Commentary Magazine

The Education of Alfred Kazin

Criticism is essentially speculative discourse concerned with ideas and values of life. The better the critic, the more he will contribute to our understanding of life in general; but he must do this in the critic’s own way, solidly commenting on the text before him.

Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries

Truth in autobiography is not merely fidelity to fact or conformity to “likeness,” to the way one appears to others, but rather the projection of a story of successive self-images and recognitions or distortions of those self-images by the world; it is the story of identity as the tension between self-image and social recognition.

Stephen A. Shapiro, “The Dark Continent of Literature: Autobiography”

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.

In order to set this last remark in perspective, let me stress that On Native Grounds is an astounding book for any critic to have written between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-seven. A massive critical history of major American prose writers—including social commentators, historians, and critics as well as novelists—from the 1890’s to the end of the 1930’s, it embodies a wealth of intelligently assimilated reading that would have taken many assiduous scholars half a lifetime to acquire. Kazin’s own writing in the book is vivid, repeatedly resourceful, at its best eloquent, and as he calls up writer after writer in this long, patient procession, he exercises a steady, often shrewd power of judgment that one might easily associate with someone twice the age he was at the time of writing.

At the beginning of his latest autobiographical volume,1 Kazin provides a graphic evocation of his five years of labor over On Native Grounds. Day after day, he would make his way to Room 315 of the New York Public Library and, with a quiet sense of self-possession and even of exhilaration, he would for hours on end work through the yellowing pages of long defunct journals and obscure literary productions that put him in touch with America as it was when his immigrant parents first reached these shores. “I was my own staff researcher, a totally unaffiliated free lance and occasional evening college instructor who was educating himself in the mind of America by writing, in the middle of the Great Depression, a wildly ambitious literary and intellectual history.” This enormous self-imposed effort, he notes with candor, gave him access in a double sense to the America which had seemed so much beyond him on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, during his Brownsville boyhood. By acquiring a sure control of three continuous generations of American literary culture, he was taking possession, in a disciplined act of the imagination, of the America that had till then eluded him; and by shaping a first big book in this imposing public edifice, itself erected early in the period he was studying, he was palpably entering into a sphere of high culture and upward mobility which he had barely glimpsed from the tenement windows of his childhood. “Even the spacious twin reading rooms, each two blocks long, gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers.”

On Native Grounds resoundingly realized both the intrinsic intellectual aims and the career aspirations of its author. The book was remarkably successful, in ways I shall try to characterize in a moment, in capturing the mind of America as it was reflected in half a century of serious prose writers. At the same time, the single decisive gesture of producing this book made Kazin virtually overnight an authoritative voice in American criticism. Proposals from publishers, teaching positions, fellowships, invitations to lecture at home and abroad, easy social access to the leading figures of cultural life—all the “powerful amenity” he had craved—flowed steadily in the course of time from this first extraordinary achievement. The corridors of success were open in every direction; Kazin’s chief problem was where to go as a writer after having started at such a point of culmination.



On Native Grounds is subtitled “An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature.” Though “interpretation” is applicable enough, the book is even more the story of modern Amercian prose literature. The two faculties most abundantly exercised are narrative and evaluative; their conjunction gives the book both dynamic movement and tensile strength as a record of the evolution of American writing from 1890 to 1940. The evaluative activity draws a special sharpness from the perspective brought by the writer as a young man from an immigrant neighborhood sitting in the splendid vastness of the 42nd Street library. “I still thought of myself then,” Kazin was to write of his own adolescence in A Walker in the City, “as standing outside America. I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past.” In On Native Grounds, that strange quest is in effect projected onto the American writer, or, to put it more fairly, becomes the means for acutely perceiving the special predicament of the American writer.

