The progression of Alfred Kazin from working-class boy out of the Jewish tenements of Brooklyn’s Brownsville to center of the New York literary world is about as close as you can get to a feel-good story of the intellectual life. Born in 1915 to an itinerant painter and his stout wife, she Orthodox, he an orthodox socialist, the young Kazin overcame his stutter and took to books, devouring Blake and Shelley and discovering the nineteenth-century American masters who would become his lifelong passion. A radical but not a joiner in the ’30s, Kazin looked “to literature for strong social argument, intellectual power, and human liberation,” graduated from City College in 1935, and started reviewing for the New Republic.
In his early twenties, he set up in room 315 of the New York Public Library and burrowed himself deeply into the American grain for the epic 1942 study On Native Grounds, which was hailed by Lionel Trilling and which read like the culminating work of a senior scholar, not the debut of a neophyte. And this was only the beginning. Kazin soared to the top of the freelance pack in the ’50s and ’60s, had friendships and fallings-out with a who’s who of the thinking classes—Richard Hofstadter, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt, Arthur Schlesinger, and Daniel Bell, to name some notable examples—traveled abroad, held visiting professorships galore, and garnered a sparkling reputation as a critic, memoirist, and intellectual.
Yet as Richard M. Cook writes in the fine, able, and intelligent Alfred Kazin: A Biography, “Kazin’s rise was not . . . one of uninterrupted advance, clear direction, and unwavering personal assurance.” Kazin could never quite let go of his private torments, which he traced back to the oppressions of family life in Brownsville. Over his many decades—he died in 1998—Kazin compiled in his journals a vast record of acerbic, penetrating self-reflection, which Cook profits immensely from. (One strength of this biography is the way Cook lets Kazin speak and think for himself.) But if Kazin’s anguished doubt left him a difficult, touchy, emotionally hobbled man, his festering preoccupation with the world of his youth, writes Cook, “was also the source, the final source, of his personal aspirations and creative needs.”
Kazin would return to his Jewish roots in his 1951 memoir, A Walker in the City, where he evoked his formation, his escape into books, and the ever-present call of “beyond,” the world outside his little corner of Brooklyn: Manhattan, charged icons like the Brooklyn Bridge, and the appeal of the American literary past, which would become his special province: “Anything American, old, glazed, touched with dusk at the end of the nineteenth century, still smoldering with the fires lit by the industrial revolution, immediately set my mind dancing.” Kazin was always possessed by an ecstatic longing for what he called “the adventurous and purity, heroism and salt, that the best Americans have always had for me.”
Though he was consumed by politics—“I was a ‘Socialist,’ like everyone else I knew”—Kazin’s self-consciously literary turn of mind shielded him from hard-edged militancy. He had an instinctual loathing for ideological certainty, and the Marxist squabbling that echoed through City College did little more than annoy him. He detested future neocons Sidney Hook—a “narrow, intolerably conceited, totally relentless ‘left’ intellectual”and Albert Wohlstetter. (“Only a few of us know,” he wrote to Bell in 1992, “that some horribly reactionary national policies were born long, long ago, in the violent debates between radicals dominating City College Alcoves.”) Instead, inspired by the example of his hero Edmund Wilson, Kazin stuck to the quiet precincts of the library. By the end of the decade, notes Cook, he had found his calling, “not as a young radical working for a classless society but as a young patriot celebrating the democratic values and cultural achievements of America’s past.”
Urged on by Mark Van Doren, Kazin launched into a project he considered an act of democratic renewal. Devouring the work of William Dean Howells, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and Henry James for On Native Grounds, the budding Americanist hit on his theme: “our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it.” This would remain a vital conceit for Kazin and is a concealed description of his own particular vantage point as a Jewish writer. Cook stresses throughout that Kazin had permit as a critic because he was a Jew, not in spite of it: “He was gratified to be an outsider (a Jew in America), which placed him at the center of the moral problems (alienation, estrangement, exile) that marked the modern condition.”
On Native Grounds, with its vivid characterizations and dynamic crescendos, was a smash. Always impassioned—“blaze was always my word for joy”—Kazin approached the writing of criticism with an unbuttoned fervor. For him, literary criticism was not a dry technique for explicating texts but rather a means to an intensely personal communion between self and writer. Of all his peers in the fraternity of midcentury critics—Trilling, Wilson, Irving Howe—Kazin was the most Romantic in temperament. Set against Howe’s sober precision, Wilson’s classical authority, and Trilling’s cool dialectics, Kazin’s writing stands out for its impressionistic lyricism and nakedly emotional pitch.
