Commentary Magazine


An American Procession, by Alfred Kazin

Getting Things Wrong

An American Procession.
by Alfred Kazin.
Knopf. 408 pp. $18.95.

The major key to his native city, said Henry James, was the monstrous labyrinth stretching from Canal Street to the Battery, the “down-town” world of business and finance, but as he acknowledged in the preface to the New York Edition of Daisy Miller, Pandora, The Patagonia, and Other Tales, the task of exploring lower Manhattan literarily was one for which he was in the last degree unprepared and uneducated. Although the “uptown” world of the music masters, French pastry cooks, ladies, and children lacked a serious male interest, James settled for it as a writer because the territory was familiar to him. “What it came down to was that up-town would do for me simply what up-town could.”

The Daisy Miller preface is famous, not only because it is as poignant a confession as James ever made about the limitations of his artistic powers, but because it calls attention to American fiction’s historic neglect of business, politics, and the professions. Not surprisingly, Alfred Kazin makes reference to the preface in his new study of the major American writers from 1830 to 1930. Nor is it surprising that Kazin makes a botch of the reference. “If he [James] worried that his experience even of New York life was ‘downtown’ with the ‘pastry cooks,’ never uptown in the business world, it was because he wanted to succeed in a ‘big’ American way.” Kazin may be a self-confessed “walker in the city” and “New York Jew,” but he clearly could use a street guide to the whereabouts of Wall Street. As for his explanation of why James was worried about his insufficient knowledge of New York, what can one say other than that it is grossly reductive?

Kazin’s penchant for getting things wrong goes back a long way. On Native Grounds (1942), a study of modern American prose literature from 1890 to 1940, contained many wonderfully fresh assessments. Yet the haste with which it was written led the incredibly young author—Kazin was only twenty-seven in 1942—to make all sorts of mistakes; one thinks, for instance, of his description of the “mountainous” section of Michigan (actual elevation: one thousand feet above sea level) where Hemingway spent his summers as a boy. An American Procession is a slightly shorter work than On Native Grounds, but its scope is far more ambitious. Not only does Kazin cover twice as long a time span as in the earlier book, but he takes up, one after the other, eighteen imaginative writers of very considerable complexity, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville to T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway, plus a philosopher, William James, and a politician Abraham Lincoln, neither of whom is easy to know, and makes glancing remarks about a number of figures from other walks of life, such as the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. In these circumstances, Kazin’s proneness to error has become much more pronounced than ever before.

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Time and again, Kazin gives evidence of not having bothered to reread the books he is talking about, of not having kept abreast of the steadily accumulating biographical literature about their authors, of having made only a lick-and-a-promise effort to absorb the social, cultural, and intellectual historiography on which his sort of literary analysis has to be based if it is to be any good, of not having even troubled to consult reference works. T.S. Eliot saluted James Joyce’s Ulysses, says Kazin, in April 1921, and he duly quotes a couple of sentences from the review. Alas, Ulysses wasn’t published until February 1922, and Eliot’s review appeared in the Dial in November 1923. The frightening figure of Injun Joe having somehow slipped his mind, Kazin argues that “in Tom Sawyer children and adults lived in parallel worlds without menacing each other.” In Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” the feckless critic continues, “the suffering mind of the war veteran Nick Adams seeks an accustomed sense of familiarity from the stream he fished before the war.” Not only is the subject of war never mentioned in the story, but there is no indication that Nick has previously fished this stream; indeed, the fact that he is carrying a map suggests that he is as unfamiliar with the region as Hemingway was with the area around the Big Fox and Little Fox Rivers when he first visited it in the summer of 1919 and had the experiences on which the story is based. Apropos of Henry James’s international-theme novel, The Portrait of a Lady, Kazin remarks that “Isabel is vaguely unsettled by the sight of Madame Merle standing while Gilbert is all too comfortably seated. She has no reason to suspect that they are anything but ‘friends.’ Between friends, this would have been a breach of manners in Boston. In Boston the sight would not have weighed so heavily on our heroine’s mind.” That the final sentence does not follow logically from the one before it is somewhat unfortunate, but what is far more unfortunate is Kazin’s apparent belief that Isabel grew up in Boston, even though the memorable third chapter of the novel is devoted to her girlhood in Albany, New York.

Kazin’s mistakes about William Dean Howells begin with his misinforming us about the year of Howells’s birth. He then goes on to say that Howells always managed to “retain the benevolence of the Brahmins,” despite the well-known estimate by Hamlin Garland that by the mid-1880’s literary Boston was divided into three parts, “those who liked [Howells] and read him; those who read him and hated him; and those who just plain hated him.” Frederick Law Olmsted, according to Kazin, was “the creator of the first public parks in America” and “the most practical of democratic visionaries.” Both statements betray an impressive ignorance of the history of American landscape architecture, the first because it overlooks the efforts of Andrew Jackson Downing to turn the Mall in Washington, D.C. into “the first real park in America,” as well as the campaign by Walt Whitman and others to establish Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and the second because it takes no cognizance either of the elitist disdain for the tastes of the common man that Olmsted and Vaux built into their plans for Central Park, or of Olmsted’s turn-of-the-century despair about American life, for reasons that can only be described as racist. Returning once again to the subject of Hemingway, Kazin declares, “Hemingway knew that he owed everything to Cézanne, Gertrude Stein—and Huckleberry Finn.” But Hemingway never came close to saying any such thing and he would have been crazy if he had, nor did he “irritate Dos Passos into conservatism,” as Kazin insists at another point.

