and lonely in a strange land, lonely, always lonely, even in the midst of people, for my family communicated with each other from loneliness to loneliness, in thought, as I could correspond with my mother’s mind no matter how far away she was. In the end, from my mother’s insistence on Sophie’s need and Sophie’s fate, I carried away the picture of a woman or man as an abject soul wandering about the world looking for the other — seeking a cloak against the onrushing black sky that one saw in the picture of the two lovers who fled before the storm, running under the same cover, almost with the same feet.
THE dinner was not a success. I kept feverishly trying to see everything through Ferguson’s eyes, and I felt ominously that everything looked very strange to him. For the first time, I had brought into our home someone from outside, from the great literary world, and as Ferguson patiently smiled away, interrupted only by mother’s bringing in more and more platters and pleading with him to eat something, 1 tried to imagine his reactions. We all sat watching him at the old round table in the dining room — my father, my little sister, and myself —and there poor Ferguson, his eyes bulging with the strain and the harsh bright lights from the overhead lamp, his cheeks red with effort, kept getting shoveled into him cabbage and meatballs, chicken, meat loaf, endless helpings of seltzer and cherry soda, and while I desperately kept up a line of chatter to show him that he was not completely isolated, our cousin Sophie sat at the table silently staring at him, taking him in.
In our boxlike rooms, where you could hear every creak, every cough, every whisper, while the Brooklyn street boiled outside, there was a kind of strangled human emotion, a continual pathos, that seemed to me just the opposite of what literature was for. Poverty was literature, especially in the thirties; I thought poverty had a certain romantic charm. But as Sophie sat at the table in her withdrawn silence, and my little sister stared wide-eyed at the visitor, and my mother bustlingly brought in more platters, and my father explained that he had always read and admired the New Republic — oh, ever since the days of Walter Lippmann and Herbert Croly! — I saw, through Ferguson’s razor-sharp look, how dreary everything was, how impossibly provincial. My father kept slurping the soup and reaching out for the meat with his own fork; since I had warned him that Ferguson would expect a drink, he self-consciously left the bottle of whiskey on the table and kept urging our visitor to take another drink all through the meal. My mother, who did not even have her personal appreciation of the New Republic to regale Ferguson with, had nothing to do but serve the food, and after a while Sophie took to her room and barricaded herself.
So the meal to which I had looked forward so much — which I had promised Ferguson would be exotic, mysterious, vaguely Levantine — passed at last, and after he had charmingly said good-bye to my parents and I walked him back to the subway at Rockaway Avenue, he studied me quietly for a moment and said, “And what was so exotic about that meal?” In order to interest Ferguson in us, I had painted such delights of Brooklyn and the strange Jewish cuisine that it now shocked me to realize that from his point of view we were, as a group, no more unusual or exotic or picturesque than anybody else. My effort to interest him in me by painting us all as if we wore fezzes and lived near a palm tree in Brooklyn had plainly not gone down with Ferguson, who in the office often played the clown in order to ride over the gap he felt between himself and “literary” people like Cowley, but who in the ordinary affairs of life had a common sense that, when I had lost my self-consciousness with him, struck me more and more.
As I said good-bye to Ferguson at the subway station and walked through the dark Friday-night streets, it shocked me to realize that he found us as a group so commonplace and even boring. In my effort to touch my own family, to jump the wall of silence between us, I had always thought of them as requiring a certain effort to reach, for we were a peculiar set. I was haunted by the arrangement that my mother and father had made, and my father’s sobs that Saturday night long ago on the East Side had become my own terror of being lost. But detached and strained as we all were with each other as individuals — which made every member of my family so interesting to me, because we were so unreachable — it seemed to me that we were interesting because we were among the dispossessed of history, and in my literary imagination I saw us as the downtrodden, the lonely, the needy, in a way that fitted my idea of the oncoming apocalypse.
