God and the American Writer
by Alfred Kazin
Knopf. 259 pp. $25.00
“We must simply live without religion,” the late Edmund Wilson used to admonish Alfred Kazin during their summer chats on Cape Cod. These words, reported by Kazin out of the mouth of “our last great man of letters,” are redolent of the uncompromising secularism that had come to characterize intellectual and literary life in the mid-to-late 20th century.
And yet, religion—God—did not disappear. In recent years, indeed, intellectuals themselves seem to have taken a new interest in Him, and the interest has even extended into the relatively lightless area of literary criticism. Now Kazin, himself one of America’s outstanding men of letters, has gone looking for involvements with divinity in the body of literature that has been his lifelong subject ever since his precocious 1942 study, On Native Grounds.
If God and religion are fairly fresh themes for Kazin as a critic, they are not altogether foreign to him as an autobiographer, as readers of A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and New York Jew (1978) have reason to know. But his fugitive statements on the subject in those books have tended to be fragmentary, or inchoate, a mixture of an almost mystical yearning for religious faith with an irascibly dismissive attitude toward religion as it is actually practiced by actual believers.
A colleague of mine recently remarked that while, in matters of race or gender, everyone agrees that “the personal is the political,” public professions of religious belief infallibly cause discomfort in many intellectuals. They certainly do so in Alfred Kazin, a man for whom organized religion is coterminous with the forces of reaction. “What does [religion] mean,” he cries in alarm,
in an America where the great majority go to church, synagogue, and mosque, where many confess to believe in the Devil, where fundamentalists have captured the Republican party South and West, where every attempt is being made to brook no separation between church and state?
For Kazin, what it means is that “a politicized, intolerant, and paranoiac religion, always crowing of its popularity, is too public, and aims to coerce the rest of us.”
Such, at any rate, is the temperament, itself highly politicized, of the man who hopes to find in American literature a deeper confrontation with religion and its role in human affairs.
In this book Kazin works quickly through the early Puritan poets, for whom God was an absolute orthodox certainty but who, he seems to feel, left no access to belief for later generations. He then considers a series of 19th- and 20th-century writers—Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, William James, Eliot, Frost, Faulkner—each of whom grappled toward a highly individual understanding of God (or of His absence). There is also a chapter on the literary responses to slavery, including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and one on Lincoln and his religious conceptualization of that great evil and of the war that was fought to end it.
In the case of each of the figures he considers, Kazin’s method is to weave together some fairly close impressions of the writer’s work with details drawn from the biographical and social context, adding references to other authors and garnishing the whole with well-chosen quotations. The approach can yield some richly evocative passages—as when, for example, Kazin comments on Herman Melville’s visit to the Egyptian pyramids—but it is also scattershot in its effect, and peculiarly ill-suited to the elaboration of a general thesis.
If there is a controlling idea in this book, it appears to be that the responses of American writers to God and religion, radically individualistic as they are, have failed to produce a basis for spiritual inspiration, or “radiance,” in American letters. An interesting point—though Kazin’s view of what would constitute spiritual “radiance” in literature is unfortunately never clear. If Transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman are somehow too diffuse in their personalism for his taste, the great tragic figures of the 19th century, Hawthorne and Melville, are too locked in the residual legacy of their Calvinist background. T.S. Eliot’s assiduous literary attempts at orthodoxy do not convince Kazin, but neither does William James’s looser standard in Varieties of Religious Experience.
All this is frustrating enough, perhaps for Kazin as much as for the reader. He is, after all, the critic who once located in the “radical individualism” of American writers the very essence of a literature “on native grounds.” Now, at the end of a long career, it appears that this same radical individualism strikes him as insufficient, indeed as having prevented the achievement of spiritual “radiance.”
Whatever Kazin means by this, it is a commodity he appears to be personally in search of. When he remarks, for instance, that William James “wins us [only] as a fellow soul, not as a believer,” his tone may be one of real regret. And when he reports in disappointment that “the intense pleasure I get from [Eliot’s] Four Quartets is mostly in the ravishing lines, not in the supposed coming together of the Trinity in which the poem ends,” one almost thinks that he, Alfred Kazin, wishes above all to be persuaded of the Trinity.
In the end, though, it is clearly only the idea of belief that intrigues him—without any attendant personal obligations, without any real intellectual assent, and certainly without any institutional trappings. In his conclusion, Kazin reprises his complaints about the public expressions of religiosity in America today, suggesting that faith as a “social experience” flourishes only when “genuine belief is lacking.” Then, as if to offer a counterexample, he writes:
The wonderfully harmonious Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz came out of the total infamy and horror of the Second World War to say in America, “Nothing could stifle my inner certainty that a shining point exists where all lines intersect.” That is the European heritage from centuries of common worship in relatively homogeneous societies. The American writer . . . has (especially in our time) known no such heritage. In a very real sense he has no common religious heritage at all.
Of course, if one declines to extend credence to any form of religious expression that happens to be on offer, one is indeed unlikely to share a “common religious heritage” with one’s fellows. That is not Milosz’s problem, but it is assuredly Alfred Kazin’s. After having been pulled this way and that by his teasings (and his tantrums), one almost yearns for the settled clarity of Edmund Wilson’s simple, adult words of refusal.