Alfred Kazin

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David Rains Wallace (review date 23 October 1988)

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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 centuries of European colonization until the present. Mr. Kazin is wonderfully evocative in describing the wilderness dawn of the American literary imagination: William Bartram's discovery of a "vocabulary of delight" among the Florida savannas; Thoreau's "totally singular way" of looking at Walden Pond; Mark Twain's invention of a style as "spontaneous and unpredictable" as the Mississippi of his frontier river pilot days. His exposition of the post-Civil War period of exploitation and urbanization seems thinner and a little harried, as though he has trouble keeping up with the nation's runaway growth (as well he might).

One gets a strong sense of the astonishing speed with which the United States transformed itself from Thomas Jefferson's ideal of "Nature's Nation" into "one vast technological hookup." As writers such as Henry James observed, it was a transformation that destroyed many natural amenities without replacing them with artificial ones. Yet Mr. Kazin invokes Walt Whitman to end on a note of hope in the American rediscovery of "man's happiness with Nature, in the real details of his minute involvement with Nature."

Mr. Kazin may be overoptimistic in this hope. He surely exaggerates when he writes, "The wilderness societies are so numerous and active that they have taken to buying up vast tracts of land in order to keep them unsullied." Only a few private conservation organizations can afford to buy land, and such purchases are minuscule in proportion to the millions of acres "developed" every year. Still, A Writer's America contributes significantly to the literature of conservation by showing that America destroys its culture as it destroys its landscape.

Hennig Cohen (review date December 1990)

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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...

(This entire section contains 249 words.)

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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 of his own. It is hard to decide what kind of book Kazin has written. A guidebook, perhaps. But one for both the novice and experienced traveller.

Sanford Pinsker (review date Fall 1995)

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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 How to Write: Advice and Reflections (1995)]….

My hunch is that Alfred Kazin would give these pronouncements the fish-eye, feeling that the writers who earn our attention do so because they have engaged their respective cultures more seriously than those with eyes on the main chance. Snobbishness has precious little to do with such judgments, and moral gravitas everything. But on the business of critics who wield their authority like a stick—there, Kazin might well find himself nodding in agreement: "For many years now, academics high and low have preempted serious criticism, have been riding herd on students who are so unused to general reading that they have little taste of their own and are glad to be told how to read, especially what to discount. This will get them closer and closer to the work of art. What nonsense. What gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art. Only a plurality of choices can open up the new thinking in a work of literature that excites and liberates us."

Kazin, probably the last of a generation of New York intellectuals that includes Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Irving Howe, makes no bones about the decline of writing, nor about the fall of writing about writing: "I have lived through the Marxist thirties, when Proust was consigned to the dustbin of history; and the New Criticism forties and fifties, when hungry sheep looking up to be fed found no Donne-like tension, paradox, or ambiguity in poor simple Walt Whitman; and the angry sixties, when I heard that William Faulkner contributed nothing to the civil-rights struggle; and the unfocused seventies and eighties, when the tides of ideology washed over me without mercy."

At eighty Kazin must seem a terrible scold to those more familiar with Derrida and Foucault than with the writers he profiles in this slender book: Richard Wright, Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell, Edwin Muir, Simone Weil. But in giving his Massey lectures at Harvard the title Writing Was Everything, Kazin means to call attention to a largely bygone age when writing mattered, and also to suggest what the role of the critic-reviewer of such writing ought to be.

Critics far more au courant than Kazin have learned everything that can be said about a piece of writing (what they, no doubt, would call a "text")—with the notable exception of why anybody should love it; and, as such, the current crop of literary mavins can be impressively playful, infinitely ingenious, but often so given to piling slabs of jargon atop one another that only members of the inner circle have the foggiest idea what they're talking about. Criticism—and more to the point, critical disputes—once had the virtue of being conducted in plain English. One need only compare snippets taken from the infamous Modern Language Association session, "The Muse of Masturbation," in 1989 (there, "encoded images of clitoral masturbation" presumably unlocked the mystery of Emily Dickinson's explosive short sentences) with Allen Tale's having placed her poetry against a background of declining religious belief to see the essential differences in method and attitude writ large. As a literary progressive Kazin may have had his quarrels with Tate's feisty traditionalism, but he also recognizes that criticism has a place for strongminded types who force you to follow their reasoning if not their tastes: Tate clearly disapproved of religion's declining arc—indeed, he could even be condescending about it in his hierarchical southern way—but he also understood "the anxious suspension of belief that Dickinson was talking about in her poetry, and hence the tension that makes her glorious. And that's what true criticism is: the ability to state preferences, to make choices on the basis of what is said in the only way available to that particular writer to say it."

Those readers who count up the references to peas, crumbs, and flower buds in Dickinson's verse and then conclude that she has broadcast "secret messages of forbidden onanistic delights to other female illuminati" are doing quite other work. Whatever it may be, it is not literary criticism. For, as Kazin confidently proclaims, "the aim of literature has always been to reconcile us to life by showing that it is not limited to the actual data of existence." On this crucial point he differs sharply from Rhodes. Good writing, for Kazin, is more than merely good writing; it is, in Lawrence's phrase, a bright book of life, a way of seeing our moment more deeply and more vividly than other forms of writing allow for—be they nonfiction, or verity, or even criticism itself: "A real novel is harder to read than an essay in criticism, because the key to a work of imagination is the necessary relation of one part to another and of each part to the whole. Interpretation is generally loose, tries to make points. But criticism dominates when readers are insecure and easily impressed by any show of guidance. Only in an age so fragmented, so ignorant of the unlosable past working in us, can presumably literate persons speak of Dante, Beethoven, or Tolstoy as 'dead white European males.'"

If Rhodes's message is that those who wish to write, in fact, can, Kazin's is less reassuring. After providing a thumbnail sketch of literary life from the thirties of the Great Depression to the ideological eighties, he worries that writing will no longer be everything, at the same time he keeps insisting that it must be precisely that:

Literature is not theory, but, at best, the value we can give to our experience, which in our century has been and remains the imagination of mankind. Of course not everyone has had the same experience. There are participants and there are by-standers. In the beginning was the deed and, since a deed has consequences, in the end is the deed. It is because there is no end to consequences that all lines finally intersect. 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?

To his enduring credit Kazin keeps looking for such a writer. We may have to settle for the lesser beings that a cheerleader like Rhodes hopes to ease toward the writing desk. If they write half as skillfully as Rhodes does himself, it would hardly be a bad thing, but it would not usher in an age in which writing, once again, becomes what Kazin means by the word everything.

James Atlas (review date 3 September 1995)

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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, his books have been hymns to the centrality of literature, its capacity, as he puts it in Writing Was Everything, to "make the world shine." If on occasion he gets carried away by his own enthusiasm, it's an honest lapse; Alfred Kazin's devotion to literature has never been anything less than wholehearted. Reading Hart Crane's epic poem "The Bridge" was a "joy." A key passage in Swann's Way was "prodigious." Oliver Twist was, in his bookish adolescence, "a drug." It's a touchingly innocent vice.

Writing Was Everything isn't one of Mr. Kazin's big books in fact, it's the slenderest since A Walker in the City, his rhapsodic early memoir about growing up in Brooklyn. The text of the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization, delivered last year at Harvard University, this volume recapitulates—at limes shamelessly—themes, ideas and anecdotes from previous ones. Often whole passages are lifted nearly verbatim: the account of writing his first book in the reading room of the New York Public Library and his description of Delmore Schwartz's seedy digs on Greenwich Street can be found in New York Jew.

Never mind. They are good stories. And they're deployed here in the service of an argument encapsulated in the epigraph to his prologue, a quotation from the English critic John Bayley that reads, in part, "structuralism and deconstruction … have banished physical realities from literature, replacing them with the abstract play of language, the game of the signifiers." For Mr. Kazin, the dominance of literary studies over the last two decades by critics intent upon proving the opacity of the "text" (formerly known as the "poem" or "novel") is nothing less than a fraud.

"For many years now," he declares in a tone of genuine outrage, "academics high and low have preempted serious criticism; have been riding herd on students who are so unused to general reading that they have little taste of their own and are glad to be told how to read, especially what to discount." He disapprovingly quotes from Jonathan Culler, one of the foremost proponents of deconstruction, to the effect that "the history of literature in our day depends on what happens in the critical communities in universities." And he scornfully recounts a session at the 1989 convention of the Modern Language Association that delved into "encoded images of clitoral masturbation" in the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Mr. Kazin's verdict on these developments is blunt: "What nonsense." Equivocation isn't his style.

His own method is at once highly personal and classic in its antecedents. "What gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art," he argues—a restatement of Eliot's formulation, in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," that "what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it." But Mr. Kazin's models aren't the high-culture critics; he wishes to emulate the great popularizers. In Writing Was Everything, he enumerates his "herocritics": Edmund Wilson, Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Lewis Mumford, H. L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, the Virginia Woolf of The Common Reader. Of Wilson, he writes, "He was a teacher, a personal example, and I owe him much for showing me how to put a great writer solidly into one's consciousness." Many critics writing today (if there are "many") could apply that homage to Mr. Kazin himself.