America is imagined as an enormous, evolving, protean, hateful, beloved, tantalizing subject which these writers in their varying ways pursue, assault, grapple with, but almost always finally fail to hold firmly in the embrace of their work. This was precisely the aspect of On Native Grounds with which Trilling took issue in his review, objecting to the repeated assessment of writers in terms of what they were not able to achieve. That tendency is occasionally responsible for an aberrant judgment, as in Kazin’s vehement attack on Faulkner (for a dozen pages the young critic inveighs against “the besetting and depressing looseness, the almost sick passivity, of [Faulkner’s] basic meaning and purpose”; within a few years, however, he would quietly withdraw from this position and become a celebrant of Faulkner’s genius). More frequently, the inclination to measure writers by the distance between their work and the social, historical, and moral realities they sought to engage enables him to combine a keen appreciation of recent American writing with a clear, steady overview of its deficiencies. That balance of perspective is often perceptible in a single well-turned phrase of summation, as in the characterization of The Great Gatsby as “moodiness at the pitch of genius.” It is even clearer in the paragraphs of assessment with which Kazin concludes his account of each writer. Here, for example, is his summing-up of the achievement and failure of Hemingway:

The “I” was the emblem of all the disillusionment and fierce pride in a world so brilliant in its sickness; and the sentences were so perfect, spanning the darkness. It did not matter then that art could be so fresh and brilliant, the life below its superb texture so arid and dark. For Hemingway’s is one of the great half-triumphs of literature; he proved himself the triumphal modern artist come to America, and within his range and means, one of the most interesting creators in the history of the American imagination. But . . . his work is a stationary half-triumph, because there is no real continuity in him, nothing of the essential greatness of spirit which his own artistic success has always called for. . . . It is a triumph in and of a narrow, local, and violent world—and never superior to it.

This judgment, we should remember, was made when Hemingway was in mid-career: its soundness would be amply confirmed by the inadvertently self-parodying books that Hemingway was to write in the long years of his decline. The strategy of the passage nicely illustrates where Kazin works best, and where he chooses not to work, as a critic. I have spoken of a dominant narrative faculty in On Native Grounds, but it is important to note that the leading edge of narration as he manages it is evocation. For writer after writer, he finds ways through the imaginative deployment of imagery and rhythm and mimetic diction in his own prose to evoke the felt qualities of life in the books he is discussing. The paragraphs preceding the one I have quoted brilliantly conjure up the characteristic stances and tonalities of Hemingway’s fiction (all of what Nabokov once tartly referred to in an interview as “bells, bulls, and balls”). The first two sentences of the excerpt, with their image of perfect prose spanning the darkness and their anaphoric repetition of the adverbial intensifier, “so,” continue this work of evocation. The rest of the excerpt is composed of a series of categorical judgments which are not really explained and yet escape seeming to have been made ex cathedra because one feels in them the weight of a mature sense of the responsibilities of art, of the seriousness of the relationship between art and reality. In the late 70’s, when the very notion of mimesis has become critically unfashionable in certain circles, such expectations of literature could strike some observers as old-fashioned and quaintly moralistic. But for that very reason, we may have more need than ever for the articulation of this stance by so intelligent a critic.



Now, there is one significant critical activity not evident in the passage, or in the book as a whole, and its absence may help explain a good deal about Kazin’s subsequent career. Between narration or evocation and evaluation there is no expository bridge of analysis. The author of On Native Grounds is a voracious reader and a highly sensitive one, but he has no technical tools for coping with works of fiction or with the medium of prose as complex formal entities. A major symptom of this lack is his total dismissal of the New Critics, whom he confuses entirely with their conservative Southern Agrarian ideology, and whom he sets at a dead level on the Right with the party-line Marxist critics on the Left. One may sympathize with his objections to the excesses of the New Critics and yet marvel at his failure to recognize that at their best they had opened new vistas on the richness and the intellectually demanding nature of poetic experience. It is instructive that, in contrast to his negative judgment of Faulkner, Kazin has never recanted on his rejection of the formalist critics, continuing to cast jibes at them over the years, apparently choosing to view all minute textual analysis as intrinsically arid and pedantic.