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A lack of professional self-discipline is also reflected in Kazin’s prose style. An American Procession is a very sloppily written book. At times, its self-indulgent sentences are so awkwardly constructed that it is all but impossible to decipher their meaning. “This now legendary sense of self in America,” Kazin writes in his preface, “is a principal character in my narrative, along with the hopes of a ‘free man’s worship’ that came with it, before the aggressive and ever more concentrated forces assimilated the sense of self into capitalism as a theology.” Does Kazin mean to say that the sense of self ceases to be a principal character in his book at the historical point at which it was assimilated into a capitalist theology? No, that can’t be the case, for as late as page 389 he is still talking about the “precious sense of self that was one’s whole life and every resource,” and he leaves no doubt that the self-consciousness of such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway had nothing whatsoever to do with a capitalist theology, whatever that is, or with “aggressive and ever more concentrated forces,” whatever they may be.

Equally baffling is Kazin’s assertion that “Even as he approached eighty [Henry] Adams had a special grasp of the old century’s struggles among the European powers, a grasp that after he took us into the war those struggles led to, Adams’s fellow historian Wood-row Wilson was the last to admit.” A century can’t struggle, of course, but that is the least of this sentence’s problems. If we pay heed to the grammar, then we can only conclude that Kazin is accusing Woodrow Wilson of being the last (the last what?) to admit that Henry Adams had a special grasp of the struggles among the powers in 19th-century Europe. Wilson, however, never commented on Adams’s grasp of those struggles, so perhaps Kazin is ungrammatically—and quite incoherently—contending that after he took us into the war Wilson was the last something or other to admit something or other having to do with Adams’s understanding of international politics. As to what Adams’s understanding consisted of, Kazin equates it with Randolph Bourne’s aphorism, “War is the health of the state.” Yet if Adams in effect agreed with Bourne, then why did Wilson’s decision to ask Congress for a declaration of war against Germany give the old pessimist so much pleasure and raise his hopes about the future? “To my bewilderment,” Adams explained to his friend Charles Gaskell, “I find the great object of my life thus accomplished in the building up of the great community of Atlantic Powers which I hope will make a precedent that can never be forgotten. . . . Strange it is that we should have done it by means of inducing those blockheads of Germans to kick us into it. I think that I can now contemplate the total ruin of our old world with more philosophy than I ever thought possible.” Syntactically, some of Kazin’s sentences may be too complicated, but their ideas are simplistic.

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A number of the chapters in An American Procession were developed, Kazin says, out of reviews, essays, and introductions that he has written over the years. This piecemeal method of composition is evident in a certain repetitiousness in the book—we are told three times, for example, that Dreiser’s mother was raised as a Mennonite—and in the disparate nature of its analyses. Unlike V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, An American Procession has no grand conceptual scheme. If there is anything that holds the book together, it is the author’s intense emotions—his vision of the 20th century as an endless chain of horrors, his hatred of capitalism, his contempt for American society. Thus, when he suggests that one reason for Thoreau’s untimely death, during the Civil War, may have been “his inability to reconcile his romantic genius with American power,” and goes on to make similar allegations about what the Civil War did to Hawthorne and Walt Whitman, he is not saying something that anyone with a respect for evidence could take seriously; rather, he is implying that from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan, a war-loving America has been killing sensitive writers. Similarly, in characterizing Hemingway’s home town, Oak Park, Illinois, as a “suffocatingly proper suburb,” he is not making a balanced historical judgment about the community in which Frank Lloyd Wright elected to live and work for twenty years, he is simply expressing an a-priori conviction that American suburbs, every last one of them, are enemies of the human spirit.

James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams are among the writers who have not been allowed to march in Kazin’s parade, and Howells is briefly examined only in order to be dismissed. Any writer, in other words, who would threaten Kazin’s notion that sensitive Americans are all in flight from their country has either been barred from consideration or derided. Henry Adams, on the other hand, not only heads the parade but reappears in it time and again, so that Kazin may echo his nay-saying.

Yet finally even The Education of Henry Adams (1918) is not sufficiently negative to suit Kazin. “Long before he wrote the last sentence of the Education,” Kazin says, “Adams knew that if he and his like returned to the 20th century they would not ‘find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.’” But the last sentence of the Education does hold out precisely the hope that Adams and his friends would find such a world: “Perhaps someday—say 1938, their centenary—they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.” In misrepresenting his own hero’s true sentiments, Kazin reveals once again that An American Procession is not so much a book about America’s literary achievements as it is Alfred Kazin’s sour spiritual testament.

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