The Thirties: Frayed Collars and Large Visions

In their memoirs of the 1930s, a walker in the city, Alfred Kazin, and a walker in the country, Granville Hicks, meet at a special moment in American life. Their rendezvous suggests lo ATLANTIC critic Louis kronenberger contrasts and similar Hies that are pertinent lo the 1960s.

IN ANY attempt at truth, perhaps nothing can be more subjective, impressionist, Pirandellian, than one’s memories of a bygone era. The associations are so many, so garlanded with nostalgia, so cankered with ego; the corroborations so few. The mind “lets go a thousand things”; even worse, it hangs on, raggedly, crookedly, to a thousand others; and when what we happen to confront is the confluence of many minds, or many volumes of memoirs, even fairly recent history can become astigmatic and blurred.
About the 1930s in America— not just the spotlighted thirties of Wall Street and the White House, or of the apple-sellers and the breadline, but the thirties of the intellectual, artistic, professional world — there is a certain common remembrance of things past, in part because the things were so vivid, in part because life itself so strove to be communal. The thirties are relatively “clear” because they moved, with gathering momentum, in one direction. Certain events—Hitler, Anschluss, the Nazi-Soviet pact — were like fire alarms; certain others — Ethiopia, Catalonia, concentration camps— like tolling bells; others still — the Reichstag fire or the Russian trials — like baleful Hares in the night. Yet of how many of even such crises have those who were grown-up in the thirties a precise awareness? Unless we were orderly and accurate diarists at the time, we are by now the heirs of all too many other diaries, the dupes of all too many tricks and transpositions of memory. What most people recall is less the historic station stops on the way to Munich or Moscow or Armageddon than what it was like, or how they acted, or whom they consorted with, on the train. Furthermore, there were so many people getting breathlessly on or, later, brusquely off; there was so much rerouting and being shunted onto sidings; and all the reading matter and the bulky luggage and the officious, loquacious conductors; and the abrupt changes of scenery, of climate, of weather — not least the storms that would “clear the air.” It was, in a sense, the worst of times and the best of times; everything, that is to say, seemed to be falling apart, but was to be much better put together again.
The train and the passengers, the conductors and the station stops, so often recalled to us, are evoked again in two very recent accounts: Alfred Kazin’s Starting Out in the Thirties and Granville Hicks’s autobiography, Part of the Truth. The two men, if decidedly unlike in makeup and approach, are yet linked for representing the two kinds of thoughtful people whom the thirties had a most particular relevance and power to engage. Here were two classic, protesting American types — the New York intellectual Jew with a working-class background, the Walker in the City, as Mr. Kazin called his earlier volume of memoirs; and the small-town New Englander, the Thoreauvian and Puritan Protestant, the walker in the country. For any such Jew, political and social protest was a matter of conditioning; for any such Gentile, it became a matter of conscience. What for the Jew, given his disabilities and his historic “homelessness,” constituted an ingrained point of view and a sense of home, a kind of adjustment to maladjustment, constituted for the New Englander a tocsined point of departure and a cause for outrage. Where the Jew tends to grow hoarse and disputatious over tenets and texts, the New Englander more often acts out a stern and simple Ich kann nicht anders. Together, the Jew’s enlightened sense of persecution and the New Englander’s awakened sense of obligation have been now the watchdogs of American injustice, and now the bloodhounds. During the 1930s they could many times seem both.
Though Part of the Truth spans Mr. Hicks’s life from birth until very recently, its most noteworthy, if not most typical, pages concern the thirties — move from his emerging Communist sympathies, through his years of open Party membership, to his break with the Party after the Hitler-Stalin pact. Certainly within the modest confines of Mr. Hicks’s title, his account of these years is admirably forthright, with nothing vital begged or hidden, and with nothing gratuitously highlighted. Indeed, because of its spare, resolute factuality, the book takes on a certain Yankee flatness of tone. One surmises that much of it was transcribed from a faithful and unadorned diary, so that dealing (even during the thirties) with considerable variety of matter, Mr. Hicks’s account runs to facts oftener than faces, to the outward event as much as the inward experience. But just because Mr. Hicks did not view the thirties as simply a form of drama, his book may have the greater value as a document.