There are times in history when a group feels that it is at the center of events. The nineteen thirties were such a time. Poor as we were, oppressed, lonely, it seemed to me obvious everywhere, even in Hitler’s Germany, that to be outside of society and to be Jewish was to be at the heart of things. History was preparing, in and through us, some tremendous deliverance and revelation. For this reason I hugged my aloneness, our apartness, our poverty, our Jewishness, as a mystical sign that pointed to our power to create the future. I attributed everything good to a future period in time, when my class, my people, myself, would finally reach their justification. Starting out in the thirties under people who were “radical,” like Chamberlain and Cowley and Ferguson, I could never identify myself with them, for they were so plainly with the haves, with the people who so mysteriously sat in positions of power, for which they had been chosen by — whom? Ferguson’s boredom with us, with the crudity that had always seemed to me almost sacramental in its significance for the future, the worldly insignificance of poor Jews from whom had sprung two world religions, shocked me; it seemed to send us spinning into a world of mere dullness and actual insignificance, where poverty was merely graceless and Jewishness merely a bore. I did not mind being poor, Jewish, excluded, for I expected history to be on the side of all these categories; what I could not understand was Ferguson’s finding us dull.
AT THE same time I had a sense of unreality, of doubleness, and almost of duplicity in the constant contrast of my personal life, my friends, my life in Brownsville with those literary contacts in midManhattan who seemed so exciting and unreal to me that I would come home from a lunch with Chamberlain, or an afternoon at the New Republic, in nervous exhaustion. There was a curious parallel for me with Ferguson the ex-sailor, the boy from Worcester, who protected himself against Cowley and the heavily literary tradition of the New Republic by playing the tough guy. Ferguson would toss around the new review books as they came in, making violent puns on literary gentle folk like Mary colum, or Henry Seidel Canby, or the Van Dorens — who were his special butt, and whom he never tired of lampooning in his jealousy of Columbia professors who wrote so much and edited so much and knew so much about literature. The more I got to know Ferguson, the more I got to understand this protectiveness; and though I was far more literary than Ferguson, I shared his feelings about Cowley. Still, in the office Ferguson lampooned only “professors” like the Van Dorens, who directed the literary department on the rival weekly, the Nation. For me, too, all these critics in power — Cowley, the Van Dorens, Canby, Chamberlain — were outsiders and in a sense bosses. Although everyone I knew was more or less a literary radical in those days, it would never have occurred to me to feel common cause with someone like Cowley, or to feel particularly close to Chamberlain, for these people could describe only in an abstract and literary way the daily struggle that was so real to me in Brownsville. No matter how radical these critics were, they were as alien to me as J. Donald Adams on the Times or Canby on the Saturday Review. I had a sense of duplicity with them, of necessary concealment, for they would have been puzzled by anything personal that was outside their literary categories.
Whenever I would get out after the long subway ride, excitedly clutching a few review copies, and walk over to see my boyhood friends, I felt I was leaving an unreal world behind, that I was coming home to my own. It was this rare sense of connection in the literary world that excited me the day I met James T. Farrell and Nathanael West in Farrell’s room at the Brevoort. It was the day in 1935 that Farrell finished Judgment Day, the last volume in the Studs Lonigan trilogy; it was also the day West announced he was going to Hollywood to write for the films. There was a quality about each of them that I instinctively recognized and shared, and that afternoon, going up on the top deck of a Fifth Avenue bus with Farrell and some young Irish writer who was a protégé of his, and with whom he was delighted because the other man’s name, too, was Jim, I felt for the first time that I was in my own world, and that it had expanded into literature, into the creative life. Suddenly nothing could have seemed better than this.
One night I came upon William Saroyan somewhere in midtown; he was staying at the Great Northern, on Fifty-seventh Street, and in a sudden burst of enthusiasm based on our common freedom from Anglo-Saxon convention, he led me up and down cellar restaurants and nightclubs to show me all his Armenian friends and relatives in New York, and when we sweatily came back to his room, he pressed new shirts on me, wrote long flowing inscriptions to me in his books, and informed me that he was going off to Europe the next day. He was exuberantly Armenian; in that narrow little box of a hotel room, with his shirt off, the cigar going and the radio screaming, he looked like a peasant tramping down grapes in a tub. A few days later I had a telegram from him; instead of going off to Europe he had lost the time playing craps and had ended up in Montana. I had not quite believed that he was going to Europe, and I could not make out if the telegram was really from Montana, but I understood Saroyan’s professional exuberance as I understood the Catholic missals and devotional books on James Farrell’s table the day he was finishing Judgment Day. These were the necessary materials to the writer’s myth, the new writer coming up in the thirties; wherever he was, Saroyan surrounded himself with “primitive” California, and his insistence that as an Armenian he was healthy about everything, healthier than everybody else,you bet!, seemed exhilarating to me.
