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The Education of Alfred Kazin

- Abstract

THERE is something hauntingly American about the career of Alfred Kazin. A young man from the provinces (for the Brownsville section of Brooklyn could be that, as much as any one-horse town in Ohio or Mississippi), he launched himself as a writer with that terrific energy of will and ambition which so often has been elicited by the fiercely competitive, ultimately lonely nature of intellectual life in this country. His first book, On Native Grounds (1942), is very much a critic’s equivalent of the Great American Novel with which so many writers of fiction have sought to make their debut-the big book that could take in the whole sprawling panorama of the country, capturing its vast secret life, and that could eclipse all literary rivals in the bold authority of the writer’s comprehensive vision.

Lionel Trilling, greeting On Native Grounds in a review in the Nation with somewhat grudging praise-Kazin would later misremember it as a “very warm” reception-observed that “The typical fate of the American writer is to burst forth with the perception of a moment, impress it on us, and die.” Trilling was of course referring to the writers discussed by Kazin, but, in retrospect, the statement has a certain ironic applicability to the author of On Native Grounds as well. Early literary mortality has certainly not proved part of his fate: in the three-and-a-half decades since the publication of On Native Grounds, Kazin in fact has been a steadily active and often salutary presence in American criticism. Yet there is a sense in which the great meteor glare of this first book faded into a kind of diffuse luminescence, occasionally offering moments of illumination in the long series of reviews and essays and in the three autobiographical volumes he would write, but never equaling that initial revelatory intensity.

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