Mr. Kazin’s title, Starting Out in the Thirties, keys his book perfectly, since it treats of a person in terms of a period. Coming from a Socialist Brooklyn home, the nineteen-year-old Alfred Kazin stepped out, in 1934, upon a stage that was in some ways an extension of his upbringing. It was much more brightly, not to say luridly, lighted, however, and came to feature a well-known cast of characters — James Farrell, John Chamberlain, Robert Cantwell, V. F. Calverton, Otis Ferguson, Malcolm Cowley, Clifford Odets. Hence autobiography that is also a period piece is also a portrait gallery, the three elements happily blended, the canvas as a whole correspondingly enriched. A City College undergraduate when the book opens, Kazin, before the decade ends, is himself a practicing critic. By then he had got to know a great many writers; he had moved in and out of the period’s living rooms and basements, its cafeterias and bars, its magazine offices and meeting places. Politically he had been where Socialists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, Lovestonites, United Fronters variously assembled, enacting all manner of rites among the faithful, of rows among the hostile, of romance, on occasion, among both. Strongly anti-Communist in his radicalism then, what Mr. Kazin offers now is no sober steel engraving, or savage Party-linedrawing, but a picture bright with incident and flushed with youth. His thirties run brilliantly to personal experiences, to inquiry rather than commitment. He is often the dissenting dissenter, recording the blurred notes from all the blaring trumpets: where in Hicks during the thirties the literary man was submerged in the political, in Kazin he was unsubmergible.
THE two accounts commemorate a great deal. But the thirties, in the end, were wider than Hicks’s straight-and-narrow plank, longer than Kazin’s celebration of their later half. And conceivably it was their earlier half that, if it now seems more wavering in outline, was more vibrant in actuality. The earlier half was still formative, tentative, transitional, when dispute was not yet frozen into dogma, and the soapbox speech and the speakeasy footrail were often conjoined. In the earliest thirties there were still loud echoes of the Crash rather than deep rumbles of the oncoming storm; people lost their jobs for economic rather than political reasons; the center of things came to be Washington, the cynosure FDR, the catchword the New Deal, the immediate issues domestic and near-at-hand. There were already, to be sure, a good many politically seasoned intellectuals; but most people who in the early thirties raised their voices and lost their tempers arguing about Marx did so much as they had argued about Schönberg or Joyce, and in much the same atmosphere. Mr. Kazin comes in just as Prohibition is going out.
And with its going, there went something that should not be forgotten: a somewhat messy holdover, or markdown, from the ebullient life of the twenties, a life now turned shabby-ungenteel, with the last carousings in bathtub gin, the last “pressings” of dago red, the last entrance to drinking parlors via seeing-eye doors. For those who were young, who were writers, artists, journalists, free lances, highbrows of a kind, the Depression was simply a lower-keyed bohemia. It was a period in the literary world when a front-page review in the New York Times paid you $25, and when the Big Money was no more than the title of a forthcoming book. The talk was of strikes, Scottsboro, Harlan County, Huey Long. Moreover, the early thirties marked the emergence of a propagandist literature and drama, and during its first years there could be something stimulating at times even about what was strident. Furthermore, if the movement was soon to excoriate far better writers than it extolled, at the start it disposed of a good many fading petals, it finished off mannerists like Cabell and Hergesheimer, it turned a never very sturdy ivory tower into a leaning one. Isms, generally, were replacing art forms, the Fascist had ousted the Philistine, Marx was outstripping Freud.
