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.
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
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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...
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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...
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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 and counter-turns that bring Nathan Zuckerman, the novel's protagonist, to Lonoff's house of scrupulously austere Art, but is itself a work so flawlessly crafted that one feels every word—down to the last a, an, and the—belongs exactly where Roth put it.
Writing that matters, that lasts, has a signature distinctively its own. Lonoff, speaking about the raw power that Zuckerman packs into his paragraphs, puts it this way: "I don't mean style … I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head." Richard Rhodes, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), would agree, at least where voice is concerned [in his...
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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.
Prolific, indefatigable, ambitious on a scale that seems quaint in this day of academic specialization, Mr. Kazin has never been one to bore his readers with detail. He prefers the sprawling canvas, the hard-to-categorize narrative that mingles scholarship and reminiscence, polemic and personal history. He aspires to—hungers for—the definitive. (He likes to refer to the "big book" of memoirs he's writing, or his "big book" on the religious strain in American literature.) Even the titles of his most famous works—On Native Grounds, Bright Book of Life, An American Procession—suggest larger-than-life themes.
One of Mr. Kazin's great strengths as a critic is the sheer passion he brings to his task: from the beginning,...
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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 delivered as the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, are by no means so portentous as that. Rather, they are a casual and often ingratiating set of autobiographical reminiscences and critical reflections from the different periods of Kazin's life.
As a literary journalist and publisher's adviser in the heart of the American literary marketplace, he got to know a great many interesting people, including such writers as Edmund Wilson, Robert Lowell, and Flannery O'Connor, some more intimately than others. They are recalled in brief anecdotes; none of them is subjected here to systematic characterization or intensive analysis. The lectures are informal talks, and in this context their...
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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 capacity to be surprised. This latter gift has not diminished with the years. Without looking them up, I can remember several occasions—a volume of stories by Richard Ford, a lecture on Emily Dickinson at the Folger Library in Washington, a recent review of newly published prose by Isaac Babel—when Kazin seemed to dance on the table with awe and delight. ("Randall at his truest was really an enthusiast," Kazin writes of that supreme reviewer Jarrell; and the same could be said of Kazin.) No wonder Kazin grouses about the present mood in academia, when celebration is the last thing critics—Mark Twain called them crickets—chirp about.
The title of Kazin's Massey Lectures at Harvard [Writing Was Everything]...
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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 richness, becomes a remarkable guide, and though we might feel dislocated, we are always amazed by what we see and learn, whether it be a symphony hall in postwar Germany, where Kazin, just after visiting a camp for displaced persons, once listened to a symphony conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler, Hitler's favorite conductor, or the apartment of the artist Saul Steinberg, where even Steinberg's shaving brush and razor looked like part of a bathroom drawing. Kazin gives us glimpses into his own four marriages and how they were part of his intellectual, social, political and literary life—and the people whom he met along the way—Bernard Berenson, Josephine Herbst, Saul Bellow, F. O. Matthiessen, Ignazio Silone and Bernard Malamud.
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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 thing about these tributes: They nearly always come too late. People like Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, Meyer Schapiro, Henry Roth, Grace Paley, are celebrated in old age or after death by mass media that ignored or denounced them at the height of their powers. That's the sort of irony you learn on the sidewalks of New York, where people wear more Brooklyn Dodgers gear today than they ever did when the Dodgers were in town. (It could be worse: Think of Delmore Schwartz, Harold Rosenberg, Paul Goodman, Kate Simon and all the others who died lonely, without irony, before the banquets could begin.)
These banquet years present contradictions. Any demand that the world remember him or remember her is also a demand...
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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 that literature itself must not be overshadowed by critical theory, that literature must remain in constant relation with life. His texts constitute a harmonious blending of personal experience with writers and their works, snatches of autobiography, and historical and critical comments, an entertaining conversation with a critic for whom "writing is all" but who is also deeply aware of the problems of a society "where spiritual values have eroded."
In the introductory chapter Kazin holds that "the great critics" have been poets—Emerson, Poe, Baudelaire, Pound—who have not been "simply telling people how to read a particular text," for, as Rilke reminds us, "Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and nothing so...
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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 some fundamental ways he is quite unlike the secular, worldly, politically minded literary critics with whom he is usually linked.
This new book of diaries, it must be said, is a slippery book in regard to genre, because the nature of the selecting and the editing announced in its subtitle remains elusive. There is no indication of what proportion of the actual journals is reproduced here; and in any case "reproduced" may not be the right word, for there are signs that at least some of the journal entries have been retrospectively altered to incorporate the wisdom of hindsight. Even the chronology is a little uncertain: the book is arranged in five chronological units of greatly varying spans, from 1938 to 1995, but...
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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 Kazin's journal of 1976, when he was working on Procession: "How they struggle in, the members of my American procession." He mentions Willa Cather, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Hemingway, and Ring Lardner, of whom only Twain and Hemingway make their way into the parade as featured marchers. The third volume of the trilogy, On God and the Americans, is in progress.
We could perceive Kazin's increasing preoccupation with "God and the American" (and also his disillusion about the present state of American culture, which he had viewed with such hope in On Native Grounds) in the closing pages of Writing Was Everything (1995), when, after comments on Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, and Czeslaw Milosz, he...
