Commentary Magazine

Contemporaries, by Alfred Kazin

Alfred Kazin, Essayist

by Alfred Kazin.
Little, Brown. 509 pp. $7.50.

I must first of all take up an unwarranted and, I think, malicious attack on Alfred Kazin’s new book of essays, Contemporaries. The attack, appearing in the guise of a book review in the New Republic (July 30, 1962) was made by Joseph Heller, author of the popular and, I am told, interesting novel, Catch-22.

Mr. Heller is wrongheaded; he is also cowardly, as can be seen from his first two sentences:

To read Alfred Kazin’s collection of essays, Contemporaries, is to come away with the impression of a man who hates literature and loathes his life’s work.

This impression, while possibly not entirely true, is certainly not entirely false.

Here Mr. Heller has totally condemned Mr. Kazin and then added the qualification that his total condemnation is possibly not entirely true or justified. To my way of thinking, if one is violent enough to call another man a faker, one should not go back on one’s own epithet. It is cowardly to take back half the charge after having enjoyed making it fully.

What Mr. Heller has to say against this volume of Mr. Kazin’s recent critical pieces amounts, as far as I can see, to little more than a certain disagreement with Mr. Kazin’s estimate of some contemporary writers: Salinger, Bellow, Roth, and Norman Mailer in particular. Now if Mr. Heller likes these writers more than Mr. Kazin does, it does not follow that the latter likes literature less than Mr. Heller does. And the notion that this follows seems to be the only ground for Mr. Heller’s attack.

What Mr. Heller simply has not understood about the practice of literary criticism is this: critics almost invariably—Mr. Kazin is no exception—have a certain vested interest in the value of the works they deal with, and are more inclined to overrate than underrate them. The critic knows that a literary piece cannot have more value than the work it is about; the great instances of literary criticism were not devoted to insignificant works. Criticism, when important, is positive. Surely one of the reasons Mr. Kazin’s pieces on Moby Dick and Light in August are so superior to anything else in Contemporaries is that the works dealt with in them are so vastly superior to any others Mr. Kazin deals with in his book. I do not believe that the very greatest literary critic of all time would be capable of writing as fine an essay on Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park, let us say, as Mr. Kazin has written on Faulkner’s Light in August.

Mr. Heller’s objections to Mr. Kazin’s book are wrongheaded and foolish, but I must confess to a certain dissatisfaction of my own with it. Everything Mr. Heller says is wrong: Mr. Kazin is devoted to literature, in fact he loves it, and he is fair-minded and even magnanimous in his judgments, most of which seem to me to be correct. As a matter of fact, he comes off rather better on this score than Edmund Wilson, whom he reveres, for Wilson has been guilty of a fair number of very wrong judgments, some of which can even be called howlers. Now I admire Wilson greatly: from which it will be seen that I do not consider the function of criticism to be “right” evaluation, or “right” judgment, of literary works. Curiously enough, the notion that such evaluation is terribly important is shared both by Mr. Heller and by Mr. Kazin.

So far as I am concerned, Mr. Kazin has made right judgments of the books he treats in Contemporaries. But to say that is to say only that I have made pretty much the same judgments myself. The “right” evaluation is precisely the evaluation you have made or are capable of making. But that Mr. Kazin is capable of something far beyond “right” judgments or “right” evaluations is shown by his essays on Moby Dick and Light in August. Both essays are beyond praise, as fine as anything in American criticism.



In these two essays Mr. Kazin does not evaluate or judge the novels he is concerned with, he does not appraise them at all; what he does is something to my mind far more interesting and far more objective: he expresses the way in which he prizes them.

John Dewey distinguished between prizing and appraising, holding that the former was the subjective aspect of judgment, the latter the more objective. I want to suggest that in aesthetic matters there is an important sense in which the very contrary is the case: in the act of prizing the critic looks directly at the object, in the act of appraising he has to look at many other objects. Some people talk and write nowadays as if the main purpose of a literary work were for it to be “properly” evaluated. Now, I should say, its main purpose is to make the reader prize something, and the critic who prizes the work and can indicate that he does so as excellently as Mr. Kazin can, aids the purpose of the work, instead of setting up another purpose—his own—to properly evaluate it. There is far too much of this sort of thing being done now, mainly by critics less sensible and less sensitive than Mr. Kazin. He can do better things, but he does what they do, too. And when he writes of Leslie Fiedler, of The Deer Park, of Goodbye, Columbus, and the essays of James Baldwin, the best he gives us are the always intelligent, well-informed, chatty, and I think finally flat judgments with which Contemporaries abounds.