Of course, not every critic need be a formalist, but I think the moral and social critics like Trilling—his review of Kazin actually demurred from his vehement judgment of the New Critics—and Edmund Wilson, who were in part models for Kazin, evinced a subtler, more minutely attentive concern with literary form than he has, even if they only occasionally made that conem explicit in their explorations of the moral, psychological, political, and cultural issues raised by literary works. Form does not have to be the primary object of the critic’s attention, but it is a necessary object, for it is only in form that literature embodies its meanings, gives them substance and nuance and resonance different in kind from extra-literary discourse. Kazin has proposed that the critic’s role is to “contribute to our understanding of life in general,” to which he properly adds that this must be done “in the critic’s own way, solidly commenting on the text before him.” The limits of his own achievement as a critic, I would suggest, after the large and compelling literary-historical narrative he fashioned in On Native Grounds, are determined by the fact that he has had no adequate analytic vantage point for getting into those texts to be commented on.

For after the signal accomplishment of his first critical work, thirty-one years passed before Kazin wrote another book on literature. I would not consider his two collections of fugitive pieces, The Inmost Leaf (1955) and Contemporaries (1963), books in the proper sense, for both are miscellaneous assemblages, mostly of reviews, with some brief magazine articles and just a few substantial critical essays. (Again, the contrasting example of Trilling and Wilson makes the point clear. The Liberal Imagination and The Wound and the Bow are collections which are real books because each is composed of carefully meditated essays that, taken together, produce a central critical argument.) One thinks of the critical essay as the vehicle par excellence of the New York critic; but in all his years as a reviewer and occasional journalist, Kazin has produced only half a dozen or so literary pieces that even clearly belong to that category. Of these, perhaps three might be called memorable: his finely reflective placing of Blake in “An Introduction to William Blake” (1946), and his eloquent evocations of the solitude and terror in Melville and Faulkner, “Ishmael and Ahab” (1956) and “The Stillness of Light in August” (1957).

Kazin’s one attempt, moreover, to write another integrally conceived critical book, Bright Book of Life (1973), proved in most respects unfortunate. He may well have thought of this survey of American fiction since World War II as a kind of modest sequel to On Native Grounds, but unlike the earlier volume, it has no real focus—no story to tell—and not a great deal of evaluative perspective. As his rapid evocation of several dozen writers, rather arbitrarily grouped in topical chapters, rolls on, there are occasional moments of bright perception in the series of impressions and improvised ideas offered (as, for example, in his suggestive pages on Malamud), but there is much belaboring of the obvious, a certain degree of conceptual fuzziness, and no ultimately coherent definition of the large subject. Bright Book of Life is an attempt to write literary history with the reflexes of a reviewer, but without the sharpness of evaluative judgment that Kazin himself has so often exercised as a reviewer. Where the young man from Brownsville perched at his desk in Room 315 of the New York Public Library had somehow achieved an Olympian vision of the recent American literary past in its major continuities and directions, the seasoned critic could find no sufficient post of observation from which to encompass the confusion of realms that comprised the contemporary literary scene.

But if Kazin is a one-book critic, he is in many respects an ideal reviewer, and with his fund of literary and historical knowledge and his directness and clarity of style, he has been able to write comfortably for a spectrum of journals from the intellectual (New York Review of Books, COMMENTARY, Partisan Review), to the middlebrow (New York Times Book Review, Atlantic, Harper’s, New Republic, New Yorker, Esquire). Close analysis in any case has little place within the restricted compass of a review, while his skills of evocation and evaluation stand him in good stead. He brings to bear on the review of a new book a breadth of literary and intellectual culture never ostentatiously displayed, and a savvyness, an essential sanity, in his critical judgments, which in his best pieces is altogether bracing. To be sure, all of us who review frequently enough are bound sooner or later to make certain judgments that many will consider wildly off-the-mark, but, looking back over Kazin’s old reviews, I am impressed by how often he has proved perfectly right about an author, even when there was little of the writer’s work as yet to go on, or when the winds of literary fashion were whisking lighter-headed reviewers to very different conclusions.