FOR almost four years I had been automatically making my way, every Friday and Saturday night, to the house of a girl named Nora who lived near Powell Street. We had been “going around together" from the time we had met in high school, and we had progressed, in the same automatic way, from doing our math together and reading together A Farewell to Arms and Point Counter Point to those explorations of each other’s bodies that sealed us in an unspoken engagement. Together we went to the movies on weekend nights and to Coney Island on summer afternoons; together, after dates, we stood in the hallway of her apartment house, like hundreds of couples in the hallways of apartment houses all over the neighborhood, mixing into this unsatisfactory and routine lovemaking the wistful anticipation of a future that would be secure. We were not in love with each other, we had merely settled on each other, and after so many years of petting in the movies, in the streets, on the boardwalk, on the roof, in the hallway, on the landing outside her door, we were as used to each other’s requirements as an old married couple.
We never had a place of our own; only the summer of our graduation from college, when both her parents had to go out to work, were we ever privately together in a house. For those summer mornings of love after breakfast, I would walk out to Nora’s house in East New York, past the long lines of unemployed men and women waiting outside the relief station on Pitkin Avenue, my excitement and my guilt reverberating in the loud metal clanging of the emptied garbage cans being thrown back to the sidewalk from the trucks, until I could walk up the damp white stone steps of her apartment house, where the hallways smelled of summer sweat and the rancid coolness of backyards, and automatically tiptoe my way upstairs, though I was certain that both of Nora’s parents had already gone off to work. There, in the hardbreathing summer morning, we at last had our privacy; there, in the furious silent possession of breast and thigh, was the slobbery and impatient lovemaking which sealed our compact and explained our eternal Friday-night dates. There was our communication. We needed nothing else; neither of us would have expected anything else. Her parents disapproved of me; I was just another unemployed college boy, with parents even poorer than themselves. But every time Nora and I wetly engulfed each other, on the couch, I knew that we were tightening holds on each other for the future. Never before those hot and mildewed summer mornings were we able to make love at home, and in the sweetness of the sudden tearing, which felt like weights heavily taking their time to fall, I knew that I had experienced all this before and had dumbly waited to know it again. Our intimacy was so domestic that I often had the sensation, when I watched her walking around the kitchen in her white cotton slip, that I had some previous existence in a kitchen, surrounded by women of the same old-fashioned fullness, whose bodies budded like fruit, and that f had now come back to enjoy them. With Nora’s parents away, we could play that the house was ours; and morning after morning, after making the usual rounds of Manhattan publishing houses, radio stations, and magazines, I would get off at Nora’s station, not my own, and with my heart beating so violently in my ears that it seemed to me everyone was watching, I would knock at Nora’s door, and the tumultuous summer morning riot would begin again.
“WE WERE playing at marriage, but many of my friends were already, at twenty and twenty-one, getting married and moving in with the wife’s family, just as they were busily taking civil service examinations to become city clerks and public school teachers. All the old neighborhood poets had grown little mustaches, like Jewish doctors and dentists, and had got themselves married to girls older than themselves, with steady jobs in the garment district or in the public school system, and had moved in with their wife’s parents. At twenty-one and twenty-two, with the usual breakneck speed of the second generation, they were snugly enclosed in matrimony. They, too, were all “radicals” as a matter of course; but in the nineteen thirties history seemed to be on their side, and it did not matter that they were too radical to approve of the New Deal and too intelligent to believe in the Moscow Trials; they were trying to get out of Brownsville, and they had all been college graduates for two or three years.
Fortunately for me, Nora’s parents could never take me seriously, and all through that period, when Nora was getting more and more anxious for matrimony, my prospects were so slim that there seemed no way of getting married. My two weekly little book reviews offered no promise of security whatever, and though I mechanically looked for jobs in publishing houses and on magazines, I knew that I would never take a job that kept me in an office all day. Through a friendly secretary whose husband was a bartender at the Lambs Club, I met a retired British army colonel who wanted someone to ghost his memoirs. Day after day I sat with him in the bar of the Hotel Gotham listening to his stories, and after a few weeks I returned with a manuscript. He never seemed to feel that I had caught the “flavor,” the special don’t-you-know, and after writing hundreds of pages about his experiences in Kenya and India — all of which must have had a subtly disapproving quality, for I had strong socialist views on the iniquity of imperialism — he ran out on me and left me with just enough money to buy a tennis racket.