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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, narrow-mindedness, ignorance and the pain of being unable to (as Emerson used to say) vent. But mostly his passion derives from impulses that can only be called religious. He turns to books as if in search of God, not that he ever finds Him, or expects to. But there is for Kazin a kind of beckoning sensuality to the search, even if it is hopeless.
You could reasonably ask: doesn't Kazin load literature with too many desires and hopes, more than most novels and poems were ever meant to sustain? Two years ago he published a brief memoir of his life as a reader, a little masterpiece of a book called Writing Was Everything, and the title, in its extravagance, raised the problem all by itself. The reading of literature may be many...
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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 sights, smells and sounds of an immigrant world that was itself soon to vanish.
Two subsequent volumes of autobiography, Starting Out in the Thirties (1962) and New York Jew (1978), followed the native son out into the larger world. There was Kazin's immersion in the radical literary politics of the Depression years; the brilliant success of his first book, On Native Grounds, in 1942; World War II and the Holocaust; an unusually peripatetic teaching career; three marriages, two children, love affairs; and over the years at least a passing acquaintance with just about every major figure on the scene. Most importantly, there was the steady stream of essays, reviews and books that have kept Kazin in the...
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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 days are at hand. Amid cocktail-party chatter that could come from a Woody Allen soundtrack ("people arguing about movie reviews, Lina Wertmuller, the 'neurotic guilt of survivors'"), Kazin looks out at the burning sky and thinks about grander, graver matters—that "blaze was always my word for joy" and about the "Lord who made Himself known as fire." This unlikely moment of sublimity culminates, in the book's penultimate sentence, in a startling complaint: "I want my God back."
"I want my God back." Perhaps no other single sentence of the thousands—variously dazzling, puzzling, well wrought, over-wrought, classical, romantic and baroque—that Kazin has written over more than half a century so clearly reveals his...
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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.
In the present volume, he has chapters on a dozen American writers who matter: Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Whitman, Lincoln, Dickinson, William James, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Frost, Faulkner—and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who matters historically. He has things to say about many other writers along the way. His organizing questions here is: What did each of these writers believe about God? What we get, broadly speaking, and with the signal exception of T. S. Eliot, is a religious landscape very late in the history of the Reformation.
The Protestant principle, as Matthew Arnold said, is individual judgment. The exercising of individual judgments led first to great religious fissures, then to the multiplication of sects,...
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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.]
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 uneasy relations with the numinous, a listener in the row behind me, whom I knew to be Canadian, remarked with bitter humor to his companion: "Why do they have this thing about themselves and God?"
At that point the Holy Spirit descended upon me and I was moved to reply. But it was Toronto and the festival goer and I had not been introduced and I uttered not a word in spite of my holy excitement. My eye had fallen on him earlier though. The previous evening he had asked a question of a reader that had entailed his use of the phrase "American consumerist culture."
I might, in the grip of Divine Inspiration have pointed out to him that the throngs in the mall outside—the fall-fashionable ladies and gents, the...
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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 mother (born Barbara Bernstein in Berlin, she had fled in 1936 to England, where she married my father and gave birth to my brothers) turned her thoughts to America as the country in which she wished to to raise her children.
On Native Grounds was an inspired guidebook to the country of her dreams. The work of an amazingly young man (twenty-three when he undertook it, twenty-seven when it was published), it began by describing the American "yearning for a world no one ever really possessed," and it ended five hundred pages later, after a brilliant exposition of modern American literature, by announcing the so-called "Axis ministers of Culture" as "half-men, the death's-heads grinning over their spoil," with "no culture...
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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 past was great: anything American, old, lazed, touched with dusk at the end of the 19th century, till smoldering with the fires lit by the Industrial Revolution, immediately set my mind dancing." Inside is school's assembly hall, a photographic portrait of Theodore Roosevelt stared down at him ("There was America, I thought, the real America"); outside an old police station on East New York Avenue, Kazin would daydream of the 1990's, certain that Roosevelt himself, back than the Police Commissioner, would momentarily come bounding down the steps. Years later, his literary ambitions a flame, Kazin stood on the corner of Fulton and Cranberry Streets, in front of the place where Walt Whitman himself had printed Leaves of Grass,...
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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 as an outstanding critic (On Native Grounds was widely acclaimed upon its appearance in 1943, when he was twenty-seven), as a visiting professor at leading universities, as the recipient of numerous awards including the National Book Critics' Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, Kazin has had a troubled life. Beginning with his youth as the son of a poor Jewish family in Brownsville, it continued through three failed marriages, anguish about the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, and worry about the political and spiritual problems with which he was constantly confronted. The selections here frequently offer fresh details on Kazin's previous autobiographical works, A Walker in the City (1981; on his youth in Brooklyn), Starting Out...
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Hampton, Wilborn. An obituary of Alfred Kazin. The New York Times (6 June 1998): B9.
An obituary of substantial length, providing an overview of Kazin's life and works.
An obituary of Alfred Kazin. The London Times (23 June 1998).
An obituary in which Kazin's achievements as a writer and critic are surveyed and assessed.
(The entire section is 90 words.)