The essential drama at the heart of this memoir is already present in embryo in its opening sentences: “Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue . . . an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.” These emotions are symptoms of the love-hate relationship all first-generation Americans seem to have with the world of their origins. On the one hand, the warmth of family life and the nurturing environment of a supportive culture give shape and meaning to existence, forging unbreakable bonds. On the other hand, the squalid poverty in which recent immigrants were usually forced to live and the endless struggles to survive and somehow advance one’s fortunes engendered deep resentments and fears of authority, of the system, and of the ever-present threat of violence generated by the frustrations inherent in those social and economic conditions. Sensitive youngsters growing up in such communities necessarily feel the contradictory emotions of the desperate desire to escape and the tender need to belong. Such are the emotions that Alfred Kazin places at the heart of A Walker in the City, emotions he reawakens in himself every time he returns to the scenes of his childhood.
The range and variety of those emotions probably suggested to Kazin the impressionistic mode of presentation that he chose for the intricate drama of his growing up. Instead of trying to separate the emotions and depict and explain them one at a time, Kazin makes almost every paragraph into a strong mixture of contraries. He shows himself to be constantly angry with his parents, for example, over their complacent acceptance of their poverty at the same time as he is sympathetic toward their suffering and even grateful for the antimaterialistic values they gave him. Similarly, his recollections of his school days, his teachers, his synagogue and cinema visits, and his neighborhood associations all inspire an interplay of opposite feelings which he tries to communicate through a tumbling, pell-mell writing style. The observations and the accompanying emotions flow forth profusely, tripping over one another as they emerge and creating a melange of irritation, apprehension, and warm nostalgia. This technique of constantly fusing contrasting reactions evoked by objects observed and tastes, smells, and sounds experienced gives the prose of A Walker in the City its distinctive rhythmic pattern and its lyrical tone.
The danger of an undisciplined outpouring of emotion has been effectively countered by the conscious...
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Alfred Kazin’s conscious reason for writing A Walker in the City was certainly personal. The success of his first book, On Native Grounds, doubtless inspired in him the desire to explain himself more fully, to resolve the apparent paradox that he seemed to many to represent as a non-American critic of American literature. It is not likely, however, that that was Kazin’s sole motivation. With the perspicacity of hindsight, it is possible to associate Kazin’s autobiographical memoir with other events then occurring in the literary world, and particularly with the remarkable post-World War II flowering of American-Jewish writing. From 1945 to 1970 there poured out, mainly from New York, an incredible body of writing—including poetry, drama, fiction, and essays—by Jews and on overtly Jewish themes. Such writers as Delmore Schwartz, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, and Lionel Trilling, not to mention influential publications such as Commentary and Partisan Review, constituted a major new presence in American literature in those years. Alfred Kazin must be understood as part of that phenomenon and A Walker in the City as one of its key triumphs, being at once one of the works of art defining the movement and an explanation of the movement’s existence.