He can be coy about his authority ("In the early 1950's, I had to my surprise become a full-fledged professor at distinguished universities here and abroad"), and his critical rhetoric gets overheated at times. What does it mean, for instance, to say of Camus's Stranger that it showed "man in depth, in the scale of the whole universe"? Some of his quotations, invoked in book after book, have a certain shopworn quality. (Just once he should resist citing Melville's orotund pronouncement that "genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.") Mr. Kazin writes in such brisk shorthand, hurriedly dropping in books and authors without explanation, that readers who haven't spent the last few decades boning up on their Norton anthologies risk getting left in the dust: "American writers at the opening of this century ached for the lost world of belief, as in Wallace Stevens's poem 'Sunday Morning.'" What is one to make of this associative leap? Even if we know the poem, the logic is hard to follow.

Mr. Kazin's strongest suit isn't textual criticism; it's reminiscence. His portraits of Schwartz, of Saul Bellow and Robert Lowell have the vividness of Hazlitt's "Table Talk" or Southey's memoirs of the Lake Poets. It's really to this tradition—the critic as memoirist, as writer—that Alfred Kazin belongs. I suspect that his journals, the handwritten notebooks from which he's quarried his life's work (they now repose in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library), will prove to be his most enduring literary testament.

The history of Mr. Kazin's generation, the New York intellectuals who came of age in the 1930's, has already been written a number of times, but not as yet with any distinction. In the end, what of their legacy will survive? To my mind, the novels of Saul Bellow, a handful of Delmore Schwartz's poems, and the urgent, rhapsodic prose of Alfred Kazin. If Delmore Schwartz was "the genius of the old Partisan group," as Mr. Kazin once wrote, Alfred Kazin was the critic.

The pathos of his latest book is in its title: the past tense says it all.

Robert M. Adams (review date 5 October 1995)

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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 chronological remoteness from most of the events described stands them in good stead. The period he has to cover—approximately the last sixty years—was full of quarrels, antipathies, and animosities, in many of which the young Kazin took part, but most of which have by now faded into forgetfulness. Moving through literary circles in those days, one had to take positions for or against the New Humanists (few of whom can barely be summoned up by name any more), for or against the short-lived but aggressive Agrarians, toward the ill-defined but influential New Critics, and then thread one's way through the minefields of the numerous opposing but always truculent dialecticians, Marxist and otherwise, of the Thirties and Forties.

Most of these engagements appear in the present pages as background noise—and a good thing too. The story of our own time is too familiar to need full recital, and as for important landmarks like the Spanish Civil War, the Russo-German pact, and Pearl Harbor, one finds them only casually alluded to. But after all, Kazin's central story is the rise of a ragged boy from the streets of Brownsville, with few shreds of cultural background, to a position of prestige and authority, not only as a well-known literary essayist but in the academic community as Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

He had, to begin with, a passion for reading and for discussing books; stimulated by Edmund Wilson, he was also a born teacher, but seemingly condemned by his lack of formal graduate training to labor in the lower purlieus of academe, when suddenly in the 1950s, to his great surprise, he "became a full-fledged professor at distinguished universities here and abroad." This was about ten years after the publication of his major critical work, On Native Grounds (1942). It was also a time when the colleges and universities of America were flooded with students financed by the GI Bill and cosmopolitanized to a degree by their war experiences. It was a rising tide that lifted an entire generation; and Alfred Kazin was prepared to rise with it. There is no question that he has learned more by associating, however informally, with New York editors, writers, and fellow journalists than he would have learned in the traditional marathon of graduate classes, preparation of a dissertation, and service in the lower grades for the required terms. Perhaps in one respect his training fell short—he did not pick up a strong sense of scholarly discipline. On the other hand, acquiring that forbidding quality might have been at the expense of his lively sympathy, his vivid sense of a social situation, his strong awareness of social injustice.

So Alfred Kazin has been what he has made himself, and that's no small achievement. As he has told in detail in the three volumes of his full-scale autobiography published between 1951 and 1978 (A Walker in the City, 1951; Starting Out in the Thirties, 1965; and New York Jew, 1978), it was a literary education acquired at the cost of immense effort, in the teeth of much avowed and unavowed hostility, and starting from surroundings that were hardly congenial. Kazin has told his story in the trilogy, not without vainglory, but it's pardonable and leaves the reader warm with sympathy.

And, in passing, let it be said that no one who is in the least interested in Alfred Kazin, his milieu, and the climate of modern American literature should rest content with the perfunctory, incomplete version delivered here as lectures at Harvard. The three-volume autobiography from which much of Writing was Everything has been drawn is infinitely richer and more rewarding. Taken together, the three autobiographical books are no doubt formidable, and that's apparently why they have never been re-issued with an overall title. But the poignant story of his Cousin Sophie is a jewel of heartfelt narration; the character sketches of V. F. Calverton, Delmore Schwartz, and Isaac Rosenfeld, as well as quick insights into Henry Luce and Robert Frost, provide literary observation of a high order. No less interesting are the insights into the cross-currents of thought and feeling leading up to America's entry into the second great war.

It takes a while to work through the three volumes—Kazin is nothing if not lavish with details—but despite a quarrelsome section on the McCarthy era and a condescending note on Lionel Trilling, they rank, for simple, sustained grace, among the most lyrical prose that Kazin has written and show how acute he can be about the changing moods among intellectuals during the past sixty years or so. Impressionistic views of postwar Rome, Americanized Salzburg, and war-battered Britain may bear only an incidental relation to criticism and for that matter to formal literature, but in their own right they are no mean literary achievements.

Toward the end of his new book Kazin concludes that Saul Bellow and Flannery O'Connor were the "only two American writers I knew [who] had a sense of the radical evil that had burst upon the century." In a characteristic comment, he adds that "they were both so rooted in their contrary religious backgrounds, and each had such an unswerving, deeply engraved view of the world, that it amused me to think of one trying to do justice to the other." But for a fact, literature gets fairly short shrift in the later pages of Kazin's new memoir. Part of the reason for this brevity may be that there hasn't been any spectacular flowering of postwar fiction, such as followed the first great war. Still, an age that can point to Beckett, Brecht, and Stoppard, as well as to writers of fiction like Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, plus devisers of science fiction and mysteries beyond number, not to speak of volumes of imposing criticism, is not to be passed over largely in silence.

Kazin's overlooking of criticism—not absolute but relative—calls for a brief comment. His avoidance of the subject seems itself some kind of statement. The three memoirs and the current book say a little about Edmund Wilson, but not much about his actual critical work. Other imaginative critics such as Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye are passed over in silence. This omission contrasts with the more spacious treatment of criticism in Kazin's first book, On Native Grounds, which devotes almost as much space to critical opinion as to prose fiction. The task would be more formidable now since the subject is more tangled and the scope of the current book limited; in dealing with criticism, much space would have to be given to complex argumentation; and in back of the technical discussion of deconstruction, for example, would lie the obscure scandal of Paul de Man's youthful contributions to a collaborationist journal in Belgium. That would be too much to expect Kazin to handle—though the result of avoidance is a certain sparseness of intellectual background. It's all too obvious that a culture's critical writing, whatever its intrinsic character, must be an integral part of its literature or defense against literature.

As befits a volume to mark the of a career, Writing Was Everything devoted less to rigorous analysis to quiet nostalgia. Among the passages are excerpts from early diaries:

Every once in a while a sentence in a book is a voice heard, recalling for me the delight in American landscape that I felt as I began serious work on On Native Grounds. The sentence this morning, fresh as a spring wind, is from Constance Rourke's book on Audubon. His ornithology tokened the newly recognized national sense of scale. Like Whitman's lines, Audubon's birds spoke for a continent. Rourke recalls the excitement under which I lived for weeks and weeks in 1939, when I recognized my professional as well as passionate interest in so much long-past American writing and art. In those weeks I used to walk up and down the halls of the Metropolitan Museum's American galleries, delighted by the dull glazed views of a Sunday morning in 1836 in the village of Flatbush, the solemn faces of colonial and revolutionary worthies as they posed for history—how different from the struggle to express character in the work Thomas Eakins made of the human face!

To delight in the dull and feel ecstasy in the presence of the commonplace is very much the privilege of youth. Alfred Kazin has captured more than a patch of that feeling in his short memoir, as he could hardly have done if it had not been there from the beginning. For his eightieth anniversary, the heartiest of congratulations.

Christopher Benfey (review date 9 October 1995)

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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] implies that today writing isn't everything, that something—politics or money—has replaced it. "I have never recovered from the '30s or wanted to," Kazin remarks, while mourning the days when writers such as Henry Roth "still held literature sacred." Dollars damned them, in Kazin's view. "Of course I couldn't know then that one day money would become the main interest of leading novelists whose agents, boasting of million-dollar advances, would display them like rock stars." Display the advances or the novelists, and which "leading novelists" exactly? Updike and Roth, or Stephen King and Anne Rice? In his rage, Kazin specifies neither. Such angry asides are the weakest things in the book, which at its best is not a polemic about the present but a paean, tinged with Kazin's habitual melancholy, to the past. In this wide-ranging and often rueful meditation on one critic's life, he revisits people and places about whom he has written more extensively elsewhere, revising or confirming judgments along the way.

