In the late 1930’s and early 40’s, a young literary critic and recent graduate of the City College of New York spent four years composing a 500-page survey of American writers from 1880 to 1940. Working in the magnificent reading room of the New York Public Library, Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) traced the course of what he saw as a realist and progressive tradition in American letters. He did so, moreover, as one personally imbued with the socialist hopefulness that he had absorbed from the immigrant Jewish milieu in which he grew up and that now seemed widespread and flourishing.
The book, On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942), was wildly successful, and launched its young author on a spectacular literary career. Although much of it might seem dated and overly precious to a reader today, On Native Grounds showed an amazingly confident and precocious grasp of its subject, and was rightly heralded as a landmark effort at claiming high status for modern American writing among the world’s great literatures. It also helped pave the way for the academic interest in American studies that would burgeon after the war and in which Kazin himself would play a part as an influential teacher, public lecturer, and the author of innumerable essays and reviews.
Richard M. Cook’s new biography, for which he enjoyed access to Kazin himself as well as to his family, friends, and ex-friends, carefully and serviceably narrates the enormous whirl of activity in Kazin’s life. Cook is honest, thorough, even-handed, and conscientious, if also excessively gentle in dissecting his subject’s emotional shortcomings and self-indulgent intellectual meanderings. Perhaps more disappointingly, he never quite penetrates to the core of a man who was often divided against himself and who never fully recovered from the collapse of the radical “hope” that he once described as his only religion, and who ever afterward sought in literature the personal fulfillment and transcendence that literature ever afterward denied him.
In a new preface to On Native Grounds on its 50th anniversary, Kazin would write that in composing the book “I felt what I have never felt since 1945—that the age was wholly with me.” Although he would continue to write reams of criticism, never again could he believe, as he did then, in the vital, primal connections between literature and history, or be confident in the power of literature itself to provide the impulse for progressive change.
Indeed, his most memorable books after On Native Grounds were not about literature at all but about himself. In Walker in the City (1951) he returned to his boyhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where he had been born to Russian Jewish immigrants, a formidably energetic mother and a sad, silent father from whom the young Kazin inherited his good looks and socialist sympathies. This was followed by Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), a vivid re-creation of the excitement of the radical decade that formed him and propelled his career. Kazin’s trilogy of memoirs would conclude with the far less captivating New York Jew (1978), which recorded his life at the pinnacle of success but which reads, as one critic put it, like a “lamentation.”
When he did return to literature, as in Contemporaries (1962), Bright Book of Life (1973), and An American Procession (1984), it was often by piecing together many previously published reviews and articles, with no particular rethinking or fresh insight, no overarching framework or thesis. These volumes, when they were not politely ignored, emerged to a mostly lukewarm critical reception, a response with which Kazin himself was sometimes forced to agree. As he wrote at one point in his journal:
My tendency as a writer and critic [is] to dwell on the “high points” of a text, the emotional peaks, the “isolated beauties” instead of the argument of a book. My weakness as a literary scholar and as a writer is to opt for the creative moment.
Such proclivities, as Cook notes, were less suited to full-length studies than to short essays, reviews, and introductions, like the one Kazin provided for The Portable Blake (1976), or for compilations like A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment (1996), a book based on his journals. (In addition to everything else, he was a prodigious diarist who minutely chronicled his own thoughts and feelings as well as his often caustic observations of others.) Here as elsewhere, although Kazin’s writing can often be evocative and even insightful, no less often it is airy, vague, impressionistic, and, it must be said, quite forgettable, running along fluidly but resisting any anchorage in solid argument.
Something of the same might be said as well of his general disposition toward life. It was what allowed him to travel two tracks at once, to be personally part of things and yet apart from them. Eager as a young man to move out of Brownsville, he also wanted never to leave it. He longed for the glamorous Manhattan world “beyond,” but once having arrived in the literary salons of Gotham he found himself “bitter, bitter” at the contrast with his own threadbare background and at real or imagined slights directed at him for being “too Jewish.” He wanted both the emotional stability of marriage and the sexual adventure of repeated adulteries. (In all he had four marriages and two children.) During the cold war, he was both anti-Communist and anti-anti Communist, condemning both the Soviet Union and America’s firm stance toward it.
He was anti-Zionist as well, and in 1948 opposed Israeli statehood, yet was moved to tears when reading of its founding. Visiting the Jewish state, he disdained its bourgeois “normality” and what he saw as its increasing militancy, though after the 1967 war he acknowledged the disaster that would have ensued had the Arabs won. Most of his life he floated Chagall-like between Jewish and Christian ideas of revelation, while never committing himself to any form of religious worship. Of the Jews he said at one point that they had been chosen in history to “keep alive the memory of the divine source from which our lives come,” yet when he had the opportunity to make his own contribution to the nexus of literary history and religion, all he could produce was the tepid God and the American Writer (1997).
With the rise of the New Left in the 1960’s, in which his estranged son Michael played a part, Kazin sniffed the return of radical politics. As was his custom, he flittered in response, managing to deplore the excesses of the young while sympathizing with their professed aims and joining his voice to their indictment of America’s inequities. As Cook respectfully records his thoughts, Kazin did not “believe in civil disobedience” but was also capable of writing that “the Vietnam war is so sickening that anything is justified against it.” On the other hand, he equivocated, when “anyone can take the law into his own hands, where is the law for the rest of us?” On the third hand, too much hesitation prevented needed action. And so forth.
As for the know-nothing counterculture of the 1960’s and its assault on “bourgeois” literary and academic standards, Kazin knew that this threatened all that he held dear. Still, he could not condemn it. Instead, he began to question the reactionary nature of literature itself, with its “tragic view of the world.” Why, he pondered (in Cook’s paraphrase), should
the “complexities” of literature necessarily have the last word over political thought and action? And did not literature, even great literature, sanction action on occasion, even revolutionary action? . . . [W]hat did the ever-thoughtful, sober, patient counselors of the young have to offer—except more patience?
When a group of Kazin’s fellow New York intellectuals could no longer equivocate about the destructive nature of the New Left and the counterculture, instead finally and boldly breaking with contemporary Left-liberalism, Kazin was incensed, seeing in the rise of neoconservatism a final betrayal of the socialist ideals they had all grown up with and of the Jews of old Brownsville.
Kazin would come to lament the wreckage inflicted by campus radicalism on the life of the mind in America. (Cook at one point remarks on the exceptional sophistication of the discussions in which Kazin participated on commercial radio during the 1950’s.) It caught up with him most definitively, perhaps, when he taught at Brown in 1994. He could hardly believe how poorly prepared were his top students, how loose and empty the curriculum that was supposed to educate them. He vowed never to teach again—though, typically, he still could not bring himself to make the connection between the destruction of the high culture that had been his life’s blood and the radicalism of the young (“morally the most stimulating, restless, generous, and disinterested social group in the country”) and their tenured cheerleaders.
The image of Alfred Kazin with his melancholy demeanor, his briefcase of books, his heart full of the writers he loved, and his pen ever ready to record moments of literary illumination cannot but recall, however inadequately, the luster that was America’s mid-century moment of cultural seriousness. All the greater pity that, when the need to defend and protect that culture was at its most critical, Alfred Kazin was to be found wavering in absentia, his gaze somehow still fixed on those days in the library, when he believed the age was with him.