In a way, On Native Grounds was a book Kazin couldn’t get out from under, and he struggled with subsequent efforts. He wasn’t cut out for long works of sustained reflection and close reading. “My tendency as writer and critic [is] to dwell on the ‘high points’ of a text,” he confided in a journal entry, “the emotional peaks, the ‘isolated beauties’ instead of the argument of a book.” However, Kazin was perfectly suited for the age of criticism. He excelled at the shorter notice and the review essay, and he became an influential fixture on the pages of all the leading reviews, as well as a lecturer, footloose pundit, and panelist.
Cook’s account of Kazin’s mature years is rich and laden with anecdotes. There was personal turmoil and second and third wives, but Kazin had won fame as a writer. (“I love my worldliness, my snobbery, my ease,” he wrote in his diary.) Cook describes a funny moment in the early ’60s when Kazin was walking down Broadway and a woman approached him, asking, “Aren’t you the famous critic?” Replied Kazin: “You mean Lionel Trilling? No, I’m Alfred Kazin, the second-most-famous critic.” Kazin would be an astute commentator on postwar Jewish writing—Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, the early Bellow—and make an important contribution himself with A Walker in the City, but his was also a sensibility apart. The New Criticism of the English departments rankled him: “The galley slaves of criticism in the universities were chained to eighteen poems, to [Cleanth] Brooks and [Robert Penn] Warren, to tension, ambiguity, and paradox.”
There were other divergences. For all of Kazin’s concern with the modern, he never had a feel for modernism’s inward turn the way Howe did. Though he owned up to his habit of getting “lost in this labyrinth of my own soliloquy”—the old Romantic in him—Kazin felt that writer and society have to be locked into a kind of pact: “It is not to favor the ideal self over the world, or the world over the self,” he wrote in a 1959 journal entry, “but to bring the self back into the world as its natural home.” Immured in his beloved nineteenth century and the realism of Dreiser, Kazin believed deeply that “fiction can elicit and prove the world we share.” He made his case in a 1958 essay, finding himself out of sympathy with “our new writers, who have a society but don’t believe in it enough to describe it—to deal with it is but as something it is . . . life in its beautiful and inexpressible materiality.” In a piece the following year, he criticized the narrowness of Truman Capote and “the deliberately churned-up novels of the Beat Generation.” But in Norman Mailer, who would become an important foil, Kazin saw something. If he had reservations about Mailer’s freaked-out sexual high jinks, Kazin applauded his “totally unexpected power of concrete visualization” and his ability “to make more of a world out of his obsessions than other writers are able to make out of the given materials of our common social world.”
That “common social world” would be put to the test in the ’60s, which brought out Kazin’s political side after a period of literary reflection and relative quiescence. In his 1962 memoir, Starting Out in the Thirties, he returned to the hopes of Old Left just as the New Left was gearing up. The Bay of Pigs and Vietnam enraged him, and he took to petition signing and a more activist role, meditating on the dilemma of intellectuals and power. The emergence of the New Left concerned him—his activist son, Michael, was a member of SDS—but Kazin never issued a definitive rebuke à la Howe; he tried, and sometimes strained, to understand the “kids” on their own terms. He applauded Mailer’s The Armies of the Night on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Cook’s assessment of Kazin’s feelings about the time is well observed: “To follow Kazin through the politics of the late sixties is to get a glimpse of the chagrin, the shame, the bewilderment, the anger, but also the reflective and self-critical openness of a liberal trying to be honest with himself.” Cook also provides a full accounting of Kazin’s complex views on Israel, “whose history and people and very existence continued to move him almost in spite of himself.”
Cook questions Kazin’s liberal anti-communism—the Soviet Union appalled him—but Kazin would savagely rebuke the neoconservatives. He went to town on the snobbish Mr. Sammler’s Planet in the New York Review of Books, calling it a “normal political novel of our day, didactic to a fault.” (Bellow accused Kazin of slander: “You were saying that its author was a wickedly deluded lunatic.”) After an evening with Irving Kristol and other ex-leftists in 1969, Kazin bitterly ruminated in his journal: “They are all such specialists, such knowers on a limited scale, such professors impaled on their own bitterness. They have to be right . . . the world can go to hell, but they are right.” Kazin despised people who knew that they knew; he often knew that he didn’t know.
For all his doubts, Kazin was extraordinarily productive—the reviews kept coming in the ’70s on into the ’90s, even though a successor to On Native Grounds proved elusive. The Bright Book of Life (1973), a history of the postwar novel, and The American Procession (1983) were coolly received. In many ways, long-form criticism was beyond Kazin’s talents. (On Native Grounds, though a key work in the evolution of American studies, was strangely uninfluential.) But Kazin’s unacknowledged masterpiece may be the haunting explorations of self and solitude he recorded in his journals. It was, as he once wrote of another American journal keeper, Henry David Thoreau, “the thing he lived in.”
Matthew Price is a frequent contributor to Bookforum.OUTSIDER ARTIST