Mark Twain said that for people in the South, the Civil War was what A.D. is elsewhere: things happened "since the waw; or du'in' the waw; or befo' the waw." Kazin's chapter titles are the same, though the war is a different one: "Before," "During" and "After the War." The richest and most vivid of these chapters is the beautiful second one, with its twin epigraphs that link the Civil War and World War II: Whitman's famous assertion that "the real war will never get into the books," and that of the London Times correspondent from Belsen, "I have something to report that lies beyond the imagination of mankind."

Kazin spent the last seven months of the war in Great Britain on assignment, covering local dissatisfaction in the armed services and wartime factories. Having recently published his great work on American writing, On Native Grounds, Kazin was welcomed by English writers and academics. Orwell was his hero, but Orwell was abroad. The closest Kazin got was Orwell's Tribune "cubbyhole," where he could smell "the rough shag tobacco that helped to undo him at the age of 46. But his cigarettes were as near as I ever got to George Orwell." Instead Kazin befriended the Scottish poet Edwin Muir, author of such marvelous—though in America little-known—poems as "The Horses" and "The Mythical Journey" ("First in the North. / The black sea-tangle beaches, / Brine-bitter stillness, tablet-strewn morass …"), and, with his wife Willa, Kafka's first English translator. For Kazin, Muir's "singular purity led to a spiritual revolution in my life (and not only because he translated Kafka)."

This frank appreciation of the religious temperament in literary writing runs throughout Writing Was Everything. It is the single most surprising thing about the book. Again and again, Kazin finds the key to an author's work—Orwell, Kafka, Milosz or Bernard Shaw ("the lonely religious nature of his radicalism")—in issues of faith and spiritual striving. After quoting a few stanzas from Hart Crane's invocation to the Brooklyn Bridge ("O harp and altar, of the fury fused, / (How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)…"), Kazin remarks that the passage is "all prayer from someone in dire need," the reading aloud of which "often left me slightly exalted, something rare enough in my experience of current American poetry."

Kazin is cagey about defining too precisely his own religious views, preferring to quote a longish passage from Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, a book that "marked an epoch" in Kazin's life. For Whitehead, not too precise himself, "religion is the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things." Especially important for Kazin's critical leanings is Whitehead's insistence that "Above and beyond all things, the religious life is not a research after comfort." Kazin particularly admires writers who have forsworn comfort for higher things.

Kazin traces his experience of the "raw hurting power that a book could have over me" to his childhood reading of Oliver Twist, when "what got to me most was Dickens's relentlessness in telling his story." It was trying to make sense of how Dickens worked on him "like a drug" that made Kazin an addict for life: "That was how I started as a critic." For Kazin, "relentlessness" is a term of approval. He finds this quality in abundance in the openly Catholic and distinctly uncomfortable work of Flannery O'Connor, which he judges "our one classic in late twentieth-century American fiction." He concedes that "there are rare lapses into editorial moralizing" in O'Connor's work, "but for the most part her relentlessness holds. Her genius is in the sharp focus of her concentration. People are made absolutes, knives without handles." "Relentless," too, are Faulkner ("the shock of Faulkner's relentlessness" in Wild Palms) and Richard Wright ("There is a relentlessness like this in Native Son …").

But Kazin reserves his highest and most extended praise for the French writer and philosopher Simone Weil (1909–1943), whom he seems willing to forgive for her "peculiar renunciation of Judaism" and her obsessive attempts to trace Christianity back to Greek philosophy rather than the Old Testament. While Kazin confesses himself "relieved never to have met Simone Weil in person"—the sheer extremity of her temperament could be terrifying, especially during the war years when she starved herself to death out of sympathy for her suffering countrymen—her writings

startled and moved me at a time when the war had left me with a painful distrust of people in power, of the official world, of the overbearing, relentlessly [a rare pejorative use of the word] radical intellectuals glibly rationalizing and in a sense excusing the Holocaust and Stalin's reprisals against repatriated Russian prisoners of war.

He finds particularly moving Weil's ascription of modern rootlessness to "a lost contact with the world's recollection of divinity," and compares her famous (and Whiteheadian) definition of prayer—"attentiveness without object"—to Emily Dickinson's attentiveness in beginning a poem "without knowing what she was beginning."

Dickinson is the occasion for one of Kazin's angriest digs at contemporary critical practice. He devotes several pages to a forceful criticism of the Southern Agrarian writers of the '20s and '30s, who aired their reactionary views in a manifesto called I'll Take My Stand, and developed the techniques of close reading that became known as the New Criticism. Kazin argues that the criticism practiced by the Agrarians-turned-New Critics—Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom and the rest—"with its exclusive airs in dissecting the language of poems," was "especially suited to its complacent agenda" (political agenda, that is), and made them deaf to the kinds of naturalistic fiction Kazin wrote about in On Native Grounds: "When it came to fiction; the emphasis on intricate, allusive style completely cut out Defoe, Fielding, Dostoevsky, Zola, Dreiser, and other masters of forceful narrative."

But Kazin finds reasons to appreciate his old Tate, "the best of the southern critics and the most intransigently reactionary," a "gentleman-racist" who once "actually refused to shake hands with Langston Hughes." (Kazin gives no details of the occasion specified, but isn't it likely that it was Hughes's leftist politics rather than his race that led to the refusal?) But Tate—and this accounts for Kazin's particular interest in him—published a pivotal essay on Emily Dickinson in 1932, in which he traced her considerable achievement to her moment and milieu:

When the feisty traditionalist Allen Tate came out for Emily Dickinson, setting her against a background of declining religious belief in New England, he was disapproving of the decline, even condescending about it in his hierarchical southern way. But he did understand the anxious suspension of belief that Dickinson was talking about in her poetry, and hence the tension that makes her glorious.

The reason that Kazin is willing to stomach all this reactionary orthodoxy is that he so much prefers it to more recent criticism of Dickinson's work. He finds particularly offensive a well-publicized session on Dickinson at the Modern Language Association convention in 1989. "The session was called 'The Muse of Masturbation,' and it was thronged," Kazin laments:

it was noted that the hidden strategy of Emily Dickinson's poetry is in her use of "encoded images of clitoral masturbation to transcend sex-role limitations imposed by the nineteenth-century patriarchy." The basic idea was that Dickinson loaded her work with references to peas, crumbs, and flower buds in order to broadcast secret messages of forbidden onanistic delights to other female illuminati.

Well, easy enough to laugh at, but remember that in On Native Grounds Kazin made a name for himself by celebrating the victory of American writers over the genteel prejudices of the nineteenth century. ("To be young then," he writes of the '30s in Writing Was Everything, "was just the right time for fighting what in the universities was still the genteel tradition.") Isn't there something genteel, even relentlessly genteel, about Kazin's smirking rejection of masturbation as a possible subtext in Dickinson's poetry? When Kazin returns to Tate later in Writing Was Everything, he can't resist bringing up Tate's interpretation of Dickinson again, remarking that the "decay of the New England religious tradition" "certainly seems more to the point than the ideological delirium sweeping the 1990s, when we learn that the key to Emily Dickinson shouldn't female sexuality be as much a "key" to a major writer as religion? Everyone knows that Dickinson was a great erotic poet, and nobody knows for certain that she didn't die a virgin. Harold Bloom has found masturbation to be an underlying theme in both Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Kate Chopin's The Awakening—pretty good company for Dickinson, and hardly from a critic likely to be accused of "ideological delirium."

Alfred Kazin began his career by writing reviews for this magazine: "As the whale-ship was for Herman Melville, reviewing was to be 'my Yale College and my Harvard.'" In his new book he vividly describes the TNR scene during the '30s, and the subsequent ways in which he has managed to be in the academy but not of it. (This odd man out on campus has a devastating eye for academic enclaves; see his portraits of Black Mountain and Amherst in New York Jew.) Kazin has made his resistance to most literary theory and his passionate engagement with his times into major strengths in his work. His vividly written books have been as much a part of American literature as a commentary on it, especially what I take to be his masterpiece, A Walker in the City, which begins with his unforgettable evocation of a return to Brownsville:

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 and smell the leak out of the men's room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.

In his new book Kazin maintains that "true criticism" is "the ability to state preferences, to make choices on the basis of what is said in the only way available to that particular writer to say it." That's not a rallying cry for much current practice, and Kazin knows it. Moreover, the stress on "stating preferences" sounds more like a reviewer's credo than the broader and deeper understanding that we expect from criticism. Even On Native Grounds, recently reissued and still much read, reads at limes like a series of reviews—of Faulkner (chided for "the discursive fog" of his style, and "his inability to choose between Dostoevsky and Hollywood Boulevard"), Dreiser, Cather and the rest—rather than a steadily building argument. In this regard, Kazin takes after his model for the true critic, Edmund Wilson, that "relentlessly turned literary instinct that he considered Dante a steadier, greater craftsman than Shakespeare."