At a moment when Lawrence Durrell was being widely celebrated as the legitimate heir to Proust and Joyce, Kazin was able to see that The Alexandria Quartet was no more than an alluring confection, and he could sum up the limited nature of Durrell’s gift with this beautiful precision: “Mr. Durrell seems to me fundamentally a writer concerned with pleasing his own imagination, not with making deeper contact with the world through his imagination, as Proust and Joyce did.” Reviewing Goodbye, Columbus, he admires Philip Roth as a fresh, bold talent but shrewdly perceives the potential for tendentiousness and grating schematism that would be realized with lamentable effects in Roth’s later career: “He has intelligence and courage aplenty; what he needs is more of the creative writer’s delight in life for its own sake, in figures that do not immediately signify a design.” The vivid review of Advertisements for Myself—“[Mailer] is as fond of his style as an Italian tenor of his vocal cords”—balances a recognition of Mailer’s imaginative power with an apprehension of where all his bravado might lead. The prescience of Kazin’s concluding sentence, which glimpses the disastrous trajectory of narcissism on which Mailer’s writing was to travel, flows not from any critical principle or technique but simply from a mature awareness of the vital conditions of good writing: “But what will become of him God only knows, for no one can calculate what so overintense a need to dominate, to succeed, to grasp, to win, may do to that side of talent which has its own rule of being and can never be forced.” Such sureness of judgment and amplitude of perception suggest that the major critic so clearly announced in On Native Grounds had not disappeared but instead had withdrawn his activity to the brevity and transience of a minor critical form.



Meanwhile, floundering around for several years after the appearance of his first book, Kazin discovered his subject toward the end of the 40’s in a direction he had not anticipated. His big book had dealt with the American culture he wanted to penetrate, in which he would realize himself. The subject of all his really sustained writing afterward was to be the story of the particular self that had crossed the distance, so small in space, so immense in the realm of values, between Brooklyn and the heights of Manhattan. A Walker in the City (1951) covers Kazin’s formative years until his graduation from high school. Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) traces the period of his literary apprenticeship in methodical chronological order till 1940. Now, New York Jew takes up the writer’s career at the point when he was completing On Native Grounds and, with a variety of temporal jumps and telescopings, follows it to the present. Autobiography by its nature involves mixed modes of writing, but one can observe certain broad differences in emphasis from volume to volume in Kazin’s trilogy: he is lyrical in A Walker in the City, more strictly narrative in Starting Out in the Thirties, and in New York Jew—in my view, the richest of the three books—more historical, reflective, even satirical.

A Walker in the City was rapidly acclaimed as a classic of American autobiography, but at a distance of a quarter of a century, I am led to suspect that at least some of its appeal during the 50’s can be attributed not to intrinsic virtues of the book but to its role as a document of the new American pluralism after the war and as an expression of the American Jewish intellectual’s newfound nostalgia for Jewish origins. Toward the end of that decade, Kazin would remark in a travel essay that the hopes stirred by America “can arise only from an identity of one’s own and a specific tradition sharp enough to arouse the possibility of its fulfillment in this country. Otherwise there is no spiritual marriage at all between America and its newcomers, and the great epic of immigration simply becomes a picture of the lesser breeds attached to the white Protestant majority.” A Walker in the City is very much a testimony to this principle, a record of such a spiritual marriage, as is, in analogous ways, Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, published just two years later. Interestingly, both books draw on Whitman, the great American rhapsodist, and both may be flawed, though in rather different ways, by a certain tendency to Whitmanesque lyric effusion. What Kazin does convey with great poignancy is the boy’s unfulfilled yearning for America, his self-conscious awkwardness with the very language of the country (painfully compounded by a speech defect) in the judgmental presence of his “proper American” schoolmistresses. The growing child’s relationship with his immigrant parents is also persuasively handled. If the figure of the virtuous boy, as Kazin himself observes in New York Jew, is something of “a manikin,” “a necessary fiction,” he does serve well enough as one fixed self-image that can be tested against the resistant medium of American reality, that can be maneuvered to get a special bearing on American reality.

