Commentary Magazine


Alfred Kazin’s America ed. by Ted Solotaroff

Alfred Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings
edited and introduced by Ted Solotaroff
HarperCollins. 542 pp. $29.95

Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) was a New York intellectual—part cultural historian, part literary critic, part memoirist—who identified less with this or that coterie than with our national culture in toto. As a cultural historian, he made his precocious debut at age twenty-seven with On Native Grounds, a brilliant study of American prose from 1890 to 1940. As a literary critic, he measured the work of his contemporaries, running in his day from the novelists William Faulkner and Graham Greene to the poets Robert Lowell and James Wright. As a memoirist—Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1962), New York Jew (1978)—he wrote passages evocative of an era, a city, and a set of people, Jews and Gentiles alike, that have remained eminently readable.

Kazin contributed many essays and autobiographical studies to these pages, from the earliest issues in 1945 through the mid-1970′s. From the late 30′s on, his name was rarely absent from magazines such as the New Republic, the Reporter, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, or the New York Times Book Review. It is fair to say that after 1945, when Kazin, his reputation already made by On Native Grounds, returned from working as a journalist in England, he became, by dint of talent, energy, and desire, one of a handful of acknowledged arbiters of critical judgment in America—challenging though never surpassing the preeminence of Lionel Trilling, his senior by ten years, on a par with Irving Howe, his near-contemporary, and uncatchable by younger rivals like Susan Sontag. On Native Grounds, in any event, has remained, along with a handful of works by D. H. Lawrence, Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, and Leslie Fiedler, an irreplaceable book in American literary studies.

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Those who are unfamiliar with Kazin, or who miss him, can now turn to this new collection with its generous offerings from the three memoirs, from On Native Grounds, from the follow-up Bright Book of Life (1973), which covers writers from Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer, and from An American Procession (1984), largely about American Renaissance and post-Civil War writers (Ralph Waldo Emerson to Stephen Crane). There are also assorted pieces, several reprinted for the first time, on 20th-century formidables such as Ezra Pound, Hannah Arendt, and Edmund Wilson.

The editor, Ted Solotaroff, introduces Kazin in a way that occasionally omits data any reader would want to have (Kazin’s dates, fuller identification of people casually mentioned) and expatiates too much on European figures who are not really relevant to this collection of Americana. But Solotaroff does offer the lineaments of a biography and a ranking of Kazin’s output, rightly judging that the later writings—especially An American Procession and God and the American Writer (1988)—were much less on-point than what had come before. Solotaroff blames this falling-off on the mood of “the early Reagan years, which Kazin regarded as the rock bottom of American politics,” leaving him feeling “woeful/cynical” like Henry Adams rather than democratic/progressive like Walt Whitman.

Whether or not this judgment is correct, a pumped-up Whitmanic optimism—a sense of America’s people, joined together in free pursuit of happiness and given voice by their novelists and poets—does indeed imbue Kazin’s amazing first book. I have always been moved by the story of its research and composition—the graduate of City College, the sometime reviewer for the New Republic, working between 1938 and 1941 in the main reading room of the New York Public Library and managing, through communion with the spirits of “all the birds [that] began to sing” during the early decades of the 20th century, to pick up an emotional as well as intellectual experience that belied his tender years.

What is the style of Kazin’s critical writing in On Native Grounds? For starters, it is a style extremely inward with, not to say trapped inside, its subject: if you have not read, for example, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence, or The House of Mirth, or if you are not already familiar with her education, marriage, friendships, and social milieu, you cannot expect much help from Kazin, who provides no plot summaries and is highly allusive with regard to lives and times. What you do get from him is something else, arguably as valuable. So skilled a portraitist is Kazin that whatever writer happens to be “sitting” for him becomes a veritable presence, a human being tense with ideas and passions, informed by experience and overflowing with stories reflective of it—in other words, someone you want to read, who has something to say not only to you but even about you as an American.

