Alfred Kazin Essay - Critical Essays

Kazin, Alfred

Introduction

Alfred Kazin 1915–1998

American critic, autobiographer, essayist, and editor.

For further information on Kazin's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 34 and 38.

Best known for his study of twentieth-century American literature, On Native Grounds (1942), Kazin was highly regarded as an influential critic for his ability to analyze a literary work in conjunction with the author's heritage and the prevailing social climate. On Native Grounds outlines the beginnings of social realism in American literature. Kazin correlates its rise with the enormous political and technological developments of the early 1900s, yet he also maintains that most writers felt estranged from their environment during this period. Kazin continued to explore the relationship between literature and society in The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), Bright Book of Life (1973), An American Procession (1984), A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature (1988), Writing Was Everything (1995), and God and the American Writer (1997). Kazin was also well regarded for his autobiographical works and memoirs. In A Walker in the City (1951), he recounts his youth in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) chronicles his early years as a critic and includes sketches of prominent writers he met during those years. In New York Jew (1978), Kazin narrates his experiences from 1942 through the late 1970s. Kazin also edited A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment (1996), a volume of selected excerpts from his journals. Philip Roth commented on Kazin's contribution to American literature: "To understand what a colossal achievement Alfred's life was, one has only to remember that in 1942, when he was still in his 20s—and the Brooklyn-born son of uneducated Yiddish-speaking immigrants—he wrote On Native Grounds, a brilliant re-interpretation of American literature from William Dean Howells to William Faulkner, a book of literary criticism which read like a passionate communication intended for intelligent, living human beings rather than like a 1940s academic exercise or a 1930s political tract. He was America's best reader of American literature in this century." Kazin continued to write until his death on his eighty-third birthday—June 5, 1998—in New York City.

Principal Works

On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (criticism) 1942
A Walker in the City (autobiography) 1951
The Inmost Leaf: A Selection of Essays (essays) 1955
Contemporaries (essays) 1962
Starting Out in the Thirties (autobiography) 1965
Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (criticism) 1973
New York Jew (autobiography) 1978
An American Procession (criticism) 1984
A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature (criticism) 1988
Our New York (nonfiction) 1989
Writing Was Everything (lectures) 1995
A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment: From the Journals of Alfred Kazin (journal excerpts) 1996
God and the American Writer (criticism) 1997

Criticism

David Rains Wallace (review date 23 October 1988)

SOURCE: "All We Surveyed," in New York Times Book Review, October 23, 1998, Section 7, p. 9.

[Wallace is an American critic and author of Life in the Balance, a companion volume to the PBS Audubon television specials of the same name. In the following review, he offers a largely favorable assessment of A Writer's America.]

At a lime when nature writing is undergoing a certain vogue, largely in the form of anthologies published by small presses, it is instructive to have a book on American landscape and literature from a major literary critic and mainstream publisher. [In A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature] Alfred Kazin reminds us that nature is not only the subject of a genre but a fundamental concern of the American classics, from Poe and Melville to Faulkner and Hemingway. He enhances his argument, and the book's attractiveness, with a lively selection of art and photographs.

In America, Western civilization encountered a natural world that seemed unmarked by agriculture, religion, industry or other attributes of human culture. (For various reasons, the fact that the native peoples possessed all these attributes proved easy to ignore.) As Mr. Kazin observes, the existence of such a world and the potential for its profitable exploitation caused an exhilaration and at the same time an uneasiness and guilt. Both the exhilaration and the guilt have persisted through...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Hennig Cohen (review date December 1990)

SOURCE: A review of A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature, in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3, December, 1990, pp. 442-43.

[In the following excerpt, Cohen provides a laudatory review of A Writer's America.]

[In A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature] Kazin's landscape of nature is panoramic, embracing seascape and cityscape. His time span is roughly from the Revolution to the present, and a walker in the city, he has a special interest in the power that cities exert on the land. From the westward prospect of Jefferson's Monticello, the "little mountain," Kazin's vista reaches across the continent, encompassing regional distinction and local colouration as it extends towards the California coast, and the passage beyond the Pacific toward Whitman's India and "more than India." His book is diffuse, as if writer of his title is Kazin himself, ranging the continent and savouring its history and diversity and even now, its promise. It is not a scholarly book with a discovery to reveal or a thesis to assert. Rather, it seems almost a summary of the travels of a provincial American joyously traversing the land that his come to possess him. It has a casual quality, a disdain for the intrusion of documentation, and a willingness to repeat, guidebook fashion, the standard information about American Literary landmarks interwoven with beautifully precise and profound observations of his own. It is hard to decide what kind of book Kazin has written. A guidebook, perhaps. But one for both the novice and experienced traveller.

Sanford Pinsker (review date Fall 1995)

SOURCE: "The Stuff That Good Writing is Made Of," in Sewanee Review, Vol. CIII, No. 4, Fall, 1995, pp. 661-66.

[In the following excerpt, Pinsker surveys Writing Was Everything, concluding that Kazin "worries that writing will no longer be everything, at the same time he keeps insisting that it must be precisely that."]

