The American literary critic Alfred Kazin was born with an undescended testicle, soon developed a stammer, and grew up, he tells us, in loneliness and shame. His immigrant parents, a taciturn housepainter father and an anxious yet dominating dressmaker mother, were locked in a loveless marriage. He was in thrall to psychoanalysis much of his adult life, the instruction from which did not prevent him from contracting three mis-marriages, the last ending in alimony payments, according to his biographer, of $17,000 per month. Such a man should earn our sympathy. But Alfred Kazin—about whom, owing to the posthumous publication of his journal, we now know a great deal more than we ought—doesn’t make sympathy easy.
Along with a vast quantity of literary criticism, Kazin wrote three volumes of autobiography: A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), New York Jew (1978); and Writing Was Everything (1995), a volume of autobiographical writing originally given as lectures at Harvard. Each of these books recounts a good deal about Kazin’s life, but in nothing like the personal detail of Alfred Kazin’s Journals (Yale University Press, 632 pages). “Absolute frankness is the only originality,” Kazin notes in his journals, which he kept from high-school days until his death at the age of 83 in 1998. Yet what if absolute frankness ends not in originality but instead in revelations that are demeaning, even creepy?
A great many entries in Alfred Kazin’s Journals, which compose only a part of a 7,000-page document deposited in the New York Public Library, are devoted to the uses of his journal or to journal-writing generally. Kazin looked upon his journal as his confession booth, his intellectual lubricant, his lie detector, a stay against loneliness, his lifeline, his method of ascertaining his authenticity, his soul saver. This journal, he wrote on June 27, 1955, “holds what is deepest and truest in me.”
Journals are as various as the people who keep them. Some are mainly introspective (the Swiss philosopher and poet Henri Amiel’s is most notable in this line), others more about the great world than about their authors (Noël Coward’s and Leo Lerman’s come to mind). The latter kind, studded as it often is with interesting names, gives more immediate pleasure, usually of a gossipy kind.
Alfred Kazin’s Journals is both introspective and, as the English say, namey, though many of the names—chiefly members of the circle known as the New York intellectuals—have already begun to fade. (The shocks of recognition caused by the sight of the names of William Phillips, Lionel Abel, Josephine Herbst, and Philip Rahv today carry a very low voltage.) Along with providing brief and usually acidulous portraits of figures of his day, Kazin’s entries recount his aspirations, his needs, and above all his unhappiness, social, domestic, and literary. “What will not be forgiven me by the reader of these diaries is my obstinate unhappiness,” Kazin noted in 1968. This unhappiness is pervasive, relieved only by occasional moments of jubilation, usually owing to the entrance of a new woman in his life, and these do not last long. Kazin was a man with something very like an allergy to contentment.
Richard Cook, a professor of English at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, who edited the Journals and is Alfred Kazin’s biographer, writes in his introduction that the book is “notable for the variety and intensity of feelings on display.” The intensity is certainly there. I stopped keeping a count of how frequently Kazin records weeping; music, movies, reading about Jews, mention of the Holocaust, Charlie Chaplin bring on tears. He also writes a fair amount about his soul. The objective here, one assumes, was to demonstrate Kazin’s sensitivity, if only to Kazin himself, though he had from the outset planned for his journal to be published.
Viewed from the middle distance, Alfred Kazin appears to have enjoyed an extraordinarily successful career. Born in 1915, he came of age in the poor Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville. While at City College, he did not participate in any of the political alcoves subsequently made famous by their habitués’ later intellectual prominence. Bookish and in those days bashful, Kazin cultivated his literary garden. This cultivation would result in On Native Grounds (1942), a survey of American prose literature from the 1880s through the Depression that he worked on sedulously over a five-year period in one of the reading rooms of the New York Public Library and that, published when he was 27, made his reputation.
In his 20s, Kazin freelanced and was appointed literary editor of the New Republic, a job earlier held by Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley. Over the years, he acquired a Guggenheim grant, a Rockefeller fellowship, many visiting professorships, lucrative lectures, publication in all the magazines of the day (he wrote 82 pieces for the New York Review of Books), travel on behalf of the U.S. State Department, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and other prizes and plummy emoluments. None of it, though, was sufficient to remove the scowl from his face, to lighten his heart, or to staunch the steady flow of grievance that is at the center of his Journals and that apparently occupied the same position in his life.