The same quality distinguishes most of his later histories as well. Better than Trilling, who temperamentally was drawn more to London and Paris than to Omaha or Milwaukee, Kazin mentally occupied the middle of the American continent through the novels of Sinclair Lewis, Hamlin Garland, Willa Cather, et al., just as he occupied New England and New York through Wharton and Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bernard Malamud, or the South through Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. His writings on American literature constitute a series of love arias to the American idea as he apprehended it—a celebration of how the New World afforded people the chance to become what their talents and energies were capable of, regardless of birth. That idea could be realized only gradually, over many generations, and it was Kazin’s purpose to trace the literary record of its realization.

Of course, some writers are better suited to Kazin’s characteristic afflatus than others. In On Native Grounds, his prose soars in the company of transcendentalists or socialists enthusiastic for New World possibilities, but sobers up considerably when accompanying a realist or naturalist disillusioned with the timetable for liberty’s victory or skeptical of any victory at all. Since the best late-19th- and early-20th-century writers were generally disillusioned, Kazin faced (and did not always rise to) a stiff challenge balancing them against the socialists whom he sentimentally favored.

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The key word is sentimental. We meet the adolescent Kazin, reading in his mother’s Brownsville kitchen, absorbing his father’s ardent socialism, walking the city streets in search of direct experience, in the autobiographical passages from Walker in the City that adorn this new collection. Those passages can be plaintive in the extreme (“Papa, where are they taking me? Where in this beyond are they taking me?” he asks about the journey over Brooklyn Bridge), and, in piling up the sights, sounds, smells, and textures of his boyhood, the writing is never less than self-consciously poignant. Reading a passage from Walker in the City about the young Kazin’s crush on Jesus (“Yeshua”), we may feel as Oscar Wilde did in another context—that one has to have a heart of stone not to laugh:

O altitudo!, the journey into that other land of flax, of summer, eternal summer, through which he had walked, wrapped in a blue-and-white prayer shawl, and, still looking back at me with the heartbreaking smile of recognition from a fellow Jew [etc., etc.]. . .

I had known him instantly. Surely I had been waiting for him all my life—our own Yeshua, misunderstood by his own, like me, but the very embodiment of everything I had waited so long to hear from a Jew—a great contempt for the minute daily business of the world; a deep and joyful turning back into our own spirit.

And so, ecstatically, on—and very off.

This faux-religious enthusiasm—which Kazin qua fledgling socialist linked with a “furious old Jewish impatience with Success, with comfort, with eating, with the rich, with the whole shabby superficial fashionable world itself”—was not only reductive Judaism but a badly controlled romanticism. It both inflated and severely narrowed Kazin’s political philosophy all his life. In the 30′s, he followed left-wing anti-Stalinists like Norman Thomas and Max Eastman, partly because they were handsome bon vivants, partly because they made Marxism seem like a social application of good old American pragmatism.

As an observer, admittedly, he was capable of noticing that there were alternatives. Among the various characters who surrounded him in his young manhood, and about whom he writes in Starting Out in the Thirties, there was a

horribly experienced Polish veteran of the revolutionary wars, a kindly but despairing expert on all socialists and socialisms. . . . He had been through it all—the easy idealism of socialist students, the militancy of the Syndicalists, the world-shaking mystique of the Communists just after 1917—and he could never again trust politicians of any stripe. Power corrupted everyone, and perhaps no one so much as the administrators, experts, professionals, intellectuals, who sought dictatorial powers over the working class in the name of their emancipation from capitalism.

This is a fine moment, in which Kazin’s literary talent works like a novelist’s. In this unnamed Pole, I see someone from whom Kazin might have learned something—namely, a species of liberalism that, by the 70′s, would become neoconservatism. But he did not learn: in the 80′s he dismissed the neoconservatives as “all rightniks” who, betraying his vision of the Yeshua-socialist tradition, were bowing to the bitch-goddess “Success” and selling out to Ronald Reagan.

Well, this too has been a corner of America. If Kazin was unable to learn from the one seriously disenchanted person he found amid the socialist tribe in the 30′s, it was not entirely fatal to his writing as a historian. When one reads him at his appreciating best, especially in On Native Grounds, one may notice that he is much better at replicating than at assessing the American cacophony—all that Whitmanic enthusiasm colliding with all that Dreiserian realism—but somehow it does not matter. He has learned all the birds’ songs, and he makes you want to hum along.

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About the Author

Thomas L. Jeffers is the editor of The Norman Podhoretz Reader, to be published by the Free Press this month.