Perhaps nothing gets closer to explaining how good writing happens than these remarks by Philip Roth's fictional character E.I. Lonoff: "I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again." The Ghost Writer (1979) is not only about the complicated turns...

(The entire section is 1320 words.)

James Atlas (review date 3 September 1995)

SOURCE: "The Great Reminiscer," in New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, pp. 6-7.

[Atlas is an American editor and author of Delmore Schwartz: The Life of An American Poet. In the following review, he offers a generally favorable assessment of Writing Was Everything.]

Alfred Kazin is our grand old man of letters, supreme keeper of the now-flickering literary flame. On the occasion of his 80th birthday in June, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York devoted a whole day to well-attended lectures and tributes celebrating his contribution to American letters, concluding with a spirited address by the guest of honor.

...

(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Robert M. Adams (review date 5 October 1995)

SOURCE: "A Self-Made Man," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 15, October 5, 1995, p. 23.

[In the following review, Adams offers high praise for Kazin's body of work, including Writing Was Everything.]

Alfred Kazin's modest memoir, Writing Was Everything, marks its author's entry into his ninth decade. This, if ever, is a proper time to summarize and retrospect. (I remember the surprise with which I learned that my classmate and coeval at Columbia College, Thomas Merton, had written and published to acclaim his full life history, before I'd so much as started living my life, let alone written the history of it.) Kazin's essays, though originally...

(The entire section is 1655 words.)

Christopher Benfey (review date 9 October 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Writing Was Everything, in New Republic, Vol. 213, No. 15, October 9, 1995, pp. 37-9.

[Benfey is an American educator and critic. The following is his commendatory review of Writing Was Everything.]

The greatest literary critic now at work in America? Hard to name anyone to challenge Alfred Kazin; and not just because, having turned 80 this year, he has outlived the competition. What he has over his younger successors (whom he graciously describes as writing literary journalism that is "smarter, more detached, always performing and performative, than it was when I began") is a genuine humility in the presence of major art, and a concomitant...

(The entire section is 2583 words.)

Patrick H. Samwa (review date 16 March 1996)

SOURCE: A review of A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, in America, Vol. 174, No. 9, March 16, 1996, pp. 19-20.

[In the following excerpt, Samwa applauds A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.]

[I]n A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, Alfred Kazin uses many lenses to record the events of his life in the journals he kept 1915, the son of Russian immigrants, Kazin is known both for his literary and critical books, notably On Native Grounds (1942) and A Walker in the City (1951), and his editions of works of William Blake, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anne Frank, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman. Kazin's honest voice, its exquisite timbre and...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Marshall Berman (review date 6 May 1996)

SOURCE: "In the Night Kitchen," in Nation, Vol. 202, No. 18, May 6, 1996, pp. 11-12, 14-16.

[Berman is an American educator, author, and critic. In the following review, he offers praise for A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.]

As the twentieth century ends, New York Jewish intellectuals are finally getting some goyishe naches: great prizes, triumphal banquets and conferences while they live, splendid memorial services when they die, page-one obits and reviews. I've been to many of these banquets. The guest of honor says he's being misunderstood, he's a much more difficult character than people think. They know it's true, it only makes them cheer more. Another...

(The entire section is 3318 words.)

John L. Brown (review date Spring 1996)

SOURCE: A review of Writing Was Everything, in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 410-11.

[In the following review, Brown provides a summary of Writing Was Everything.]

First presented as a series of lectures at Harvard in 1994, Writing Was Everything consists of three sections: "All Critics Are Mortal," "During the War," and "After the War." Alfred Kazin has lived what the French critic Claude-E. Magny characterized as "the age of the American novel" and has known many of the outstanding writers, European as well as American, of the period. His lectures, completely free of academic pretentiousness or dogmatism, constantly affirm...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Robert Alter (review date 12 August 1996)

SOURCE: "A Believer in the City," in New Republic, Vol. 215, No. 7, August 12, 1996, pp. 35-6.

[Alter is an American translator, author, and critic. In the following review, he offers a laudatory assessment of A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.]

In over half a century of activity as a writer, Alfred Kazin has often been associated with "the New York intellectuals." In some minds, Kazin-Howe-Trilling-Rahv and company form a continuous blur. Kazin himself has intermittently acted as their chronicler in four memoiristic volumes. A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment offers a very different mode of self-presentation from his sundry memoirs, and it makes clear that in...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)

John L. Brown (review date Spring 1997)

SOURCE: A review of An American Procession, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring, 1997, p. 393.

[In the following review, Brown offers a highly laudatory assessment of An American Procession.]

The original edition of An American Procession appeared in 1984. It has now been reissued as a paperback by Harvard, with no additions to the original text except for a brief preface. An American Procession forms the second part of a projected trilogy ("yes, I love trilogies") of which the first was On Native Grounds (1942), an interpretation of American prose literature from 1890 to 1940. The preface of the reedition quotes a passage from...

(The entire section is 610 words.)

Paul Herman (review date 12 October 1997)

SOURCE: "The Searchers," in New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1997.