What is finally most poignant, and most lasting, in Kazin's work is not the "stated preferences," but his steady sense of himself as an outsider—the title New York Jew declares that status, and the phrase "native grounds" invites an uneasy contrast to European landscapes. His excitement about twentieth-century American writing came from his discovery of a kindred alienation, a pervasive American sense of being on the "outside," among our writers from "those dark and still little-understood years of the 1880s and 1890s" through the Depression. Camus's The Stranger (also translated as The Outsider) comes in for high praise in Writing Was Everything, and Kazin has drawn much of his sustenance from aligning himself with the outsider criticism "written by the creatively great"—Coleridge, Emerson, Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot—rather than with the criticism written by professors inside the academy.

The best passages in A Walker in the City evoke the outsider's perspective:

I felt then that I stood outside all that, that I would be alien forever, but that I could at least keep the trunk open by reading. And though I knew somewhere in myself that a Ryder, an Emily Dickinson, an Eakins, a Whitman, even that fierce-browed old German immigrant Roebling, with his flute and his metaphysics and his passionate love of suspension bridges, were alien, too, alien in the deepest way, like my beloved Blake, my Yeshua [Kazin, unlike Weil, claims Jesus for the Jews: "our own Yeshua … the very embodiment of everything I have waited so long to hear from a Jew,"] my Beethoven, my Newman—nevertheless I still thought of myself then as standing outside America. I read as if books would fill my every gap, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville.

Much of the considerable pleasure of reading Writing Was Everything comes from Kazin's account of going into that "great world" into which books and writing about books carried him. In his final sentence he makes a prayer for that world, as though its light has been dimmed in recent writing: "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?"

Patrick H. Samwa (review date 16 March 1996)

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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.

But the leitmotif running throughout these journal entries is Kazin's own identity as a Jew and how he relates to other Jews. At a dinner party at Hannah Arendt's residence, for example, Kazin was so intimidated by Heinrich Blücher, whom Arendt maintained was the decisive influence on her The Origins of Totalitarianism, that he later retreated to his bed, wondering when his own time of recognition would come. "God, my God, there is nothing to do with this life but to think, understand, to be aware—to love the predicament of being alive. No miracles please, no shortcuts, no violations of for disappointing you, no disappointment with them for being only themselves, as you wish for nothing so much in this life as to be yourself!" Because the journal entries are often undated, the reader must supply the transitions, aware that intervals of silence are integral to the production of music. Though Kazin knew pre- and post-war Europe, he was most of all a passionate observer of his own native grounds, where his Jewish sense of "homelessness" could be temporarily abated.

Marshall Berman (review date 6 May 1996)

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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 that it remember us. Jews, of course, are used to days of remembrance; we live and die by them. On the other hand, the churning momentum of New York condemns us all as obsolete, often before we get old—remember the beautiful Jewish Grand Concourse?—and blows us away. It will be fascinating to see how this contradiction plays out, though not many of us will be here to see it.

Everyone agrees that Alfred Kazin, as much as anyone who ever lived, typifies the N.Y.J.I. But what does this incarnation mean? What's so special about these people? And why should the rest of us need them, anyhow? I think it's the way they're both smart and vulgar: They are full of Plato and Marx and Freud and everybody else on the Great Books list, but they also think ideas are there to be used, and they want to use the best ideas they can lay their hands on to change the world. They love intellectual play, but they play loud and rough, like they once played stickball or double-dutch in the streets. No matter how much they learn or how far they go, they never leave these streets, never forget the poor immigrant neighborhoods they came from: the stoops and subways, the shops and schoolyards, the pushcarts and libraries. Their vision of life is always colored with childhood memory and desire and always cleft in two: the grimy vibrant streets in the foreground, the bridges and skyscrapers of the golden city in the distance, the cosmic rupture that Kazin once called "The Block and Beyond." America needs its N.Y.J.I.s because until it can learn to know both, and be both, it can't even start to be true to itself.

Much of the talk about N.Y.J.I.s asserts, or simply assumes, that they're a thing of the past. This nostalgic discourse actually tells us nothing about N.Y.J.I.s, but it shows that our town needs better census takers. In fact, there are plenty of N.Y.J.I.s, and they are doing fine, but they come in funny places and you have to know where and how to look. Has anybody checked out children's literature? Maurice Sendak is a writer and illustrator of genius. Many of his stories are perfect models of N.Y.J.I, sensibility: They raise the grungy everyday routines of Jewish families and neighborhoods to a poetic and metaphysical intensity. I am bringing him up here because there are deep affinities between him and Kazin. Both know the romance and the terror and the yearning for transcendence that saturate a Jewish child's everyday life. His Where the Wild Things Are (1963) presented Max, a child as sixties existential hero, a boy who dares to look into the eyes of all the monsters he can dream of. (With one stroke, Sendak not only revived the name "Max" but transformed it from "old world" to avant-garde.)

Sendak's masterpiece, In the Night Kitchen (1970), is another, far deeper quest romance. It imagines a little boy separating from his mother, discovering his body, and also discovering his capacity to act and make things happen. In darkest night, Mickey falls into free fall "out of his clothes" (he was naked; he had a penis; in many American towns and school districts the book was instantly banned), "into the light of the night kitchen." The kitchen is a claustrophobic chamber where three giant bakers, all replicas of Oliver Hardy, mix him into their batter. But just as the bakers are about to throw him in the oven, he thrusts through the dough, escapes and becomes who he is: "I'm not the milk and the milk's not me. I'm Mickey." Then Mickey shapes the dough that clings to him into a soft, Oldenburgesque piper cub, and takes off in it, transforming what was his prison into a medium of freedom. In a grand, centerfold set-piece, he flies over the neighborhood: The packages of food from the kitchen become urban buildings, saltshakers become church domes, loaves of white bread become subway cars, a table full of loaves becomes the local el, and a bottle of milk metamorphoses into a skyscraper that looms over the whole scene.

At the top of the skyscraper Mickey shakes off the dough and, naked again, dives in swims to the top and pours milk down, giving the bakers what they need. Now it's almost tomorrow; our hero crows like a rooster and goes back into nude free fall, "straight into bed, carefree and dried." The last page is a curtain call: Mickey clasps a milk bottle happily, surrounded by a rainbow. Look, he has come through! "And that's why, thanks to Mickey, we have cake every morning." A Brooklyn Jewish boy's journey to the end of the night brings identity for him and sweetness for us. The N.Y.J.I.'s imaginative power can transform a child's nightmare into a Bildungsroman, a story of growing up.

Alfred Kazin has been criticizing books, and criticizing life, since the early 1930s. All his books are interesting, but his first two, On Native Grounds (1942) and A Walker in the City (1954), are masterpieces. On Native Grounds offers an expansive vision of the America of Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, Jack London, Alfred Stieglitz et al. Kazin has always been adamant in his anti-Communism, but in fact On Native Grounds is a perfect Popular Front book, immense in horizon, scathing in criticism of big business, but visionary in its hope for America. (Popular Front: the years when the slogan "Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism" appeared every day on the masthead of the Daily Worker.) A Walker in the City is a memoir of growing up poor in Jewish Brownsville. Its portrayals of family and neighborhood are heart-rending but lyrically beautiful, in a vein reminiscent of D.H. Lawrence, Henry Roth and (just a bridge away) Betty Smith. If you can get through this book without tears, you aren't reading hard enough. But even in its deepest sadness, A Walker in the City is written with total self-assurance.

Kazin would bring out several collections of critical essays, culminating in An American Procession: The Major American Writers From 1830 to 1930: The Crucial Years (1984), and two more autobiographical volumes, Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) and New York Jew (1978). All these books offer brilliant literary analyses and marvelous novelistic accounts of people and scenes. But they lack the aura of enchantment that those first two books had, and that put Kazin on our cultural map forever. Still, like the Wordsworth character who has lost the "visionary gleam," Kazin has kept striving for the insights of the "philosophic mind." (Or like a pitcher who has lost his youthful fastball, he has taught himself a whole new array of pitches and built a new career on his brains.) He has kept working, decade after decade, with an awesome persistence and unrelenting energy. And he has worked not only on other writers and their books—hundreds of writers, thousands of books—but on himself and on his life.

The title of Kazin's new book, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, may give us the hope that we are going to get closer to his life, to get to know him in a depth we haven't seen before. Alas, no such luck! The book tells us plenty of fascinating things, some of them pretty intimate, yet in the end A Lifetime Burning contains more mysteries than revelations. The mysteries strike us right away. What were these 341 pages of journals "Selected and Edited by the Author" selected from? Was it 600 pages or 50,000? (Kazin has told interviewers that he has kept a journal continuously since the age of 10, but he tells readers of this book nothing.) What was his principle of selection? None of these entries are dated, except within intervals of two to twenty-eight years, and none are framed in ways that might help us see where he is coming from. (Some people will have fun guessing the dates from their contexts; this assumes they are in strict chronological order, but in fact Kazin offers no guarantees.) Some of the entries are highly polished essays that have been published before, so that we think, "Wait, where have I met this woman before? And why am I seeing her again now?" Some are sharply revised accounts of tales earlier told—so that some of us will say, "I knew he and Hannah Arendt weren't 'just friends'!" Some are polemical attempts to settle scores with ex-wives or fellow intellectuals (Allen Tate, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger, Norman Podhoretz et al.). Some are simply clippings from the day's news, reprinted without comment, though they are usually items about which plenty could be said. Some read like graffiti in a jail cell, or what N.Y.J.I. Paul Simon would call "the words of the prophets … written on the subway walls." Kazin knows how to read city walls: "on a wall in the West Eighties," he records the graffito, "Un poco de luz y no mas sangre [A little light and no more blood]—Cervantes." His shortest entry, reprinted completely here, is this: "Black night! Black night!"