What is odd and finally symptomatic about A Walker in the City is that its Jewish milieu, the very aspect of the book most often praised by its early reviewers, should be so vague and imprecise. Supposed snatches of liturgy are pastiches of imperfect memory and invention. Bearded Jews are picturesquely evoked “every day at twilight, wrapped in their black-striped prayer shawls,” though in fact Yom Kippur is the only day of the year when the prayer shawl is worn at twilight. The identifying Hebrew words for kosher meat painted in the windows of butcher shops, boser kosher (in the Yiddish pronunciation) are turned backward and slurred as Kosher-Bosher, apparently on the analogy of “hocus pocus,” and are unaccountably characterized as a “liturgical refrain.” The Master of the Universe Himself, the Ribonoshel-Olam, is deprived of His majestic initial syllable and garbled into Beneshalélem, a term which Kazin appears to derive from the Yiddish verb bentshn, rendering it as “Bless the Lord!” I am not proposing that an autobiographer has the obligations of factual precision that should govern a historian or a philologist, but I would suggest that there is something awry when the very culture in which the autobiographer purports to find his roots is imperfectly known and badly recalled.



After his great critical confrontation with the American tradition in On Native Grounds, Kazin would repeatedly affirm the importance of his Jewishness, often in the autobiographical volumes, occasionally in his literary journalism. The position he has taken on this question of identity is honorably self-respecting, manifestly sincere, but at the same time peculiarly disembodied. Some words about the sense of self-respect are in order first, because that sense faithfully reflects Kazin’s special location among successive generations of American Jewish intellectuals.

Coming of age during the years when a major European power was arraying itself against the Jewish people, which it had elected as its preeminent adversary and destined victim, Kazin could not accept the view of his advanced intellectual friends that the Jews were an irrelevancy, a vestigial trickle left behind by the mainstream of Western history, a bothersome anachronism to be transcended. “Even in Hitler Germany,” he observes with a kind of grim satisfaction in Starting Out in the Thirties, “to be Jewish was to be at the heart of things.” Impelled by such a perception, Kazin could seek a place for himself at the very center of American literary life without feeling any need to deny his origins, or to assume the manner of a facsimile Wasp.

His encounters with Bernard Berenson and Lionel Trilling, both recorded in New York Jew, memorably illustrate the stance as a Jew he adopted in contrast to his predecessors. Berenson, fifty years his senior, had been a poor Lithuanian yeshivah student before he came to America and Harvard, and from there went on to his distinguished career as an art historian and authenticator of old masterpieces. First Berenson converted to Episcopalianism, later to Catholicism, and in his preening old age, when Kazin met him, he was pleased to let others deferentially identify him as a member of the “Jewish aristocracy.” Kazin expresses wonder mingled with contempt for this man who had turned his whole life into such a beautiful lie and who in his declining years seemed to be haunted by the hollowness of his own accomplishment: “As a work of art, Berenson himself was incomparable, but there was hardly anyone left to authenticate him.

If Berenson was hopeless worlds away from Kazin, Trilling and Kazin were separated by just the minimal distance in historical location sufficient to generate cold currents of suspicion beneath a surface of mutual respect. Trilling, ten years older than Kazin, had entered intellectual life in the 20’s, and Kazin attributes much of Trilling’s personal and critical manner to the casual, gentlemanly style of the 20’s, which he contrasts to the abrasiveness and the social anger of the 30’s that he feels shaped his own sensibility and that of his exact contemporary, Saul Bellow. Kazin marvels over the studied refinement of this son of a Jewish immigrant tailor, his unflagging ability in speech and writing to preserve the poise and propriety of the genteel English writers he searchingly studied. “For Trilling I would always be ‘too Jewish,’ too full of my lower-class experience. He would always defend himself from the things he had left behind. This would go on and on for thirty years; it was the barrier, like his fondness for the words ‘scarcely,’ ‘modulation,’ ‘our educated classes.’”