I got a small free-lance job with a Brooklyn radio station, dramatizing episodes from Pickwick Papers and the more nightmarish stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and for a while fancied myself a dramatist, for it seemed to me, as it did to so many in those days sitting in the second balcony of the Belasco and watching Julie Garfield, J. Edward Bromberg, and Morris Carnovsky in Odets’ Awake and Sing, that it would at last be possible to write about the life I had always known. In Odets’ plays there was a self-enjoyment of Jewish speech, as well as the passion I had always known; there was a promise of an awakening in the words he used, as well as in the familiar slogans that he ended up with. I wanted to write with that bluntness, that violence; the writer would speak to the times, and the times would answer. All through those years of the middle thirties, it seemed to me that everything would profoundly come together in a struggle for liberation — there would have to be some clarion call, some piercing sound at the end of it. In the same way that unrest and unemployment, the political struggles in the New Deal, seemed part of the single pattern of struggle in Europe against Franco, against Hitler and Mussolini, so in my struggle to get out of the tenements on my own terms, I saw a symbol of this unmistakable and tremendous march of history.
Like most of my friends, I distrusted Stalin and disbelieved in the Moscow Trials, for we had all grown up with the legend of the Russian Revolution, with admiration for Trotsky, respect for Marshal Tukhachevsky’s battles against the Poles in 1920, and admiration and sympathy for Bukharin’s intellectual achievements; the Russian charges that such men had plotted with the Nazis seemed to us absurd and disgusting. But because Hitler and Franco had made the united front seem necessary, I could not withdraw all my sympathy for the Soviet Union. In the midst of the violent labor unrest in France, the great sit-down strikes in American factories, and the beginnings of the CIO, everything I lived seemed part of the tumultuous revolutionary energy of the nineteen thirties: sitting in the second balcony of the Belasco weeping over the truthfulness of Awake and Sing; going down Fifth Avenue on the top of an open bus with James T. Farrell; writing for the New Republic; meeting old Russian Narodniki and social revolutionaries. The hack jobs I did for a living never seemed to me unworthy, for the books I was given for review somehow fitted into my sense of the destiny and inclusiveness of history; so my parents’ poverty had a certain mystique for me, and our cousin Sophie’s loneliness a definite heroism — we were often unhappy and always on each other’s necks, but I saw us all moving forward on the sweep of events.
LIFE was moving fast. One night, another night of rain, like the one on which we had first come together, Nora, standing up against me in her housecoat, indicated that she expected me to marry her. It was something that I owed her — or our situation. She looked pale, beaten, and discouraged, far different from the saucy literary tomboy who in high school had introduced me to Point Counter Point and The Sun Also Rises, who had mimicked the bitch Mildred in Of Human Bondage, and whose indefinable air of laughing at everyone had always drawn me to her. She did not love me any more than I loved her; there had never been any direct interest in each other, any real trust between us; ours had been a gluey neighborhood “relationship,”not even a friendship. Yet after college she had been able to find nothing better than a secretarial course; as the others married their dentists and doctors, her own parents, who had always been glad to get away to their separate jobs, suddenly woke up to her situation. She was at home all day long. The misery of her days seemed to add up to me. She stood there against me, more abject than I had ever seen her, passively letting me feel the warmth and fullness of her body in promise of the marriage that she did not really want; she had jeeringly known me too long. And standing there, I thought only that she had become domestic and almost middle-aged; we were like an old married couple. She did not want me; she did not know what she wanted —except suddenly to be safe, to get away from the chaos that had suddenly gripped her heart as she turned from the impudent schoolgirl into a pallid and uncertain Brooklyn homebody. The pressure of her empty days was too strong.
I knew that I did not want to marry Nora, but a year later, when I heard that she had married someone else, I suddenly felt lost, for it came at the worst crisis that our family had known. Our cousin Sophie, our lifelong boarder, our family charge, our long wept-over and defended and protected old maid of a cousin, was suddenly called for one evening by a man of her own age who had been told of her situation. After talking to her for perhaps two evenings, he persuaded her to pose as his wife and to go off with him to the Middle West, where he would try to settle into a wholly new career, away from his old job and as we quickly discovered, from an old wife who would not give him a divorce.