How do we sort all these voices out? In fact, this book's polyphonic form, its confusing abundance of authorial voices, is the most fascinating thing about it. With all these voices inside him (and maybe more that we haven't heard yet), it must have been frustrating to go through all those years speaking in one voice alone. It must have required great discipline, especially since so much of Kazin's work has been with Modernist writers whose genius is to let it all hang out. Now, in his 80s, he is being more like them, letting the voices resound and interact, not demanding resolution, just letting go. It is a courageous attempt to grow (the N.Y.J.I, word is chutzpah) and to fulfill the romantic promise he proclaims in his title, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment. This title is something like a favorite image of mine, from one of my generation's great N.Y.J.I.s., Bob Dylan: "He not busy being born is busy dying." In Kazin's new polyphony, he is busy being born.

We have to admire Kazin's guts, but that doesn't tell us what to do next. In the hundreds of critical essays he's written—and in his life studies as well—it was possible for us to act as judges of whether or not he was right. (Of course, there was no guarantee that we would be right.) Now, in A Lifetime Burning, it isn't even clear who "he" is, let alone how we're supposed to read him. It's as if he is presenting "Alfred Kazin" to us, like a protagonist in one of those Modernist novels: how about, say, the latest hot novel from Barcelona or Sâo Paulo, The Journals of Alfredo K—? We have to become detectives to read him right, and we don't even know was there a crime? We better gel busy being born ourselves.

We first meet Alfredo in his youth, where he is on the verge of, and then in the midst of, spectacular success, but tormented with guilt. "The age was with me," he says, describing the reception of On Native Grounds in and after 1942. He had been rejected by the army for health reasons (unspecified), but "in the midst of the war … my wildest hopes [are] amazingly realized." Overnight, it seems, he is drenched with adulation, money pours in, magazines beg him to write and work for them, women throw themselves at him,

women in the morning light, the proud beautiful women of New York, the breasts and hot purple mouths of the Bergdorf women, the fantastic sexiness of New York in certain cool restaurants, all of it hot and cold at once.

Yet everything in his new life reminds him of his dear mother, "Mama in her eternal housedress." And: "Looking back is opening myself to everything out of childhood I've wanted desperately to lose." Alfredo K. lies awake in a cold sweat and nauseated, awaiting "the invisible hostile stranger who has never actually met me but has condemned me in advance." He keeps track of the Holocaust as it unfolds, and occasionally manages to get it into The New Republic, where he edits the back of the book. But when the war ends, he notes that "I did nothing to beat Hitler. I saved no one"; not only that, but, after being put on 4-F, he thrived all through the war; and now he feels guilty as hell.

Then we see him through a long middle age where he is successful and highly esteemed, but unable to sustain the love and creativity of his dreams. He takes pride in identifying himself as a Jew, but rejects the Jewish forms of chauvinism that flower after 1967. He defends liberal democracy against both left (such as it is) and right. He is especially outraged by (he crew we now call neocons, some of whom he grew up with, who have come to pride themselves on their lack of human feeling. In these conflicts we are likely to feel he is in the right, though his eternal self-righteousness grates. But being right doesn't make him happy. At last he falls in love with a woman who sounds stable and devoted: Judith, to whom the book is dedicated. Even then, "I writhe sleepless in a bed that is like a raft in a devouring ocean…. Black night! Black night!"

At some point after 1978 (remember, nothing is dated), Alfredo K. begins to connect his melancholy with God:

Stop indulging yourself, Kazin, in anything except work! But don't forget to pray, for God is the only continuity and by praying, even by trying to pray, miserable schismatic that you are, you are in the vicinity of His duration, the very hope and sign of the Everlasting.

Alfredo's God sounds very abstract and metaphysical, in the post-Bergson vein, à la Simone Weil, a symbol of durée. On the other hand, this God has the power to put him through a very concrete personal hell. Note the strange word Alfredo uses against himself: "schismatic." This is the language of the Spanish Inquisition, often used as a preface to murder—of Jews, Protestants, Muslims, hundreds of thousands of Others. For Alfredo to condemn himself with this word is especially weird, since it was the followers of Jesus who schismatized Judaism. Why is Alfredo forgetting the history he learned in those Brownsville libraries, identifying with the aggressor, and drowning himself in guilt? We never find out. In an adoring entry/essay about Simone Weil, he says she said that the most important thing about a person is, "What are you going through?" But we never learn what Alfredo himself was going through, what brought him to this pass.

Alfredo tries to reinvent "the argument for Jesus, not Christ the Lord," apparently unaware how many twentieth-century Jews have been there before. (Could Kazin have forgotten Sholem Asch?) He rediscovers sin and evil: "The wish to obliterate our 'brother' is as strong as the need for sex"—which means, for Kazin, very strong indeed. "In the middle of the night … I feel up against the ropes … I pray to get beyond myself." Reading page after page of inner torment, any normally decent reader will want to hold Kazin's hand; probably not even his ex-wives wish him such hell. But forget it, it's not our hands he wants. In his "Black night! Black night!" he is so "desperate for grace" that only God will do. Maybe because he's so desperate, he feels no leverage to ask this God any tough questions about the Holocaust, or about any of the other public horrors that, for most of this book; he remembers so well.

Does Alfredo K. ever resolve his religious crisis? Kazin keeps us in the dark: In the last fifty pages, the proto-Christian vocabulary simply disappears. And yet, the splendid final "old age" section, which starts with radiation treatment for cancer in 1991, sounds as if he outgrows both his terror and his need for grace. Waiting for radiation, he sounds more humanly centered than anywhere else in the book:

Every day there are new faces. The young girls make me shudder, it seems so unjust. There is a men's group of my generation, all in their seventies, alte kockers who sit around recalling old radio shows…. It gives me a pang to hear again the best lines of Fred Allen, my favorite satirist from a time when anyone named J. Danforth Quayle would have been straight man to Groucho and not so near the presidency of the United States…. Once these men would have met to play pinochle around the pool at Grossinger's. Now they wait, still all good humor with each other, for the machine that is going to postpone our death.

Is it the sense of imminent death, "our death," that gives him a connection with people and with life that he's never felt? We can't say for sure, but it's delicious to see this man so relaxed, so glad to be part of a community. The twenty-five pages that follow are familiar subjects—cameos of the living and the dead, of childhood and maturity in Kazin's life, climaxing (as always) with his parents—and yet written with a mellowness that's so new. When his parents come onstage (as we know they will), and the story of their lifelong misery and sadness is told for what seems like the hundredth time, it's in a new key: They're not so alone this time; now they join in the company of a bunch of alter kockers that—thanks to Kazin's new Magic Realism—includes their son, opening doors for them, laughing at the past, loving life.

What a long night Kazin has gone through! It's a thrill to see him return to a new morning, like Mickey, "carefree and dried," with new powers and new gifts and new joy. Does it mean we, too, can go through the night kitchen and emerge more alive than ever? New York had better love a man who can show us how to make it through the night and be busy being born in the morning. If we forget, then those who remember will have to start doing something New York Jews know how to do well: make noise.

John L. Brown (review date Spring 1996)

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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 little as criticism can reach them." He recalls the changes he has witnessed as he has lived through a number of literary periods: the Marxist, in the thirties, when Proust was consigned to the dustbin of history; the "New Criticism" of the forties and fifties; the "angry" sixties, "when Faulkner was condemned since he had contributed nothing" to the civil-rights movement; and finally, the "unfocussed" seventies, eighties, and nineties, when "tides of ideology washed over me without mercy."

During the summer of 1934 Kazin became one of "the crowd of hacks" doing reviews for the New Republic, which launched him on his career as critic: "Nothing really qualified me to write reviews at all, except that I was qualified for nothing else." Here he met Edmund Wilson, whose Axel's Castle introduced him to the great modernists: "Wilson was a teacher, a personal example." The Great Depression encouraged the rise of communism among the literati, although most of them, including Wilson and Kazin, soon lost their enthusiasm for Marxism. During this period Kazin became acquainted with Katherine Anne Porter, "a great hater," and a number of Afro-American writers, notably Richard Wright, "the most enduring talent of 20th century American writing," and "the more polished and sophisticated" James Baldwin.