Such forthright refusal of any pretense, any denial of origins, is surely admirable, but beyond the simple avowal of identity and a certain intellectual style, Jewishness has remained for Kazin a plangent abstraction, a desiderated idea hovering somewhere in the back of his existence, never playing a solidly detectible part in his visible vocation as a writer. Hence the vibrant evocation in A Walker in the City of Jewish scenes he doesn’t quite know, which are usually just a little off in detail. Hence the clustering of words like mysterious, ancient, God, belonging when he writes of his Jewish antecedents, both in this first autobiographical volume and later. I have said that Kazin’s Jewish affirmations are manifestly sincere. What one senses in his invocation of mysteries and divinity, of the very term “tradition” and even of the Holocaust, is the truth of feeling, insufficiently supported by the truth of cognitive clarity or the truth of concrete experience.

At the beginning of New York Jew, Kazin flatly asserts: “The Jews are my unconscious.” If one were to construe “unconscious” rigorously, the statement would be nonsense, but it works, suggestively and revealingly, as a metaphor. To the Manhattan sophisticate, moving through the glitter of New York, in touch, as he tells us, with the pulsating centers of power that are the chief fascination of the great city, the Jews represent a primal realm of struggle for bare survival, a constant condition of raw vulnerability, perhaps a closeness to the instinctual, to what is opaque and intractable and scary or awesome about human existence. The Jews, in other words, become the substance of a personal myth, which may be viable as a “fable of identity” (to borrow Northrop Frye’s phrase), but which as a writer’s perspective seems more appropriate to the poet, who is led by the nature of his medium to link the here-and-now with the eternal and the archetypal, than to the critic, who deals with the observable realities encoded in text, culture, and history.

For Kazin himself is at his best in his acute treatment of observable realities, perhaps more strikingly in New York Jew than in anything else he has written. After the recollection in tranquility of the emotions of childhood that constituted A Walker in the City, he undertook in both subsequent volumes of his trilogy two discrete roles, that of the autobiographer and of the memoirist. I would contend that he is an uneven autobiographer but a gifted, even brilliant, memoirist.



Truth in autobiography, as Stephen Shapiro has written in a perceptive essay, flows from the repeated encounter of self-image and society, but I would add that as readers we must sense that this encounter is informed by some adequate confrontation between writer and self. Adequate does not mean comprehensive, for every autobiographer has some bias of selection in recording his own past. Gibbon in his autobiography gives us only those elements of his experience that shaped the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; Nabokov in Speak, Memory presents the childhood and early manhood that would lead to his luminous fictional visions of lost Edens. In successful autobiographies such as these, we feel that we are given all we really need to know, for once the bias of selection is established, the writer, within its limits, pursues the task of self-revelation consistently, probingly, and, if need be, ruthlessly.

The problem I find with Kazin as an autobiographer is that the self-revelation is so intermittent and at times so teasingly elliptical. The manikin of the virtuous boy in the first volume of the trilogy seems to have been succeeeded at many points in the two subsequent volumes by the manikin of a virtuous man, the recorder of experience making himself only occasionally an object of real self-scrutiny. When we are given, then, brief glimpses into the intimate life of the writer—like the breakup of his first two marriages, the fluctuations of his relationship with his present wife—they seem a little out of place, sometimes almost embarrassing, and are generally vouchsafed with a vagueness or schematic quality that makes them less than convincing. Kazin, it seems to me, either should have been much more unsparing in reporting these aspects of his life or (as I am more inclined to think) he should have excluded them entirely as irrelevant to the story of the growth of the critic’s mind in the pungent atmosphere of the New York intellectual world. There are, to be sure, some notable exceptions to the rule I have proposed. In New York Jew, one might mention in particular the moving autobiographical accounts of the deaths of the writer’s parents, which are handled with candor, passionate intensity, and delicacy of feeling. But, by and large, the last two volumes of the trilogy convey at best a fragmentary sense of an evolving self; more often, we find ourselves in the presence of an unquestioned self, secure in its wisdom and virtue, scrutinizing the world around it.