[In the following review, Herman lauds God and the American Writer.]

Alfred Kazin has got to be the most impassioned reader of literature in all of American life right now—a reader so filled with emotion that, like an ardent lover, he seems nearly to tremble at the sight of his beloved, which is a good book. The intensity comes, I think, partly from the immigrant struggles of his Brooklyn upbringing long ago, so that even now, in his 80's, he gazes outward on America's classic literature as on the sunny shore of his own salvation—from parochialism, poverty, European persecution,...

(The entire section is 1440 words.)

Jennifer Schuessler (essay date 27 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Alfred Kazin: An American Journey," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 244, No. 44, October 27, 1997, pp. 47-8.

[In the following essay, Schuessler surveys Kazin's life and works, and includes commentary from the author.]

Few writers in the annuals of American letters have lived so public a private life as Alfred Kazin. In his classic 1951 memoir, Walker in the City, Kazin drew an unforgettably vivid portrait of the literary critic as a young man in the working-class Jewish enclave of Brownsville, Brooklyn, walking and reading his way back to the old America of the 19th century, "that fork in the road where all American lives cross," even as he catalogued the...

(The entire section is 2094 words.)

A. O. Scott (review date 3 November 1997)

SOURCE: "Worshipping Literature," in Nation, Vol. 265, No. 14, November 3, 1997, pp. 34-5, 38.

[In the following review, Scott provides a commendatory analysis of God and the American Writer.]

On the last page of New York Jew (1978), the third installment in Alfred Kazin's account of his life's journey from the slums of Brownsville to the slopes of Parnassus, the author finds himself at a literary party high above Lincoln Center. Across the Hudson, on the shores of New Jersey, a fire rages. It is sometime in the seventies, the era of the New York fiscal crisis and of general urban decay, and the flames impart an aura of apocalypse, an intimation that the last...

(The entire section is 2413 words.)

Jeffrey Hart (review date 8 December 1997)

SOURCE: "The Eye and I," in National Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 23, December 8, 1997, pp. 50-7.

[Hart is an American educator, editor, and critic. In the following review, he offers a mixed assessment of God and the American Writer.]

Let us begin by praising Alfred Kazin. Now in his eighties, he has lived long with books, and literature matters greatly to him. All that he has written since On Native Ground (1942) testifies to that. Today, if you drop in on an English-literature class, you are likely to hear a lecture on kinky sex, amateur epistemology, Marxism, racial oppression, the Third World, or the atom bomb. What a relief to turn to Mr. Kazin.

...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)

Robert Stone (review date 26 March 1998)

SOURCE: "American Apostle," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLV, No. 5, March 26, 1998, pp. 25-8.

[In the following review, Stone examines God and the American Writer, and offers a laudatory assessment of the volume as well as of Kazin's role as an "Apostle" of American letters.]

1.

During the 1997 Harbourfront Literary Festival in Toronto, Alfred Kazin delivered a talk in a theater at a sumptuous lakeside shopping center on the role of religion in American letters. The lecture was drawn substantially from his introduction to the volume under review.

As Mr. Kazin was concluding his remarks on American writers and their...

(The entire section is 5689 words.)

Andrew Delbanco (essay date 16 July 1998)

SOURCE: "On Alfred Kazin (1915–1998)," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLV, No. 12, July 16, 1998, p. 22.

[In the following essay, Delbanco surveys Kazin's life and career, noting his numerous achievements.]

My copy of Alfred Kazin's masterpiece, On Native Grounds (1942), is an English edition printed in accordance with wartime production standards on cheap paper and bound in boards not much more rigid than matchbook covers. It was bought by my mother in a London bookstall in 1943, the year the German army was stopped at Stalingrad expelled from Africa by Montgomery and Patton. In that year, when it began to be possible to imagine an end to the war, my...

(The entire section is 1659 words.)

Sean Wilentz (essay date 19 July 1998)

SOURCE: "He Heard America Singing," in New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1998, p. 31.

[Wilentz is an American educator and critic; he is the Drayton-Stockton Professor of History and director of the American studies program at Princeton University. In the following essay, he examines Kazin's life and work, applauding the author's accomplishments as a writer and historian.]

As a boy in Brooklyn in the 1920's, Alfred Kazin devoured novels, poetry, travelers' accounts and, most of all, books about American history, which he would later call "the automatic part of all my reading." The present, Kazin remembered in A Walker in the City, was mean, but "the past, the...

(The entire section is 1539 words.)

John L. Brown (review date Winter 1998)

SOURCE: A review of A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, in World Literature Today, Vol. 72, No. 1, Winter, 1998, p. 144.

[Following is Brown's positive review of A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.]

The paperback edition of the Harper hardcover A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment contains selections from Alfred Kazin's journals, arranged in five sections: 1936–45, 1946–50, 1950–76, 1976–93, and 1993–95. (Unfortunately, the individual entries are not dated, which may create a certain confusion.) The fourth section, dealing with the period of approaching old age, is by far the longest (134 pages).

In spite of his early recognition...

(The entire section is 767 words.)