Kazin’s complaint comes down to this: he was born poor and Jewish, two strikes that he seems to have held against himself more than the world ever did. Born into the underclass, he contracted a lifetime infection of socialism, which carried with it such symptoms as the unrelenting hope for universal justice, reverence for his own strain of radical thought, the burden of idealism, and what he took to be his unflinching integrity in the service of that idealism.
Richard Cook writes that “Kazin rarely spared himself his habits of uncompromising assessment.” Yet in the end, in this assessment, he seemed always to come out with high marks. His low opinion of almost everyone else, Hannah Arendt and Edmund Wilson excepted, was matched by his high opinion of his own virtue. No one else, it seems, was quite so affected by the Holocaust, so vigilant in upholding the dream of progressive thought unmarred by ideology, so disappointed in America’s squalid turn to vulgar prosperity, so sensitive generally as the author of Alfred Kazin’s Journals. Sellouts were all around him—to ideology, to material success, to the security of academic life. No wonder the plaint of loneliness sounds so resoundingly through the Journals. No one, really, was fit company for Alfred Kazin.
He toted a knapsack filled with an Iliad of woes. Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, Jacques Barzun, Norman Podhoretz, Diana and Lionel Trilling, and so many others are found wanting, sorely so. He is put off by Barzun’s formality and suavity and claims to be unable to imagine him in his underwear. Alas, after the sexual revelations of the Journals, Kazin is rather too easily imagined in his, and the picture is less than enchanting. In New York Jew, Kazin speaks of women “satisfying themselves upon me as if I were a bedpost.”
He doesn’t like Saul Bellow: “a kalte mensch, too full of his being a novelist to be a human being writing.” He finds a “fatal particle of vulgarity” in Irving Howe, whom he also describes as “a bigger Klutz than ever. No manners, no grace, just a head like a pot belly.” He refers to his students at Amherst as “young shits.” He calls Philip Roth “a yenta” and a “male shrew” and scores off his fiction for its claustral quality. He attacks Mark Van Doren for his “pursy little prudence” and confesses, “when I think of Van Doren as my beau ideal at all [as he once was] I have to laugh.”
At his father’s funeral, Kazin calls his sister Pearl K. Bell (long the fiction critic of this magazine) and his brother-in-law, the sociologist Daniel Bell, “rats,” and refers elsewhere to Bell’s “exhibitionistic” conversation. (My friend Edward Shils, whenever either Kazin’s or Bell’s names came up, would happily exclaim, “Ah, the man who has the brother-in-law he deserves.”) He is vicious about the novelist Cynthia Ozick and the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz. He cites Marcus Cunliffe on the New York intellectuals as having “the subtlest understanding of everyone, but each feels that he himself is misunderstood,” an observation that, though Kazin doesn’t seem to notice, applies with especial point to himself.
The critic Lionel Trilling looms largest on his enemy list. Kazin’s problem with Trilling is that he was falsely civilized, always concerned with his own reputation, too coolly detached, “no one could have been more discerning and less involved.” He attacks him for his role in “deradicalizing” intellectuals. Kazin accuses Trilling of blackballing him from a teaching job at Columbia. Late in the Journals he claims that “Trilling cannot stand my vitality.” One is left to wonder if vitality was really the problem Lionel Trilling had with Kazin. Trilling no doubt did not take to Kazin’s schmaltziness. “Schmaltzy” was one of the regular charges against Kazin by various New York intellectuals, by which they meant an oily sort of sentimentality. “Sentimental idealism,” Kazin himself calls it, and claims it as “my pervasive fault.” He was certainly sentimental about socialism, the ideal of which he wished to keep alive no matter how dreary its effects wherever put into practice in the world. He was sentimental about immigrant Jewish culture, from which of course he fled as quickly as possible. He was sentimental, solipsistically so, above all about himself.
In his mind, as his journals make plain, Alfred Kazin lived as a character always on the periphery, alienated, the object of other people’s derision. The drama always playing in his mind was that of the honorable man, of high principle and strong feeling, condemned to live out his days insufficiently appreciated, always the underdog no matter how well-established he was. He writes in the Journals about “my resentment of the PR [Partisan Review] group, my unending fear of their scorn.”