By 1934, however, “the age of Hitler,” in Kazin’s words, “was in full swing.” The era of ideological window-shopping was about over. By then unemployment and injustice at home had merged with the spread of totalitarianism abroad. Suddenly, on various terms, a great number of people were caught up in what today must suggest a madly grim infatuation — at any rate, there it was, with Greenwich Village drifters anchored to a cause, with guilt-ridden Hollywood writers doing frantic, exhibitionistic penance. And now came the Communist Party’s notable ploy: the United Front. There were Hitler, Mussolini, and then Franco to be united against; as for Stalin and Russia, it would almost seem now that with such an assemblage of villains, one of them could be elevated into an ally; with such a panorama of horror, one segment of it might serve to inspire hope. Even those who were wholly deaf to Communism’s siren songs could be blind at times, in their antifascist zeal, to its maneuvers. And in truth, the Communists scarcely let other people be antifascist without them. Under one high-sounding letterhead or another, they were forever contriving petitions, scaring up benefits, inviting you to parties; they made raids on Who’s Who, they riffled through the Social Register. There really was, to be sure, a common enemy; until, one fine day, there was instead a Nazi-Soviet pact.
Still, one’s recollections can turn as monolithic as history asserts the decade itself to have been; just here, Mr. Kazin’s diversified adventures help restore perspective. Doubtless the decade’s crises did shape a good deal of its culture; but a good deal else, even among artists and writers, derived from more residual attitudes or individual aspirations. People may have been hard up, but they weren’t terribly concerned with making money. Even when working on a prosperous magazine, you saw it as a job and not as a career, and might work six months a year to enjoy six months free time — which could mean living in a very low cost Europe. There were still, and very conspicuously, ball games and poker games, movies and jazz, liquor and girls, shoptalk and gossip; there were still timeless, as well as tendentious, gratifications in the arts. For the destitute, and for older people skirting destitution, it was an altogether terrible time. But for those who were young and less acutely harassed, it could be a rather cooperative period of low-priced meals and cut-rate living and unapologetic makeshifts, and of (via due bills) hotel rooms and ocean crossings at tremendous discounts. Status as we knew it then was all but suspended; and status as we conceive it today did not exist. Nor for us did the rat race either: there was simply a scramble for smallsalaried jobs. One Christmas brought me, at a highly respectable job, a holly-wreathed gift envelope containing a five-dollar bill. It was an age when one could go to Yaddo or the MacDowell Colony, or be lent someone’s apartment in summer or a barn on someone’s estate, or when Nathanael West, as the manager of a New York hotel, played a kind of all-year-round Santa Claus. The point is that a great many people preferred the independence and leisure that went with ups and downs to the pressures that went with success. Or perhaps they were simply less tempted: it was not only a world where good jobs were scarce; it was a world where TV appearances, lecture empires, highbrow articles in big-pay magazines were nonexistent.
Though they otherwise pose a very sharp, and indeed didactic, contrast, the 1920s and the 1930s were in two respects united — through something positive, primary-colored, reducible-to-a-phrase in their general makeup; and through something positive, of a different sort, in their confidence in the future. For when the unthinking optimism and sense of a Land of Plenty were extinguished by the Crash, there could still emerge from a depleted America and a despot’s Europe a dream of tomorrow, a vision of the Promised Land. There has been neither outlook since; the two eras seem equally historical, their two moods equally unrealistic. No doubt, in terms of standard of living, ours is something of a Land of Plenty today; and in terms of racial, social, economic gains, ours is a land where the promise has been partly fulfilled. Furthermore, today’s concern over social injustice and civil rights brings back something of the thirties. But there is also something very unlike. There may be more determined action today, but there is much less reassurance about tomorrow. For today, with every door we open, we encounter a closed one behind it; with every problem we solve, a greater one seems to jut up. It is the future, now, that tends to make us anxious; and not just the future in terms of the bomb. “Progress,” life itself are what seem to be getting out of hand. For even were true democracy achieved, there would be a terrifying population problem still to cope with; were the rat race slowed down, there would be an automation problem still to resolve. Even if the moon, in due course, offers a change of venue for the weekend, there will still be the rest of the week.