When, for example, Mr. Kazin poses the question: “How good is Norman Mailer?”—a question Mr. Kazin in fact does not answer, and which evidently he himself does not consider worth answering—one wonders why he brought the matter up at all, and I can find no reason other than the aim of being talky about Mr. Mailer, about whom people happen to be talking. What is striking, though, about this particular effort of Mr. Kazin, is that while it does not lead to any real evaluation, evaluation is precisely what it seems to aim at. As if the critic has to pretend to be a judge, even when he wants to be a gossip. But maybe Mr. Kazin, in this piece, has hit on a new rhetorical device and in the future, instead of saying: “So-and-so is so good,” critics, when they want to gossip, will ask, “How good is so-and-so?”

Evidently Mr. Kazin does not disdain to be gossipy since he prides himself on his knowledge of life as well as of literature, and on his ability to place contemporary literary works in their appropriate social contexts as well as in the hierarchy of literature. And in Contemporaries, presumably devoted to the judgment of literary works, there are a great many descriptions of what is now going on in society; in such descriptions, Mr. Kazin exhibits an alertness and an intelligence just as acute as he shows in his examination of novels, poems, and essays. Or so it would seem from his comments on the attitudes of college students toward contemporary literature, his interesting report of the effect of American audiences on Dylan Thomas, his reactions to literary milieus in Germany, Russia, and Israel, and his ironic assessment of how the boldest literary works of two or three generations ago are rendered innocuous classics in the literary courses now given in our colleges. The presence in Mr. Kazin’s book of so many descriptions of social processes seems to indicate a conviction on his part that by being alert and responsive to changes in society the literary critic puts himself in the best position to understand and judge important changes in literary sensibility.

I like Mr. Kazin’s feeling that literature is related to life and that its relation to life should be shown in criticism. What I disagree with is his assumption that criticism is enabled to show the relation of literature to life by situating itself somewhere between the two and by alternately looking first at one and then the other. It seems to me that such looking is also a looking away from, and also a way of not looking very intensely. The curious attractiveness to a critic of such glancing from life to literature is, once again, that it enables him to interest himself in works which are not really interesting. Life is interesting even when looked at casually. Literature is interesting only when seen with intensity.

Now when Mr. Kazin touches on a real historical figure, of more than casual importance, and one difficult to judge, his alertness to and interest in social facts do not help him at all. What I have in mind is Mr. Kazin’s judgment of the career and character of Leon Trotsky. On the subject of Trotsky Mr. Kazin exhibits a harshness, intemperateness, and insensitivity which he does not show at all in responding to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab. And this is all the more striking to me since everything Mr. Kazin has to say against Trotsky could be said with equal or greater force against Melville’s hero. Surely, the only superiority the latter could be said to have to the Bolshevik leader is to have appeared in a work of fiction rather than in a revolution. Mr. Kazin’s assessment of Trotsky tells me mainly that Mr. Kazin is not deeply interested in Trotsky, as he is in Ahab, but I think Mr. Kazin would have been interested in Trotsky, and moved to a fine appreciation of his destiny, had the Bolshevik been a character in a novel by Melville, or by any other writer of like stature.

Georg Lukÿcs contrasted the thinker with the essayist, meaning by the essayist the literary critic. According to Lukÿcs the thinker is one who, looking directly at life, is able to have a feeling of human destiny; the essayist is one who is incapable of such feeling except when looking at some great character in a literary work. Seeing Lear, Hamlet, Phaedra, Ahab, the essayist can observe the workings of human destiny. The great writer has his own vision. To have his own vision, the literary essayist needs the vision of the great writer.

If Mr. Kazin in this volume is mainly a reviewer of current works rather than a literary essayist, this is of course due to the kind of books he has set himself to treat. In saying this, I certainly do not mean to disparage all the writers, other than Melville and Faulkner, discussed in Contemporaries. The best of our current writers, to my mind, are Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Robert Lowell; they are curiously like Mr. Kazin himself: critical and reflective, writing from consciousness rather than from vision—a more serious matter, this, for the creative writer than for the critic. I should add that, of the three writers I have mentioned, Saul Bellow is the one most keenly aware of how subjective real reflection can be. Personally, I much prefer Bellow, Roth, and Lowell to peddlers of false visions like Salinger and Mailer, and also to Bernard Malamud, witness to an intense and absorbing, but I think finally very tiny, vision. Moreover, lack of vision need not be fatal to creation if consciousness of that lack is pushed far enough. Perhaps in creation, though not in criticism, the act of appraising, carried to its farthest limit, can even become a form of prizing. Robert Musil in the novel, Mallarmé in poetry, are proof that this can happen. Mr. Kazin is deeply sympathetic to Bellow, Roth, and Lowell—they cannot help him, but he is aware of their problems; he knows it is from thorough facing up to problems of the kind they feel that their most important work may come. They must somehow get the equivalent of vision out of their own experience, riddled with criticisms. Mr. Kazin is more fortunate: he has only to put aside the books he regularly appraises and address himself to some work he prizes thoroughly in order to become what I think he is essentially—a literary essayist in the most authentic sense of that term.



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