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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Expansion and Maturation

{Extract from Clarence Klein, Jr., Prize Essay)
By Sidney Tomshinsky, '31

The Magpie, June 1931, v. 32, n. 2, p. 21.

"The love towards a thing eternal and infinite alone fills the mind with pleasure, and it is free from all pain; so it is much to be desired and to be sought out with all our might."—Spinoza, De Intellectus Emendatione.

"A portion of the Eternal, which must glow
Through time and change, unquenchably the same."—Shelley, Adonais.

I

I spent the first twelve years of my life in a tenement in the East Bronx. My parents were Russian Jews, aliens in a foreign land. The life and culture of America were strange to them, and they never accustomed themselves to its civilization. Stubbornly and successfully, they held fast to Hebrew traditions and beliefs. It was in that environment that my formative years were spent, an environment of poverty, and tumultuous life, devoid, except for my older brother, of cultural or intellectual influences.

I lived an animal, boisterous existence until I came into contact with books. Here was something totally different from anything I had ever encountered before, here was something that concerned itself neither with the price of bread nor with the urgency of paying rent, here was a world of magic and enchantment, a world wholly unreal and, therefore, doubly precious.

I was extraordinarily, almost inhumanly, thin. My father, becoming alarmed, had me examined by a famous child-specialist. The doctor prescribed no cod-liver oil or tonic—I might have been able to stand that—but he ordered my father to limit my reading to one hour a day. We rode home in a taxi, an unusual luxury for us. On any other day, I would have taken an eager pleasure in the ride. On this day, however, I was lost in a chasm of grief and self-pity. One hour a day!

The doctor's orders were strictly carried out. My brother, after I had been reading for an hour, would firmly and decisively take my book away from me. Usually, I would reluctantly submit. Sometimes, when the book was particularly interesting, I would resist, and then there would be a bitter battle. I used to try every device possible in order to gain extra time. On those nights when enforcement of the ruling became lax, I was deliriously happy.

It is not to be assumed, however, that the books I read were all good ones. I read indiscriminately, good, bad, or indifferent—all books were enjoyed by me. It was only by the merest chance that I managed to read many good books. There was the germ of an aesthetic feeling in me, certain passages and certain books deeply impressed me. I still remember quite vividly the last part of the story of Roland, by which I was profoundly moved: Roland, mortally wounded, lying on a hill in Spain, blows faintly upon his horn. There is no answer to the ever fainter notes. Then Roland turns towards France, voices a prayer of longing for his native country, and dies.

It was such passages as these that gave me standards by which to judge the books I read. Slowly, I began to develop an intellectual conscience. I was ashamed of the books I was reading and felt a vague uneasiness whenever I thought I was reading a poor book. This intellectual conscience has grown stronger and stronger with each succeeding year, until it has become as much a part of me as my moral conscience.

It was through the promptings of my intellectual conscience that I finally stopped reading dime novels. I had thought at first that this renunciation would be a great strain upon my will power: but, to my great surprise, I was quite as happy without dime novels as with them. It has been so with many other things. My tastes have been like outworn skins; I have dropped them when they have outlived their usefulness.

II

At the close of my eleventh year my mother died. I had always taken her for granted. Even when she had been seriously ill, I had not doubted but that she would recover. Now that she was dead, I realized how many things I had done to make her unhappy, and how many things I might have done to make her happy.

It was this realization that produced a great mental "storm and stress" period in me. I am not given to outward shows of sentiment, I believe that fine emotions "lie too deep for tears." It has always been my experience that the basest emotions, self-pity, and hurt vanity or pride, are quickest to provoke tears. My relatives have always thought me cold-blooded and unemotional, and will probably continue to think so till the end of their lives.

Because of this distaste for surface sentiment, my grief and pain were intensified. Perhaps if I could have wept and lamented, and discussed my sorrow with others, I might have regained my peace of mind. As it was, I began to look on life with a closer and more disillusioned glance.

My mental and spiritual maturation were hastened by the tragedy. I no longer looked for pretty plots or happy endings. I began to search for something deeper, something that would satisfy my unrest. My whole outlook and scheme of life were changed, the radiant mosaic had been smashed to pieces, and I had to look for a new design.

I was forced back upon myself for mental company, and became introspective. I turned back to my old refuge, books. They were no longer mere companions who pleased so long as they amused. They were, together with my brother, my only friends, and so I was more exacting in my judgment of them.

