Alfred Kazin Biography


Alfred Kazin (KAY-zihn) was an influential critic of twentieth century American literature, a writer of autobiography, and an editor. He was born to Charles and Gita Fagelman Kazin, an immigrant Jewish family living in the poverty of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Apparently a precocious child, Kazin was an avid reader who, according to some, had “read every important book in American literature” by the time he was twenty-seven years of age. As a young Jew searching for an American heritage and a world beyond the Brownsville area, he credits the Brooklyn Museum and the branch library for providing a breakthrough into the literary world and precipitating an awakening in his life. He completed a degree at the College of the City of New York (later City College of the City University of New York) in 1935 and received a master’s degree in 1938 from Columbia University. A Guggenheim Fellow in 1940, Kazin earned instant acclaim as a literary critic with On Native Grounds, which traces the beginnings of social realism in American literature. The work treats approximately fifty writers spanning three generations; it is concerned with demonstrating that literature has real meaning for humankind.

After spending a year in England as a Rockefeller Fellow in 1945 and receiving another Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947, Kazin published the first of several autobiographical memoirs, A Walker in the City, in 1951. Here he describes his experience of living in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Brownsville and of thinking of everywhere outside that restricted area as “beyond.” Kazin returned to England as a Fulbright lecturer at Cambridge University in 1952. In 1955, he published a collection of critical essays, The Inmost Leaf, which analyzes a wide range of writers including such American notables as Henry David Thoreau, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and E. E. Cummings and such European writers as Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and Maxim Gorky; the major focus is more on the authors than on their works in this...

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Alter, Robert. “The Education of Alfred Kazin.” In Motives for Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Praises Kazin’s interest in a realistic tradition and numbers him among those writers who respond to human predicaments and choices.

Cook, Richard. Alfred Kazin. New Haven: Yale, 2008. This biography discusses Kazin’s writing of his novel On Native Ground along with the ways in which he was influenced by other writers of his time. It also examines his public and private life and his literary achievements and failures.

Hicks, Granville. “The Ground Alfred Kazin Stands On.” The Antioch Review 3 (Spring, 1943). Although dated, this work is still useful for its appraisal of strengths and weaknesses in Kazin’s criticism.

Kramer, Hilton. “The Age of the Intellectuals.” The New Leader, September 27, 1965. Praises Kazin’s ability to stand apart from the change of which he is a product.

Sale, Roger. On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. As the title suggests, the author finds fault with Kazin and numerous other well-known critics; nevertheless, Sale praises what he refers to as “some fine sentences.”

Schuessler, Jennifer. “Alfred Kazin: An American Journey.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 44 (October 27, 1997): 47-48. Schuessler surveys Kazin’s life and works. Includes commentary from the author.

Wilentz, Sean. “He Heard America Singing.” The New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1998, 31. Wilentz examines Kazin’s life and work, applauding the author’s accomplishments as a writer and historian.