In 1945 Kazin traveled to London to report on the social crisis in Britain. Upon the conclusion of his assignment, he "fiercely wanted to learn Europe" at a time when Europe "was crazy to learn about American writers." In Paris he discovered Camus and L'etranger as well as Sartre, who was then at the height of his notoriety. His readings in Camus, in Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, heightened his interest in philosophical and spiritual problems and led him to Simone Weil, the French writer who attributed "the death of Europe in World War II" to "the eclipse of a God embodying absolute good."

After the war Kazin returned to New York to "the Partisan Review crowd" and found new friends there, particularly Delmore Schwartz. He rediscovered the Brooklyn of his boyhood in his book A Walker in the City, hailed Hart Crane's poem on the Brooklyn Bridge as "a modern epic." He encountered Hannah Arendt, "an irresistible teacher and intellectual force," and persuaded Harcourt-Brace to publish her Origins of Totalitarianism, which "had the force of revelation, announcing a new dark period." Two American writers he found shared this sense of foreboding: Saul Bellow and Flannery O'Connor, so different in their backgrounds but united in their sense of "radical evil."

Kazin concludes with an homage to Czeslaw Milosz, whose fears about "what will result from an internal erosion of religious belief" have close links with both Weil and Arendt. The three of them, it would seem, form a kind of "Holy Trinity" for Kazin. In his later years he has dwelt increasingly on the contemporary spiritual crisis and in his closing statement asks, "But where—and how—is the writer to be found who will have this inner certainty to see our lives with the eyes of faith and so make the world shine again?"

Robert Alter (review date 12 August 1996)

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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 individual journal entries are undated, and, within each larger unit, quite a few of the entries appear to have been rearranged thematically, out of chronological sequence. It is surely a writer's prerogative to reorder raw auto-biographical materials in this fashion, but readers should be forewarned that what they will encounter here is not a gathering of untouched candid-camera shots from early manhood to old age but a composed self-portrait. A Lifetime Burning presents the image of the writer's inner life that the writer chooses to present to the world.

Some aspects of that image are perfectly consonant with what one knows of Kazin from his previous books. He repeatedly conveys the sense of a man who lives constantly and passionately with literature, which is an increasingly rare aptitude when so many of those who profess literature in the academy seem to have little use for it. In Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew, Kazin demonstrated deft skill in portraying the writers he met whose work engaged him. In these journals, with the focus more on the observer than on what he observes, the confessions of enthusiasm sometimes sound like notes of an intellectual groupie, such as this comment on first meeting Hannah Arendt in the 1940s: "Darkly handsome, bountifully interested in everything, this forty-year-old German refugee with a strong accent and such intelligence—thinking positively cascaded out of her in waves—that I was enthralled, by no means unerotically."

Kazin is an enthusiast. He is for or against. His observations on the books he has been reading are alternately an expression of excitements and an attempt to get writers in proper focus, and also a reveling in the pleasure of that very effort of discrimination. Some of this is no more than a restatement of commonplaces: "If Kafka became the head and symbol of 'the age of anxiety,' Orwell was the hero of whatever fight literature in our ghastly time has put up against totalitarianism." "The tyranny of love in Proust fills all the spaces once occupied by custom, law, religion." But elsewhere his formulations show real critical edge, as when he remarks of Harold Brodkey, "I see him not as an author in command of his material but as a character looking for an author to do him justice."

Kazin is even sharper on the other Harold: "What he does is to put the head of Harold Bloom right down on the poem, imprints on it his own mental formation, his signature invocation of Emerson-Whitman-Nietzsche-Pater…. I do not understand what this inspiring procession of names in Bloom's special code refers to outside of his need to be one of the procession." This last objection flows from Kazin's underlying sense of the purpose of criticism, which is to register a deep, open attentiveness to the imaginative authority of the particular work. His lapidary comment on Emily Dickinson nicely illustrates this attentiveness: "An explosion of concentrated material for a moment … that makes a wholly new myth and mental order of things. You see life her way and not in the old way, yours."

What, for Kazin, is the point of writing about such things, or about anything? Like everyone who writes for publication, he is surely interested in audiences and approval, is actuated in party by, let us say, professional motives. But what this selection of his journals highlights is that writing is, for him, before all else a vocation in the strictly theological sense. "Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have," he observes in 1946, at a moment when he is suspended between marriages and between phases in his life. The feeling of steadiness comes from his conviction that writing (and the reading that is necessary for writing) is his ordained task, the thing he has come into the world to do. Thus, after the breakup of his second marriage: "I will not give up on my book, my son, on all those people I love and who love me. I have work to do … God, my God, there is nothing to do with this life but to think, to understand, to be aware—to love the predicament of being alive." Actual prayer occurs in these journals with surprising frequency, sometimes, as here, in moments of resolution and affirmation, sometimes out of acute pain and loneliness. ("In this monotonously anguishing world one needs another language. One is desperate for grace.")

The writer who emerges from Kazin's selected journals is, unlike anyone else associated with the old Partisan Review (except perhaps Saul Bellow), a man steeped in reverence for the sensory world, for the eternal order of things behind it and for literature as the tentative articulation of a bridge between the two. Though the title of Kazin's new book is taken from T. S. Eliot's "East Coker," the vitalistic faith it expresses sounds closer to D. H. Lawrence: "But if God is life, a great blaze of life, a surcharge … If you believe in God, you are continually exposed to and can never deny this great and terrible radiance of sheer being—everywhere."

Kazin's books repeatedly, stridently, deliciously affirm his identity as a Jew, but it is interesting to observe that the affirmation of that identity is virtually irrelevant to the religious vision of A Lifetime Burning. Treading in the ashes of European Jewry at the end of the war, he is recurrently troubled by the Holocaust, often reflects on the peculiar fate of the Jews at the crossroads of history, and several times comments with approval on tivated by Jews. Kazin responded to the ghastly fate of Europe's Jews long before most of his contemporaries saw fit to address the subject, and this is surely admirable. But his journals, or at any rate the selection of them that he has chosen to present to the public, reveal a writer engaged only episodically in the contemplation of history and political events.

The predominant objects of his interest are his sundry aesthetic and intellectual enthusiasms and, above all, his quest for a way to reach out to God. Though he thinks of himself as a believer, "I have trouble knowing why I believe (when I do)…. I do not share the confidence of Jews who arc sure of the Covenant, of Christians sure that Jesus incarnates the word made flesh." In a later entry, he states this predicament of a purely personal belief more extremely: "Being religiously 'Jewish' in this 'Christian' society can be so private as to be almost inarticulate." There is something a little odd about this remark. For all its deficiencies and inauthenticities, American Jewry has developed vigorous and even original forms of religious expression. But Kazin, evidently by choice, has remained apart from Jewish collective experience, and he has not much informed himself about the Jewish heritage. His friend Edmund Wilson, when he was busy acquiring Hebrew, once chided Kazin on his lack of Jewish knowledge.

There are many comments in these journals about individual figures, groups and politics that one might want to debate, but for a book chiefly conceived as a testament of faith, debate seems beside the point. Indeed, A Lifetime Burning compels one to revise certain preconceptions about what it means for Kazin to be a critic. If the task of the critic is to make discriminations, to pronounce judgments, to argue for particular interpretations, the self-portrait in these pages is rather of a man who uses the instruments of writing to try to make sense, first, of the very gift of consciousness in himself and, then, of how writers have variously sought to articulate their own consciousness of the world against the background of eternity.

The last entry in the book is a reflection on how literature, in distinction to science and its dedication to objective demonstration, avails itself of a "cardinal human loneliness." It does this, Kazin remarks, drawing on his own lifetime of struggle with the medium of writing, "with language that is always failing and stumbling, breaking the writer's heart with its mere approximations to the thing in his mind. Besides, language is a halting servant but can be a terrible master," This is powerfully resonant, but it is a little bleak.

It becomes bleaker still when he goes on to speak of the failure of expectations and the "all too real fall of man" that each of us is said to experience in introspection. Like most religious views of literature, this has the effect of giving short shrift to the social (and comic) functions of literature, just as the understandable stress on the inevitable, heartbreaking inadequacy of all writing does not do justice to the great masters who miraculously get it just right—Pope, Proust, Mallarmé, Yeats—and who revel in the sheer exuberance of linguistic invention—Rabelais, Joyce, Nabokov and, above all, Shakespeare.

There are, of course, central writers in our tradition who are obsessed with a transcendent realm (Blake, Dickinson) or, failing that, on a realm of negative transcendence (Melville, Kafka). But any literary criticism enamored of the transcendent can scarcely accommodate the bracingly secular and worldly impulse Fielding, Diderot, Stendhal and Henry James explore the quandaries of men and women living in the here-and-now of society, with the limitations and the resources of their imperfect human intelligence, and without resort to divinity. Indeed, modern literature has long been the most subtle vehicle for skepticism, and in our own century, certainly, the skeptical uses of imaginative literature have been pushed to a variety of extremes.

Yet A Lifetime Burning is scarcely intended as a comprehensive account of the meaning of engagement in literature. What it does evoke, quite poignantly, is how writing and reading and writing about reading can serve the most serious spiritual ends for this post traditional Jew, who is a kind of hidden stranger among his New York intellectual peers.