The fear was not unreasonable. After seeing Kazin trail sycophantically after Edmund Wilson on the beach at Cape Cod, Saul Bellow once told me: “If Wilson wants to pretend to be Sainte-Beuve, that’s one thing; but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Kazin get away with pretending to be Saint-Booboo.” Bellow also told me that he was bored with Kazin’s filling him in on his kinky sexual exploits. On another occasion, though not to me, Bellow said, “I would as lief look upon a piece of pastrami-stained paper as on the face of Alfred Kazin.”
I met Kazin once, in Chicago, in 1978, during the time that he was a visiting professor at Notre Dame. He later recorded that the lunch was boring; I thought it excruciating, for he used the time to attack Hilton Kramer, Norman Podhoretz, and others of my friends. When I was the editor of the American Scholar, he sent me an essay about Henry James, whose origin must have been a talk he gave, that was so cliché-laden that I gave it, in the dry-cleaner’s phrase, same-day service, returning it to him the day upon which I received it. He wrote me a letter informing me that I wrote some good things, but he didn’t understand my aligning myself with the “trigger-happy Reaganites.” I wrote back, briefly, to say that, as a literary man, he might have done better than the cliché “trigger-happy.” He later wrote a piece in the New York Review of Books called “Saving My Soul at the Plaza” (March 31, 1983), attacking neoconservatives and accusing me in particular of politicizing the American Scholar, when in fact I made it a point to keep politics as far as possible out of the magazine during the years I was its editor.
Domestic troubles are not a small item in Alfred Kazin’s Journals. His three marriages and his difficulties with his two children are sadly noted. Kazin writes of the violent arguments he and his third wife, Ann Birstein, had. From the way he writes about it, one might assume that the violence was verbal. But in her memoir of the marriage, What I Saw at the Fair, Birstein writes about Kazin beating her up. Anything could bring on the beatings: what he deemed her wayward opinion of Fidel Castro (she thought him a dictator, he didn’t; it cost her a broken finger); her criticism of his writing; his discontent with her lovemaking; her complaints about his not supporting her own writing. It didn’t take much.
“During other arguments he would rip the sleeves out of my bathrobe,” she writes, “or tear at my hair, which the next day I would comb out in bunches.” He would often knock her to the floor. “After these episodes, Alfred would cry, say he had never hit any other woman but me. There was a strange kind of compliment implied.” So stormy was the Kazin-Birstein marriage that, when Kazin was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Standford, the police had to be called to their apartment several times because the screaming, dish-breaking, and general tumult disturbed their neighbors. About these beatings, the “lie-detector” Journals offers not a word. In 1974, near suicide, Birstein had to check into Bellevue. The flip side of sentimentality is often brutality.
Literature takes up a fair amount of space in the Journals. Kazin was a good but not a great critic. His method was to attempt to get inside the mind of the writers who were the subjects of his criticism, to reveal their inner drama in the historical setting of their time. As a critical writer he had a certain flow, but was without notable powers of formulation. He claimed to live for ideas but didn’t seem to have any, or at least none that seemed compelling. He writes often of his vision, but what this vision was is left murky. “Trilling,” he writes in the Journals, “gave them [readers] a point of view, an attitude, a handy phrase…a leading idea. I gave them a lot of history, from every point of view? What my book [he was writing New York Jew at the time] needs most urgently is a basic philosophy to leave them with at the end.” He neglected to supply it.
As a working critic, Kazin’s primary interest was American literature. The 19th-century American writers grabbed him straightaway. “I shared much of their belief in the ideal freedom and power of the self, in the political and social visions of radical democracy,” he wrote in an essay toward the end of his life called “To Be a Critic.” He was more successful writing about Melville than about Emily Dickinson, about Willa Cather than about Thoreau. He often proclaimed the greatness of Emerson, without really being able to establish it through convincing critical argument.
Among contemporary writers, Kazin vastly overrated Norman Mailer. He got off the Saul Bellow bandwagon when Bellow’s political tendencies became conservative. Hannah Arendt was for him the intellectual equivalent of a goddess who could do no wrong, despite her heartless performance in Eichmann in Jerusalem, which he—elsewhere so publicly sensitive about the plight of Jews in the Holocaust—seems largely to have overlooked. She, he writes, “in her imperious yecke [Yiddish for German Jew] way is one of the just.” Sidney Hook once told me that so many of the New York intellectuals fell for Arendt chiefly because of the impressive armory of her Germanic classical learning. “But about almost everything important,” Hook added, “she was wrong.”
