Oscar Wilde observed that criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography, a truth exemplified by Alfred Kazin’s work, particularly his first and best book of literary analysis, On Native Grounds (1942). Begun when Kazin was only twenty-three and published when he was twenty-seven, the volume discusses American novelists and critics from 1890 to 1940. Yet in a variety of ways On Native Grounds is as much about Kazin as it is about William Dean Howells, Hamlin Garland, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Kazin’s choice of American literature as a field of study was itself an expression of his desire, as the son of Jewish immigrants, to belong to the New World. Working in room 315 of the New York Public Library gave him a sense of “a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers.” In Writing Was Everything, Kazin describes reading as Herman Melville did whaling: “my Yale College and my Harvard,” not only as places of education but also as institutions offering and signaling membership in the American elite. With equal justice Kazin might have said that reading for him was the equivalent of seafaring for Melville’s character Ishmael, who went to sea as Kazin took to books, “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul. . . . This is my substitute for pistol and ball.” As Kazin wrote in A Walker in the City(1951), “I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past.”
A literary radical and, at least in the 1930’s, a political radical as well, Kazin harmonized philosophically with many of the figures he described in the opening section of On Native Grounds. Starting Out in the Thirties(1965) noted that like these American writers, Kazin believed “in the ideal freedom and power of the self, in the political and social vision of radical democracy. It was as if I started from the same human base and was accompanying them to the same imaginative goal.” That goal, traced in On Native Grounds, expressed Kazin’s guarded optimism for the future of American life and letters. His was, he said, “the immigrants’ sense of America—of American history as a process by which the good society might at last be realized.” Unlike Irving Kristol and Lionel Trilling, Kazin never abandoned his left-liberal leanings, though the past tense of the verb in Writing Was Everything reflects his view that ideologues now threaten literature. He ends Writing Was Everything by asking, “But where—how—is the writer to be found who will have the inner certainty to see our life with the eyes of faith, and so make the world shine again?”
Kazin in the 1930’s resembled his favorite authors not only in their confidence but also in their sense of alienation. In “The Critic as Creator,” he observed that the most important ingredient in his work was “the fact that I was a Jew who grew up in the immigrant world of Brooklyn.” In A Walker in the City, Kazin contrasted his world of Brooklyn’s Brownsville with Manhattan, his Jewish immigrant experience with secular America. Brooklyn Bridge linked not only two boroughs but also two worlds; it is Kazin’s central metaphor in his longer autobiographical works, and the image appears in Writing Was Everything. Kazin’s love of Hart Crane’s celebration of the bridge and his appreciation of Walt Whitman—also from Brooklyn and a walker in the city who sang of crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan—derive from a shared vision of the bridge as a link between self and community, self and other.
While Kazin’s criticism thus is autobiographical, his autobiographies, including the present volume, have been exercises in civilized criticism. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that “an autobiography should be a book of answers from one individual to the many questions of the time”; Kazin’s has met that requirement. The autobiographical impulse struck Kazin almost as soon as he had published On Native Grounds. InHarper’s of January, 1971, he recalled stepping out onto a street in Greenwich Village after playing the violin with Isaac Rosenfeld and thinking that he wanted “to write something not in the name of history, but to gratify myself alone. . . . I had written a book but did not yet feel like a writer.” The result of this desire was an autobiographical trilogy, A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, and New York Jew (1978), covering, respectively, the periods 1915 to 1934, 1934 to 1945, and 1945 to the 1970’s. Writing Was Everything traverses much the same ground in its three chapters: “Before the War,” “During the War,” and “After the War.” While these chapters may be...