I began to read some poetry and found in that literary form what I had long sought. Everything was there, from the golden sunrises of Shelley to the mystic twilights of Blake. I discovered a sublime blending of philosophy and music, of mind and spirit, of truth and beauty, which have always been one in essence. I started with small, sparing doses, then I went on to larger allowances, and finally intoxicated myself with large draughts.

Sophocles is, with the exception of Spinoza, the most serene writer I have ever encountered. His is a sorrowful serenity, but it is a god-like serenity. He has torn away the bandage from his eyes and has seen clearly and has been able to say, in the great chorus that closes Oedipus Rex, "Dwellers in our native Thebes, behold, this is Oedipus, who knew the famed riddle, and was a man most mighty; on whose fortunes what citizen did not gaze with envy? Behold into what a sea of dread trouble he hath come!"

"Therefore while our eyes wait to see the final day, we must call no one happy who is of mortal race, until he hath crossed life's border, free from pain." {Jebb's translation.)

This is no banal sorrow, no saccharine weeping. It is the calm sorrow, the serene sorrow of one who "saw life steadily and saw it whole." It is the sad serenity Shakespeare reached when he wrote in Cymbeline,

"Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney sweepers come to dust."

It is that same quality of serene and objective contemplation that has attracted me to all thought. To me, a beautiful thought is the most beautiful of all things. Thought distilled and separated from all trace of anthropomorphism—thought woven strand upon strand to form one perfect tapestry—thought given out by the glowing light of a great mind—is the finest thing known to man.

In Spinoza, the thought stands alone. There are no auxiliary aids, such as poetry, drama, and style, to the beauty of the thought. He has put his reasoning into the most impersonal and elementary mold— mathematics—but that reasoning has one thing which is lacking to all mathematics—a soul. It is a great thought which can, in its pure essence, stir men's hearts, so much so that Spinoza has often been called a poet.

I began to read Spinoza one night when I was alone in the house. At first, it seemed so strange, and far-away, and difficult. Soon, however, I had passed the preliminary rocks and boulders and had stepped into the clear river and was flowing along with the current. I was only dimly conscious of the fact that I was sitting in an armchair, reading.

Spinoza has freed himself from earth and has calmly and dispassionately surveyed the universe. All poets have tried in one way or another to achieve that ideal' but have failed because they were poets. There are three lines in Milton's Samson Agonistes which perfectly describe Spinoza's view of the universe:

"Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail
Or knock the breast; no weakness, no contempt,
Dispraise, or blame."

Shakespeare, Sophocles, Spinoza—these writers are those who have influenced and impressed me most. There are many lesser beings in my literary hierarchy, but these are the archangels. These are the least transient of my literary affections, and from these I have secured most.

III

About two years ago, I started to write poetry. Why I began, I cannot tell. It was the result of an indefinable impulse, a desire to spread my wings. My first poetry had the faults of all beginners' poetry. It was insincere, it was devoid of ideas, and it was riddled with cliches. In common with all beginners, I thought my first poem was magnificent.

Dr. Johnson (Boswell's life) tells the anecdote of a Frenchman who visited England. After having been in England for three days he was convinced that he could write a book about it—after three weeks he was not so sure in his purpose after three months he had given up the idea—and after he had been in England three years he was ready to begin his book.

It has been so with me. I thought I could conquer poetry in one bound. After I had written several poems, I began to see how bad they were; after I had been writing for some time I became disgusted with myself; and now I am just beginning to write poetry.

There are certain standards that I have tried to set for myself. I try to be sincere; I try to be original; and I try to say something. It seems to me that the last named standard is the most important. Art exists for the sole purpose of saying something; if it says nothing, then it is merely a pretty toy.

Within the last few months, I have noticed definite improvements in myself. I have begun to shake off certain deadening influences and to think for myself, and I have managed to secure a small degree of conciseness.

Not all of my poetry has been free verse. I have experimented in the sonnet form, in a variation of the rhymed couplet, and in several lyric forms. If I feel that the subject calls for a certain form, I use it. In all my work, I have been merely feeling my way.

I shall continue to write for a while. If I find that my work shows improvement, I shall keep on writing. If it shows no improvement—God give me courage to drop it!

IV

I realize that my title seems too pretentious. It was chosen, however, for certain reasons. I regard maturation as something which is continually going on in a person's mind. It is a process, not an end. In the development and fluctuation of one's tastes, this process is everywhere apparent; and the record of my changing taste is nothing more nor less than a record of the process of maturation.

I have changed much since the time when I read dime novels. I shall probably change much in future years; but I shall always have with me that sacred thing, "the precious life blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured on purpose to a life beyond life."




The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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