There was the unbelievable, the ridiculous situation that soon turned into screaming tragedy. That a seasoned middle-aged man, presumably in his senses and swaggeringly a man of the world, even conventionally handsome in the heavy movie style of the twenties, tall, dark, with a glisteningly erotic black mustache, should seek out a miserably lonely, melancholic old maid, already maddened with years of neglect, and after spending just enough time with her to size up her hopeless availability persuade her to pose as his wife as they wandered about the Middle West while he looked for a business to buy or a job to get — this was grotesque enough, since the poor woman had done nothing for years but wait anxiously for a man to knock at her door and to fetch her off to distant places. So that when finally he came, the long-awaited, looking so much like what in her wildest dreams she had always desired her lover to resemble, the lover taking her off’ under his protective mantle, exactly as in the picture of “ The Storm” that hung over her bed, the very manner of his coming, and of his taking her off, seemed like a fantasy realized.
A few months later my mother went out in a day coach to the state hospital in the Middle West where Sophie lay in a state of uninterruptable shock. He had run off. Not only had he not married her, as perhaps Sophie in the end no longer expected him to — the wife he spoke of divorcing was always in the background, it was all so impossible, she was his fate! — but after months of wandering about the West with Sophie, looking for the business he had talked about in our home with such confident shrewdness, he had become disconsolate and had gone off by himself. He abandoned her. We had to guess the rest, for secrecy had been the essence of this affair.
Finding herself alone now, in unknown country, truly alone for the first time, Sophie went out of her head. My mother’s name and address were on an envelope in Sophie’s bag; this brought her out. Now Sophie was my mother’s charge indeed. Some ten days later my mother returned. Sophie had not recognized her. She never recognized anybody again. She was finally alone with what she had always felt to be waiting for her in the alien land, and now she was what my mother most dreaded in life. But it took her twenty years more to die, so though Sophie was away, Sophie was in fact still with us. Three times a year, year after year, my sister or I would drearily write the same stilted letter of inquiry to the superintendent of the state hospital at B —, to receive in due course the unchanging reply that Mrs. Sophie F., number 18178. was physically well, but in mental condition unchanged. Signed, Dr. —, Superintendent.
ONE Sunday in the summer of 1938 I was at a vacation camp in New York, preparing to go in to lunch, when I noticed a girl quietly waiting on the porch. She wore blue shorts and an embroidered Russian blouse, and the pert twin pigtails of her long black hair were humorous against a delicately olive-colored Russian face that looked Asian in the concentration of its reserve. That summer day, watching her face in the shadows of the screen door as she stood waiting like a dancer at rest, I felt, as I was always to feel before the perfection and reserve of that face, that I was waiting to see it become what it suggested to my imagination. Her face led me into abysses of nostalgia, into passionate attachment to countries I had never seen and to causes I did not know I believed in. I recognized all the favorite materials of my imagination. It did not astonish me to learn that she had been named Natasha, after the heroine of War and Peace; that she was a research bacteriologist; that she lived with a Russian family in Washington Heights; and that her room was full of Russian cigarette boxes, textbooks of bacteriology, Russian shawls, and pictures of Alexandra Kollantai, Madame Curie, and Isadora Duncan. I was falling in love with the embodiment of all my cultural pieties — with intellectual Russia, with science, with progressive womankind, but above all with that face, that dear Russian face, that commandingly austere and spiritual and world-historical face that had already sacrificed so much for mankind. From the moment I met Natasha I was enraptured with all the cultural goods that came in her train — with the Russian lace, the Russian name, the Russian blouse, the Russian woman, and the Russian devotion to causes. An inveterate believer in causes, in magic countries of the mind, in that spiritual authority I acknowledged only in certain thinkers and writers and faces, I so ecstatically greeted my picture of what a woman should be, of what a great love could be, that I did not trouble myself that her face remained as closed and shut in as it had been that first summer’s day. In her own immense loneliness, she submitted to my enthusiasm, my ideological pieties, my enraptured discovery that I could now connect with the great world; if she knew how ignorant I was of her own heart, she did not let on; probably she hoped for the best; I was in full flood and my ecstasy carried us both along.