John L. Brown (review date Spring 1997)

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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 speculates sadly on "what will result from an internal erosion of religious belief" and concludes, "But where—and how—is the writer to be found who will have the inner certainty to see our lives with the eyes of faith and so make the world shine again?" This 1996 reprint reveals how well An American Procession has aged over the past decade, successfully withstanding the critical tumult of the postwar period, remaining unaffected (but concerned) by current ideological, gender, and ethnic movements and faithful to Kazin's unswerving attachment to literature as literature. He challenges scholars to take another look at their "rethinking of the traditional literary canon." All the major participants in "the procession," with the exception of Emily Dickinson, are made up of "dead white males," beginning with Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Hawthorne, and Whitman and continuing, in the next generation, with Melville, Mark Twain, William and Henry James, Dreiser, Henry Adams, and Stephen Crane, then finally Eliot and Pound, Faulkner and Hemingway. The concluding chapter, "Retrospect, 1932," covering "the '20's and the Great American Thing," treats the work of Dos Passos and Fitzgerald, with notes on Virgil Thomson, Man Ray, Margaret Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and other stars of the American colony on the Rive Gauche. A large number of women are constantly mentioned in passing, but they remain on "the sidelines" of the procession. It would be an error, however, to assume that Kazin has anything of "the male chauvinist" about him. He points out that both Henry Adams and Henry James thought that "American men were less interesting that their women." And the brilliant chapter on Dickinson recalls the importance of other nineteenth-century women writers-Harriet Beecher Stowe, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott, and Helen Hunt Jackson, among others.

Kazin, now in his early eighties and still publishing (Writing was Everything, 1995; A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, 1996), has assumed the role once occupied by Edmund Wilson as the influential dean of American critics, who rises above ideological conflicts to assert calmly and in eminently readable prose his major concern with literature as literature. He consistently testifies, to quote Rene Wellek, that there is no history without literature and no literature without history. One quite understands why the Harvard University Press has reissued Procession. Erudite, enthusiastic, and entertaining, it could serve as an ideal text for university courses in American literature. Better even than a video cassette!

Paul Herman (review date 12 October 1997)

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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 things, but surely some things it cannot be—a search for faith, for instance. Kazin is serious about his notion of "everything," though, and in his new book, God and the American Writer, he argues that spiritual ardors more or less resembling his own, frustrated and vague but persistent, hover over entire regions of America's classic literature.

He reminds us that in Puritan days theologians like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather (who wrote a book defending the execution of witches) and poets like Anne Bradstreet believed in a personal God, an institutional church and immortal life hereafter, and they wrote their tracts and poems within the bracing confines of those beliefs. But in later times those beliefs turned to smoke; at least they did for the writers of serious literature. And for people with a religious turn of mind, the effect afterward was like standing in a place where a cathedral had long ago burned to the ground, gazing at trees and sky through empty space that had once been walls and ceiling. Instead of the old Puritan divines, the 20th century has had poets like John Berryman, who looked back on Mistress Anne Bradstreet and reflected on what could no longer be believed; and instead of the ferocious Mathers, our century has had critics like Edmund Wilson—a Mather by blood, but who said, "We must simply live without religion" (which didn't prevent Wilson from studying Hebrew to work up his own gloss on the sacred texts).

Kazin devotes his chapters to Hawthorne, Emerson (who "began as a religion but ended as literature"), Harriet Beecher Stowe, Melville, Whitman, Abraham Lincoln (considered as a writer, not a politician), Emily Dickinson, William James (who saw religion "as therapy"), Mark Twain (a strange case), Eliot (stranger), Frost and Faulkner. And in each of these writers Kazin sees a search for something like faith, or at any rate a grappling—not with God Himself but with an under inableness that always seems to be disappearing around the corner. Kazin's way of describing these searches and grapplings has its oddities. He presents himself as if he were writing a conventional argument, which you expect to see march steadily forward through the phases of theme, elaboration and resolution. Instead, he interweaves his own emotional responses with quotations from one writer or another to produce an especially lyrical prose-poetry, which follows a logic all its own.

The style is peculiarly unsuited for certain kinds of straightforward exposition. In several passages of the book he leaves me struggling to understand exactly what he means. There are writers whom Kazin appreciates at a less than rapturous level, such as Emerson (whose spirit of mad excess rubs him the wrong way, even if he does get off the happy remark that Emerson lands us "with a jolt in the lap of God") and Mark Twain (whose mischievousness is funnier than I think Kazin knows, though he calls him a "funnyman"). And since emotional response is everything in Kazin's style, his commentary on these and a couple of others among his chosen writers lies a little flat across the page. But then the roving spotlight of his attention lands on some further writer or remark that sends him into ecstasies of appreciation, and the effect is spectacular and brilliant.

He goes trudging after Melville across the bony wastes of Palestine, which Melville visited in the years after completing Moby-Dick, and Kazin nearly groans in sympathy over Melville's spiritual travails. He adores Emily Dickinson's remark, "It is true that the unknown is the largest need of intellect, although for this no one thinks to thank God." Dickinson, he says, roamed "this world as if it were interstellar space." I am not persuaded that Eliot fits into his general scheme of what might be called post-religious religion. Eliot really did think he believed in an old-fashioned way. Kazin doesn't care: "All I know is that the intense pleasure I get from 'Four Quartets' is mostly in the ravishing lines, not in the supposed coming together of the Trinity." But then, in one of his best chapters, he turns to Frost, who says of people looking out to sea:

     They cannot look out far.      They cannot look in deep.      But when was that ever a bar      To any watch they keep?

That is Kazin's idea precisely—half of it, anyway, given that a sympathy for righteous wrath, as in Old Testament curse hurling, constitutes another half. You might wonder: how can Kazin look so appreciatively on divine thunderbolts if his notion of divinity remains so insistently vague? But as I figure it, sympathy for righteous indignation may come prior to any belief in God, may even argue for God's existence, as if to say, if sin exists, so must condemnation, which must come from somewhere. Kazin shows that Lincoln trod a syllogistic path along those lines, and allowed his hatred of slavery to lead him from his youthful lawbook rationalism to the most titanic invocation of God's wrath America has ever produced, in his second inaugural address.

To read Kazin on Lincoln and Stowe and some other Civil War-era writers is positively thrilling. American literature, even apart from the literature of the South, has not always been especially sound on the evils of slavery and the virtues of the war that ended it. Hawthorne, as Kazin shows, was a Northern opponent of the Civil War, and in later years Hawthorne-like positions were taken up by Edmund Wilson, in his book on the Civil War (not to mention by John Updike, whom Kazin discusses only in a passing, dismissive remark, and a variety of lesser writers like Gore Vidal). But Kazin will have none of that. Slavery infuriates him. He draws his sword. He is great. His God may be elusive but He is angry, and the chapters that Kazin devotes to Stowe and Lincoln, the thunderers, are so magnificent that as I read them my lungs began to heave.

A few Puritan predecessors aside, American literature, considered as a continuous tradition, got its start with Emerson, which means that it is now only some 160 years old. It is worth reflecting that Alfred Kazin has stood at the center of that literary tradition for more than a third of its existence—stood at its center not just as a critic, in the sense of someone commenting from the outside, but as a literary artist himself, with greater or lesser success (and, in this present book, with both). In God and the American Writer he strolls from writer to writer as if through the rooms of his own house, occasionally shaking hands, by means of an anecdote, with someone he has known personally. I am only sorry that he doesn't take us past Faulkner into the age of, among others, the Jewish writers. About the Jewish writers it is natural to ask: what does the slow fading of Christian certainty mean for people who were never Christian to begin with? But perhaps by being who he is and writing about Melville and Dickinson and Frost the way he does, Kazin has already answered that question, at least in regard to himself.

Jennifer Schuessler (essay date 27 October 1997)

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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 forefront of American literary criticism for nearly 60 years now.

In his memoirs, as in his criticism, Kazin's writing has been marked by a persistent introversion, a focus on the sovereign self against the backdrop of political and social drama. "I've always felt myself to be not lonely, but on some kind of strange personal journey," Kazin tells PW on a recent sunny afternoon, hours before the start of the Jewish New Year. "As a kid, I felt I was not easily associated with other people."

The publication by Knopf this month of his ninth book of criticism, God and the American Writer, marks the latest stage in the journey. With this book, Kazin heads back once again to the 19th-century American crossroads, examining the shards of faith manifest in the work of 12 classic Americans writers, ranging from Lincoln's scripture-tinged speeches on the sacredness of Union to Emily Dickinson's thoroughly private expeditions into immortality.

What Kazin delivers, however, is anything but a dry sermon on the old religion. Some six decades out of Brownsville, Kazin still sounds like the same ecstatic reader who propped books open on his bureau while getting dressed in the morning, who sat on the fire escape devouring everything from boys' adventure stories to Whitman and the forbidden New Testament as if reading for his life.