That, of course, is the stance of the memoirist, whose task is not to tell his own story, but the story of his times as he has witnessed them. This does not mean that the memoirist is an “objective” observer. On the contrary, the sharpness of his version of important people and public events depends on his having been engaged in what he observes, on his seeing the human immediacy of his subjects through the vivifying air of his own sympathies and antagonisms as a narrator intimately involved with the materials of his narration. Kazin’s concise, deftly written accounts of the tenor of intellectual life during the Marxist 30’s, the deradicalized postwar era, and the haywire 60’s, are lucid, persuasive, and eminently sane. Readers who look too hard at the autobiographer himself may be a little put off by what could be construed as an edge of complacency about his own unflagging reasonableness through the follies of three decades, but viewed as a memoirist, recording his times from the vantage point of his own opinions and values, he can hardly be faulted. In any case, the most brilliant writing in New York Jew (there are already a few intimations of it in Starting Out in the Thirties) is not in generalizations about the age but in the individual portraits of writers Kazin has known.

His prose is never more alive than when he is doing these character studies, as he manages to attend simultaneously to the visual details of portraiture, to the psychology of his subjects, and to the themes and strategies of their work. Thus, he writes of T.S. Eliot, whom he visited in London in 1945: “That altogether fastidious figure with a nose that ended in a delicate little sea shell had somehow concentrated itself into a single self-protective gesture.” The perhaps excessive sharpness of the wit here is immediately balanced by two ample paragraphs of sympathetic reflection on Eliot the man and the poet which conclude on this note: “He impersonated a flight from emotion that could fool no one who read two lines of his verse.” Or again, with more of a dramatic flourish, Kazin, in the midst of a long discussion of Hannah Arendt, makes the following connection, at once causal and vigorously rhetorical, between her recurrent theme of a “decisive break with tradition” and her personal situation as an exiled German intellectual in Manhattan: “Definitely, there had been a break. Her presence on the West Side was like Lear’s on the heath. The kingdom had been rent. Breakup was her life and everyone’s now.”

All of these character studies, of course, are observed through the refracting medium of Kazin’s personal relation to the subjects, but because they are observed so keenly, in the full impetus of personal feeling, their value as testimony about the people in question is actually enhanced. At one extreme, Kazin’s devastating account of Mary McCarthy toward the end of Starting Out in the Thirties, which is matched by an occasional brief vitriolic portrait in New York Jew, may well be the result of some long-festering personal wound. One assumes there is more to be said about any of these hostilely perceived figures, but his writing makes us believe that he has caught at least one hard cutting edge of their social operation among fellow intellectuals. More typically, Kazin writes with a guarded, critically distanced admiration that does not exclude lively sympathy, or with a subtler kind of antagonism balanced by a good critic’s desire to exercise fairness of judgment.

The most interesting of his mixed portraits, and also the most extended, is his treatment of Lionel Trilling, who clearly has been important to him, as a model, a competitor, and an intellectual eminence who never altogether accepted him. We have already seen how Kazin contrasts his own personal style, social allegiance, and Jewish affiliation with Trilling’s. He traces his wariness about Trilling to their first meeting in the office of the New Republic in the early 40’s. The younger man sensed an “immense and even cavernous subtlety” in the author of the study of Matthew Arnold which he had admired, and if the physical description of Trilling in New York Jew reflects a certain personal edginess, it nevertheless captures something essential about Trilling’s presence: “With the deep-sunk colored pouches under his eyes, the cigarette always in hand like an intellectual gesture, an air that combined weariness, vanity, and immense caution, he was already a personage.” In the pages that follow, and again later in the book, there is a good deal of open polemic with the elusiveness of Trilling’s political positions, his subtle role in the process of deradicalizing American intellectuals, and with what Kazin construes as the oddly Victorian notion of “culture” which he claims displaced abrasive earthly realities in Trilling’s work. “No one,” Kazin notes in one of his epigrams, “could have been more discerning, and less involved.” One could object that he misperceives certain basic aspects of Trilling’s critical enterprise, and that he insists too harshly on Trilling’s supposed self-importance, but even in his antagonism he never allows himself to forget his rival’s extraordinary fineness of mind, or how Trilling set new high standards in using the critical essay as a dramatization of the fluctuating life of the mind: “A writer of tremulous carefulness and deliberation, he nevertheless became the master of a dialectical style that expressed his underlying argument with himself.”



