Richard M. Cook might well have subtitled his biography of Alfred Kazin “An Anatomy of Loneliness.” Throughout his eighty-three years, Kazin was never able to relate easily to people nor did he find in any of four marriages the kind of closeness that marriage usually involves. His first marriage, to Natasha Dohn in 1938, was annulled in 1944. His marriage in 1947 to Carol Bookman ended in divorce after three years and one child. His tumultuous sixteen-year marriage to Ann Birstein was terminated in 1978. Finally, in 1983, he wed Judith Dunford, eighteen years his junior, to whom he remained married for the rest of his life.
The son of Eastern European immigrants to New York, Kazin was brought up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, living there with his parents from birth until he had completed a bachelor’s degree at New York’s City College in 1935 and a master’s degree at Columbia University in 1938. He shared the values found in many immigrant families of the period. His parents, like those of many Jewish American children who grew up during the Great Depression, sacrificed substantially with the expectation that their children would become the first college graduates in the family and would devote themselves to worthwhile endeavors.
Kazin’s mother, Gita Fagelman Kazin, was a seamstress who worked at home making fashionable clothes for a circle of devoted customers. Gita had a dominant personality and doted on her son and his sister, Pearl, seven years Kazin’s junior. Kazin’s father, Gedahlia Kazin, who Americanized his name to Charles, was born in Minsk. After living in New York in the early 1890’s, he had returned to Europe with his mother, who, remarried and unable to care for him, placed him in an orphanage at age nine. The boy grew up feeling unwanted and was extremely shy. Kazin viewed his father as someone who felt abandoned and incredibly lonely. Charles returned to the United States in his twenties, holding various jobs around the country until he married Gita and settled into life as a painter.
Kazin’s notion of marriage was based on his mother’s dominance and on his father’s virtual withdrawal from family interaction. The couple was not demonstrative with each other, but they did lavish love on their two children. Although withdrawn and virtually unable to communicate verbally with his children, Charles did take them across the Brooklyn Bridge to the magic city of New York, exposing them to museums, theater, and music on a regular basis.
Kazin always felt drawn to the cultural excitement of New York City, yet he felt anchored in Brownsville. On the first anniversary of his death, his son, Michael, and his widow, Judith, took a box containing his ashes to the center of the Brooklyn Bridge and dropped it into the water, believing it to be a symbolic gesture Kazin would have appreciated.
Like his father, Kazin was shy and had difficulty reaching out to other people. Throughout his years in elementary and secondary school, he was afflicted by a stutter, made worse when he was under pressure. He did not like school, although he loved learning and read voraciously, as did his sister. Both children gained fluency in Yiddish because their parents’ ability in English was quite limited. Yiddish was the language in which they usually communicated at home.
It was expected that first-generation Jewish American children in the Brownsville ghetto would strive to do well in school, fearing the shame that their parents would suffer should they not excel in their studies. Cook reports that Kazin, at age ten, bought a bottle of iodine he could ingest to kill himself if he failed to meet his mother’s expectations.
It was also a given that the children, particularly the male offspring, of these Eastern European immigrants would enjoy the free education offered to all local citizens at City College, in which Kazin enrolled at age sixteen. When he completed his bachelor’s degree in 1935 at age twenty, he had little idea of what he wanted to do with his life, so he embarked on a career as a freelance writer, often writing for the “Books” section of the New York Herald Tribune, whose editor was Irita Van Doren, the wife of...
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