Two weeks later we were married. That Monday morning at City Hall, we had two of my friends for our witnesses, and when Natasha stood up in her yellow blouse to get married, the only people surrounding her were those she had met through me. Nor did it help that even waiting to be married by machine on a Monday morning coincided with one friend’s weekly deadline on Time; we had to wait a long time to be called up, and as we fidgeted in the pews of the municipal chapel, my friend kept striding out to make telephone calls to her editor. “Wedding!” she quoted him derisively. “Who gets married on a Monday morning!” She looked at us with wild impatience and scorn; it was not the last time that I was to feet that I was disgracing Time.
Who ever did get married on a Monday morning. in the pseudo-churchly gloom of the municipal chapel, amid the dust flying off the walls, accompanied by a friend who could not wait to get off for fear of a deadline? We did. Despite the furtiveness surrounding our wedding, it was a happy morning for Natasha and me, and when we moved into a little two-room apartment in Brooklyn Heights, the clean paint smell of the new house and the sense of being at home with ourselves against the vibrancy of all those streets leading down to Brooklyn Bridge and the harbor suddenly gave outlives serenity, a tremulous unfolding of capacities for happiness.
Natasha worked at a hospital laboratory most of the day and then went to Bellevue for classes toward her doctorate; I would spend most of the day in the great sunny reading room of the New York Public Library, reading toward the first chapters of a book I had begun, at the instigation of Carl Van Doren, on American writing. On Mondays I taught one class at the New School on Twelfth Street and would then rush over to the Twenty-third Street branch of the City College on Lexington Avenue to teacH another. It would have been simpler and kinder for the chairman of my department at City College to give me another evening, but out of spite, because of my frequent appearance in magazines, he had fixed on the same evening that I taught at the New School. This meant that I would have to rush over to Twenty-third Street, usually breathless, missing the appointed time when elevators took people up to classes, and that i would have to run up five or six flights of stairs to meet the class that had been waiting for me. Natasha and I worked all the time. In the hot summer nights at City College I would “teach” The Ancient Mariner or Adonais for two and a half hours at a clip with the shirt wet on my back to students who had been working all day long and now looked stupefied with the heat under the glaring lights hung from the ceiling. When I was not writing reviews, marking papers, and reading for my book, I would go over to Bellevue to keep Natasha company while she worked in her lab on influenza strains. In her white laboratory coat, her glasses, the dark neatly gathered bun ol black black hair bent over her microscope, she made such a tenderly appealing figure that I would rush across the laboratory to hug her while the white mice raced around their cages.
It was a happy time. I was in a constant state of amusement because of my book; and reading novels by Howells and James, I had become so
sensitive to the look and style of the time that after a morning at the shining yellow tables in the reading rooms of the library that smelled of lemony polish and library bindings, and in which the crinkle of the tissue over the frontispieces in forgotten novels of the period made me hear the rustle of the floor-length dresses pictured in the illustrations themselves, I would walk down the grand staircase on my way out to the Automat across Fifth Avenue with the feeling that I was still in the period I had been excitedly absorbing all day. I had fallen in love with the eighties and nineties, with the dark seedtime of modern writers and modern art. Just as I found the traces of forgotten time in the wooden paneling, the high ceilings, and the portraits of the bearded old New York worthies in the halls of the great library itself, so getting off the subway at Borough Hall to walk home, I would feel in the dusky downtown Brooklyn streets, jammed with traffic for Brooklyn Bridge and lined with old brownstones, old churches, old antiquary societies, old insurance offices and courthouses and street clocks, that I had providentially made my way to my favorite corner of the past. The downtown Brooklyn streets were a dark grid of El lines, ancient office buildings fit for the heroes of Oliver Optic, courthouses built to the taste of Boss Tweed; there was a constant baying from the freighters tied up at the foot of Columbia Heights; and on Sundays, when Natasha and I walked down Remsen Street to the lookout over the harbor, past the old Japanese bridge that arched across Montague Street, past a solid line of brownstones with golden oak doors and glass doors on which fruits of a cornucopia had been carved as if in fine needlepoint, our intensely scholarly and decorous life found its natural home in the Sunday peace of old Brooklyn city. Sunday afternoons we attended chamber-music concerts in Town Hall, where newly arrived Viennese Jews played Schubert and Beethoven and Brahms to breathlessly respectful audiences, and on Sunday nights, after Natasha and I had made up our sofa bed in our one room, we listened to Dvorák and Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky and Sibelius on WQXR. Across the street, on the Presbyterian church, one bright electric cross lit up the street. I read dozens of old American novels and was moved every time I passed the old house on Columbia Heights where first Washington Roebling had lived, directing the construction of Brooklyn Bridge from a wheelchair, and then Hart Crane. I lived with the novels of Rebecca Harding Davis and Sarah Orne Jewett and William Dean Howells and Henry James and Hjalmar Boyescn and Henry Blake Fuller, while Natasha spent fourteen and fifteen hours a day over her laboratory work and her studies. And I was so happy, so grateful for Brooklyn Heights and Brooklyn Bridge and the novels of William Dean Howells and the “Hunt" quartet of Mozart and the Violin Concerto of Beethoven that on my way home from the library, passing under our own windows, I would look up to where I could see Natasha preparing our evening meal. I would stand in the street just to look up at her and admire her.