The writers Kazin most strongly admired were William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Simone Weil and Jean-Paul Sartre, advocates of life intensely lived but with an emphatically preacherly vein added. Kazin resembled them all in never being in doubt about his own superior rectitude. He thought himself an American Orwell, his heart always in the right place and keen to take up a position in what used to be known as “the third camp,” scorning, that is, Communists and anti-Communists alike. “I have never recovered from the thirties or wanted to,” he wrote in Writing Was Everything. “A son of the immigrant working class whose parents were tortured by poverty, I hardly needed the depression to be suspicious of moneyed power, or to see that in this society money is the first measure of all things and the only measure of many—or to learn for myself that there is no way in America of being honorably poor.”
Kazin preferred to think himself a writer rather than a critic. But in his noncritical writing, without a book or author to intervene between him and the reader, his personality comes through and putrefies everything with his self-righteous sourness. Like Emerson and Thoreau, he was a blatantly self-approving writer, and the strong element of confidence about his own virtue spoils much of what he wrote apart from his criticism, including his autobiographies.
The first of these, A Walker in the City, which in his Journals he refers to as “my Walker poem” and “a fable of youth, sweetness, and search,” today feels overwrought, overwritten, straining for lyricism: “Somewhere below they were roasting coffee, handling spices—the odor was in the pillars, in the battered wooden planks of the promenade beneath my feet, in the blackness upwelling from the river.” Lots of such passages occur in a book that often reads as if written by Walt Whitman bloated on matzah brei. The other two volumes of Kazin’s autobiography are blighted by Kazin’s need to score off enemies, left and right, real and imagined. Remove these portions about his enemies and the books go up in smoke.
One couldn’t win with Kazin. The poverty of the Jews was horrible, but Jewish prosperity is vulgar. Communism was a dream gone wrong, a nightmare, but anti-Communism was crude and anti-Communists usually self-serving. America was once the great hope but its craze for power drained it of its original inspiration: its behavior in Vietnam he at one point compares to that of the Germans at Auschwitz and the Russians in the Gulag. As for Israel, between “1943–1982, the 40 years that I lived entirely with the Holocaust…ended for me with Begin, Sharon, Shamir, and the war in Lebanon.” In his Journals he writes: “As a state [the Jews] can only misuse, exploit, and even kill this mission” of being a chosen people destined “to teach all around them the inexpugnable memory of the given source from which our lives come.” He wanted a secure academic post but didn’t want to be considered an academic. Late in life he buys a house in Roxbury, Connecticut, and is put off by his wealthy neighbors.
“I am unappeased and unappeasable,” Kazin writes in his Journals. “I am dissatisfied, profoundly so, with the world,” he wrote elsewhere. “But I would be dissatisfied with any world. And I’d hate to lose my dissatisfaction.” He never did. “I will not be satisfied by the mediocrity all around me,” he notes. He must have thought such relentless discontent evidence of his high moral standard, a standard that lent him a certain grandeur, when it merely made him seem stiff-necked and self-congratulatory.
Toward the end of his life, Kazin wrote: “The fact is that the journals scare even me when I look them over—so much longing, so much resentment, so many names to worry about even if they don’t sue me for libel: Hah Hah…” He also writes: “Why, sitting on the can, do I suddenly weep?” Yes, why so much weeping, anger, envy? What was it all about, Alfie?
Alfred Kazin’s Journals does not tell us what he finally made of his life. Surely he would have preferred a career closer to that of Edmund Wilson or, even though he consistently denigrated it, that of Lionel Trilling: a career imbued with more dignity, self-control, honor, a sense of lasting achievement. But Kazin was too anxious and too angry, too often out of control, to bring it off. He blamed his anxiety on his mother, but his anger was his own. He was a man perpetually ticked off, a walking wound in search of a saltshaker. He genuinely believed that anyone who didn’t agree with him could have only the lowest possible motives for not doing so.
But agree about what, exactly? That power in and of itself is bad; that America, begun in promise, is now corrupt beyond all redemption; that Israel has forfeited its moral authority by taking steps to protect itself; that, finally, no one was as penetrating, soulful, sensitive, and virtuous as Alfred Kazin? That’s a lot to have to agree with, and the publication of Alfred Kazin’s Journals makes it impossible ever to do so.