Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.