IT SEEMED to me that I was living in the turn of the century I was beginning to write about, when the dark revolutionary time of the eighties, with “the struggle for realism” and the Knights of Labor, was flowering in the avant-garde of Greenwich Village. When I read Randolph Bourne and the young Van Wyck Brooks who had written America’s Coming of Age, I could not feel that 1938 was so far from 1912. Like so many writers who came of age in the thirties, I took for granted the continuing spirit of the twenties that I knew from Prejudices and The Sun Also Rises and Wines burg, Ohio. I was sure that we of the revolutionary thirties would retain what was vital in the great books of the twenties and direct it toward a more hopeful outlook, a more fraternal society. We would improve on the nihilism of Hemingway, the callousness of Mencken, the frivolity of Sinclair Lewis. Like so many literary radicals who were becoming interested in American literature, 1 thought I could see across the wasteland of the twenties to those who had been our real literary brethren in the Utopians and socialist Bohemians of 1912. I felt connected to the socialist Van Wyck Brooks, the libertarian and revolutionary pacifist Randolph Bourne, the Edmund Wilson who in Axel’s Castle had described Proust as living in the Heartbreak House of capitalist culture; my mind was full of Taine and Braudes and Sainte-Beuve and Francesco De Sanctis and Renan, with their comprehensive sense of literature and their organic sense of a history that seemed to unite man to his proper destiny. Working on my book, I felt radicalism as a spiritual passion; I was helping to direct a new impulse into the future. We were in revolution, prodigiously on the move again, as in that glorious season before World War I, whose greatest spirits everywhere had been literary radicals, the avant-garde in every department of life. The young Van Wyck Brooks had affirmed that literary criticism “is always impelled sooner or later to become social criticism . . . because the future of our literature and art depends upon the wholesale reconstruction of a social life all the elements of which are as if united in a sort of conspiracy against the growth and freedom of the spirit.” There was the voice I recognized, the vocation loved; I wanted to sec a radical slashing insurgency of spirit take over in everything, in which life would be purified and beautiful and everyone would live as Natasha and I lived in the radiance of cultural truth.
The Spanish Civil War was now in its last desperate year. Although I had been revolted and disgusted by the Moscow Trials, it seemed to me in the face of Hitler’s widening triumphs so essential that the Spanish Loyalists should survive and triumph that I did not want to hear about what the Stalinists were doing in Spain. I wanted only to sec fascism destroyed, to see the stone roll away from the tomb that Germany had become for everything that I loved and everything that I was.
I could not believe that fascism was anything but a temporary aberration; given a fair chance, the people under Nazi rule and fascist rule would get rid of their oppressors, and so give themselves to the historical destiny so clearly foreseen by liberals and socialists in the nineteenth century. When a classmate of mine told me of the massacre by the G.P.U. of Trotskyites and anarchists in Barcelona,
I was reluctant to believe him. Although, after years of writing for Cowley at the New Republic, I liked him as little as ever and resented his protective benevolence toward proletarian literature, which I despised, I shared his feeling that fascism was the main enemy, and I feared any division on the left that might limit maximum resistance to Franco and Hitler.