I have deliberately invoked the language of rivalry because the one pervasive element of the New York intellectual world that Kazin reflects most sharply is its unrelenting competitiveness. His was the first full-grown generation of American-born sons of the Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. From the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, from as far away as Chicago’s South Side, they congregated during the 30’s and 40’s in Greenwich Village, in the mid-town publishing offices and the academic centers of Manhattan, each impelled by a formidable sense of his own high destiny in literary life, each guided by a calculating wariness about the necessary means for achieving that destiny. Paul Goodman, unabashedly proclaiming himself in conversation the best poet, playwright, and literary theorist around, exerted a “power over people” that “visibly enlarged him in the moment of contact.” (As Kazin goes on to elaborate this metaphor, he clearly intends a sexual innuendo.) The young Saul Bellow exhibited a sense of superiority that was less the quasi-erotic reflex of a need for self-assertion, more firmly anchored in an absolute faith in his own large talent: “The proud novelist-to-be, like the young Joseph in the Bible, airily confided his dreams of greatness to his brothers; he would be quick to divide the world into allies and enemies.” Trilling in his thirties, just rising to prominence, solemnly told Kazin, then on the staff of the New Republic, that he would write nothing for the magazine that did not “promote my reputation.” Kazin claims to have been amused and simultaneously struck with wonder at “the tight-lipped seriousness” with which Trilling could invoke his “reputation,” but the drive of ambition that at such an early age had led to so, imposing a work as On Native Grounds suggests that Kazin himself aspired to reputation with equal ardor, though in a rather different style.

A singleminded intentness on getting ahead in the world among the offspring of an immigrant group is a familiar enough phenomenon in many spheres of endeavor. What is noteworthy about these newcomers to the centers of American literary power is the extraordinary confidence in their own future that so many of them evinced. If great men, as Freud observed, start out in life with an enormous fund of unqualified mother love, one might speculate that the powerful Jewish mother, notorious for her smothering affection, might have played a far more constructive role than is generally allowed, and that the Jewish father of immigrant background, usually thought of as a weak and ineffectual figure, may have actually provided in many instances a strong model for an assertive male role.

Be that as it may, the essentially competitive nature of this whole intellectual milieu of the 30’s and 40’s in which the sons of the Yiddish-speaking immigrants began their careers had ambiguous effects. It obviously impelled writers to great efforts of achievement, but I think it also sometimes directed energies that should have been channeled into intellectual work toward mere self-promotion and the nervous maneuvers of warring personalities and cliques. This did not necessarily mean that people wrote less than they should have but rather that what they wrote was too narrowly, too self-consciously intended to be an incessant demonstration—as with Paul Goodman and, beginning a decade later, Norman Mailer—that they were first in the field.

Kazin made his initial ascent on a surer road, concentrating with scholarly patience on the variety and complexity of his large subject, obtaining the authority he wanted through the mastery of the subject. Yet in his case, too, there is a poignancy about the impondérable consequences of ambition pursued and consummated. He would remain an alert commentator and a skillful writer, but he has not since been able to summon up the resources of sustained will that produced his first precocious achievement. In that first book, he made himself intellectually one with the American cultural tradition, and through the deserved success of the book, he made himself socially one with the New York literary elite. But both these ends having been accomplished, it seems as though he had lost the motive for finding a great new subject which would require an architectonic effort of the critical imagination. What chiefly remained for him was a lesser role, though one he would forcefully enact, to become the chronicler of life among the intellectuals, whose world he had so swiftly conquered.


1 New York Jew, Knopf, 307 pp., $10.95.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.