As an influence in literature, the Communists seemed to me idiotic; even Party members made a point of laughing at the obtuseness of the professional Communist critics who worried whether Proust should be read after the revolution and why there seemed to be no honest proletarians in the novels of André Malraux. My teaching in the evening session at City College became wearisome as the faithful in my classes resisted every example of free thought, of literary originality. In giving a course on modern fiction, I found to my disgust that half the class refused to read anything by H. G. Wells — he was a “bourgeois liberal.” The arrogant stupidity of Communist instructors at this time passed beyond anything I had ever known before. The college führer of the party was an English instructor with a bad stammer, large spectacles, and a little beard; his middle name was Ulysses, and choking out each word in a pronunciamento on the relation of The Canterbury Tales to the wool trade in fourteenth-century England, his bearded chin would quiver with agony and his weak frightened eyes would stare up at you while obstinately he ground out the literary law. And one day, when I was offered an editor’s job in Washington with the W.P.A. writers’ project, I went down for my interview in the New York office, somewhere along the waterfront, to enter a room crowded with men and women lying face down on the floor, screaming that they were on strike. In order to get to the supervisor’s office at the outer end of the hall, I had to make my way over bodies stacked as if after battle; and as I sat in the supervisor’s office, he calmly discussed the job while shouts and screams came from the long hall outside. As I made my way out again, stepping with care between and over the bodies, a man looked up at me and said quietly: “We’ve just pulled this. Tell Malcolm.”
IT WAS the summer of 1939 now. After Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia, it still seemed to me inconceivable that Russia would not come out against Hitler, and in July, when English and French military missions were still in Moscow, I took it for granted that some solution would be found, since of course the Soviet Union wanted peace. On the morning of August 22, I was working happily away at my book and had interrupted myself at noon for a cup of coffee and the news broadcast when it was announced that Ribbentrop was flying to Moscow to sign a nonaggression pact with Stalin, and that the swastika was already flying over the Moscow airport. “No!” I shouted at the radio. “It’s not true!”. The announcer calmly went on giving the details. Hitler needed another week to prepare the attack on Poland, but that morning, the war had already begun. Stalin had opened the door to war, Stalin had lit the fuse waiting in Hitler’s hands. In everything that the confused American Communists tried to say about the pact, not one of the faithful seemed to understand that whatever the hesitations of England and France, whatever Russia’s own fear of attack, it was wrong to make common cause with Hitler, wrong to expose the world to war. Every attempt by the creatures of the Communist Party to defend the pact was based on “realism,” on diplomatic “cleverness” — none of these spokesmen for socialism seemed to feel anything for the misery of ordinary people in Poland and Russia as well. These armchair ideologues of terror and deceit, these bookish exponents of mass murder, these conspiratorial liars talking about historical justice now went about explaining how clever Stalin was. They could not get over Stalin’s cleverness; it left them simply stupefied with admiration. Yet these same miserable evening college teachers, these pale $25-aweek accountants, these hysterical claustrophobes of the subway and the tenements, who had lived from day to day in the Depression dreaming of the new life that would come to human beings under socialism — these same wretches, who had always assumed their moral superiority to the lords of this earth, now had no tears to shed for Warsaw, no tears for the German Communists in Russia who were being delivered by the G.P.U. over the Brest-Litovsk bridge straight into the hands of the Gestapo. There was not a breath, not a hint of sympathy for the thousands of human beings who within a week were dead because of Stalin’s cleverness. It was cleverness they admired — these apostles of brotherhood, these spokesmen for the poor, this advance guard of humanity — it was “realism” that now sent them into ecstasies of adoration; it was war that they loved.
All my life I had lived among people who had seemed to me beautiful because they were the dust of the earth; I had taken literally the claim that they identified their own suffering with the liberation of humanity. I now saw that many of these people had no moral imagination whatever. They were as cold as their leader, as self-concerned, heartless, as mediocre; but being Communists, they existed by an intellectual pretension from which their stupidity could never deliver them. Day after day I followed the Daily Worker with savage joy at its confusion as those who had been so eloquent about the Okies, the unemployed, the victims of fascism, now tried to explain the secret contribution that the noble Stalin, the great Stalin, the all-wise and far-seeing Stalin, had made to the cause of world peace.