"Like all my books," Kazin says, "this one came out of a deep, personal obsession. I've been working on it in one way or another for 20 years." Since his agent, Lynn Nesbit, placed the book with Knopf's Robert Gottlieb in the mid-1980s (Harry Ford took over the project after Gottlieb's departure in 1987), Kazin has bided his time in finishing this elegant summation of his "crazy enthusiasms," as he puts it. "On the whole, I have to say that I'm a kind of freak in the sense that I don't know many people who have my interest in the subject. Today there are very few people who are interested in religion in the way the I9th century was." The book stops with Frost and Faulkner, Kazin explains, because most postwar writers, including the Jewish novelists he has often championed, "in a sense deal with religion as something that's dead."

The Native Son Retires

Sitting on the couch in the modest apartment on New York's Upper West Side that he shares with his fourth wife, Judith Dunford, Kazin, wearing a rumpled grey sweatsuit and running shoes, seems less the tweedy eminence of recent author photos than an engagingly expansive great uncle, happy to pass the afternoon talking about his favorite books and just reminiscing. Prostate cancer and the ordinary bedevilments of old age have slowed the famous walker considerably, but the writer in Kazin still seems to be sprinting full-speed. How many authors, after all, can boast of publishing five books in their retirement alone, as Kazin has since taking mandatory leave of the City University of New York in 1985, at age 70?

Not that Kazin, now 82, seems much impressed by his own feats. Asked about the nods to "our greatest living man of letters" that so often crop up in even the most critical reviews of his work, Kazin responds, in a voice still bearing traces of Brownsville, "I don't believe a word of it! It's all baloney. I'm not a great man of letters at all. I'm lucky, very lucky, to have been able to write about what I could write about, to discover I had a certain gift. When I was starting out and I got to write 150 words about some schmutty novel, I was pleased and proud to get the assignment. To me it was all writing. I've never thought I was second-rate, but I never thought I was important."

Talk inevitably turns to his own religious commitments, to what he calls "the agony of being an eccentric believer." While he confesses to being "emotionally drawn to everything Jewish," Kazin describes his own belief in terms recalling his book's 12 Protestants, almost churches unto themselves in the fierce separateness of their imagination.

"The reason I'm not in a synagogue is that I'm a very personal believer. William Blake, who's been a big influence on me, once said, 'Organized religion: and impossibility.' I understand that. To believe is to believe individually. I suppose in many ways my belief, such as it is, is also mixed with an urgent, almost desperate belief in spiritual freedom. My favorite Jew is Spinoza—the 17th-century philosopher who was excommunicated from the Amsterdam Jewish community and whose works were banned by the Church—and always has been."

"I don't defend or justify or even try to explain the strange lonely feeling I have about these things," he continues. "A great deal of the time it makes me sick, because I realize it doesn't give me the kind of satisfaction a believer finds getting down on his knees and saying 'Yes, I believe in heaven.' I'm not sure entirely what I believe, but I do know I have that feeling, which comes from some ancient Jewish tradition, which has nothing to do with contemporary middle-class American Jewish life."

Radical Patriotism

Kazin considers himself a product of the socialist solidarity of the Jewish working class, which he sees as itself a remnant of the 19th century. "I've always been very anti-bourgeois in every sense. The people I grew up with were penniless Jewish workers. One thing I always identify as a signature of my early life was my mother organizing packs of women during the evictions that took place every day during the Depression. They'd move the furniture back inside, go get the city marshals, all that." One of the few times he recalls seeing his father break down was when Sacco end Vanzetti were executed in 1927.

What Kazin now calls the "naive idealism" of Brownsville carried him into the Leftist intellectual world of the Depression years. After graduating from City College in 1935, Kazin cobbled together a living writing book reviews. His real break came in 1937 when Carl Van Doren, a onetime Columbia professor then working as a publisher's scout, urged him to undertake a history of modern American writing. Kazin famously set up office in the main reading room of the New York Public Library and, five years later, emerged with On Native Grounds.

The book was "a big hit and all that," as Kazin puts it. It was instantly hailed by such critics as Lionel Trilling as much for its tone of moral urgency, its Whitmanesque insistence that the emergence of the modern American spirit was itself the greatest possible literary subject, as for its thoroughness and brash originality. As Kazin would later write, the book was undertaken in the midst of the Depression and completed during a world war by an angry young man who was "very critical of the system but still crazy about America."

Just how young he was did not pass unnoticed. "My father used to keep a copy on my sister's piano," Kazin recalls. "Of course, my parents couldn't read it—they wouldn't have understood it anyway. But whenever I'd bring a friend by, he'd pick it up and say, 'It's by my son! He wrote it when he was six months old!'"

With the extraordinary success of the book, a brilliant new critic seemed to have sprung full-grown from the collective brow of the radical literary scene. Kazin got a job traveling the country as a correspondent for Fortune and, in 1944, won a Rockefeller Grant to report from England.

But it wasn't until after the war, when Kazin turned not to America's roots but to his own, that he was truly born as a writer. Returning home, he realized just how much the war had fundamentally changed the face of America—and just how radically the emerging details of the death camps had changed him. "After the war, I lost the social feeling that had infused On Native Grounds," he says. "I no longer believed in the ideal society. After the Holocaust, I felt human nature was impossible to trust."

His first marriage had also collapsed. "I was looking for something to hold on to, and I suddenly realized that I didn't just come from some shabby immigrant quarter, that my past was something I could write about."

The book that became Walker in the City began in the late 1940s as an elaborate celebration of all of New York. After the failure of a brief second marriage, Kazin found himself living in the back of a painter's studio on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights, still struggling with the book. "One day I had the courage to look at the whole thing honestly and realize that the only decent part was the part about the old neighborhood," Kazin recalls. "I was living my memory of sense perceptions, of smells, voices, echoes. Brownsville was a ghetto in one sense, but it was also a sounding board. And to my surprise, the book I wrote out of the most compelling personal need became a book cherished by a lot of Jews." And clearly by a much larger readership as well. It was published in 1951 by Harcourt Brace and has been in print ever since.

Odd Man Out

Over the years, Kazin has taught everywhere from Harvard and Notre Dame to Black Mountain College in North Carolina, as well as abroad. While he eventually got a tenured position at State University of New York at Stony Brook, and later at City University of New York, academic life never much suited him. "I hated being a professor, hated the academic world. I thought it was terribly small, very narrow. I didn't have a Ph.D. I was always the odd man out. But I always loved teaching. Again and again, I would get so excited about something being discussed in class that I'd rush back to my notebooks and put it down."

Kazin's notebooks have been an essential part of his literary life since boyhood, the private wellspring of much of his public output. In 1996, HarperCollins published a selection ranging from 1938 to the present as A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.

The notebook Kazin says he keeps "now more than ever" will also form the backbone of his current work-in-progress, Jews: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. While he's cagey about the exact contents, he does says the book will contain reflections on the state of Jewish life in America and in Israel, as well as more variations of the bottomless theme of his immigrant origins. "Every bone in my body was brought up Jewish," Kazin says. "But I also tend to be very critical, a bit heretical. Every once in a while I stick my nose out of the den and show that I'm taking a chance."

"I look at my own children," Kazin continues (his son, Michael, is a labor historian at American University; his daughter, Cathrael, a former federal lawyer, now lives in Israel), "and their lives are so different from mine. I often wonder what my grandchildren will make of Walker in the City if they ever pick it up. It will seem prehistoric, like the discovery of America."

Which, in its own way, is exactly what it is.

A. O. Scott (review date 3 November 1997)

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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 affinity with the writers who have preoccupied him for much of that time. In a famous passage from his Preface to On Native Grounds (1942), the book that established him as the pre-eminent lay interpreter of the American literary canon—and that also established, in tandem with F. O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance, what that canon would consist of for decades to come—Kazin defined as "the greatest single fact about our modern American writing—our writers' absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it." A principal detail in the American world as absorbed by writers from William Bradford in Puritan Boston to John. Up dike in its promiscuous modern suburbs has always been religion. And yet the experience of many American writers with the religious culture of their native land has embroiled them in paradox: Most of the citizens of a country founded on (in Tocqueville's words) "the boldest political theories of the eighteenth-century philosophers" persist in modes of belief those philosophers would have regarded with suspicion. And perhaps more profoundly, the writing of imaginative literature is a wholly secular activity continually shadowed by theology. "Language is fossil poetry." wrote Emerson, in Kazin's eyes (as in Whitman's) "the actual beginner of the whole procession." A corollary, of which Emerson was surely aware, is that poetry is fossil scripture. The writer's act of world-making tends to circle back toward an anxious reckoning with the divine act it mimics: In the beginning was the Word.

"The individual on his way to becoming a writer," Kazin concludes in God and the American Writer, a late and elegant elaboration on themes that will be familiar to readers of his earlier books,

was all too conscious that it was his ancestral sect, his early training, his own holiness in the eyes of his church that he brought to his writing. He became its apostle without having forever to believe in it, in anything—except the unlimited freedom that is the usual American faith.

So Emerson, who found even the thin, residual sacraments of New England Unitarianism too confining, set out to create a religion of spiritual self-reliance, to preach the "usual American faith" (generally understood in crudely economic terms) with Orphic intensity. And so T. S. Eliot, whose forebears were among the leading lights of that same Unitarianism, rebelled against its formlessness and embraced the stringent orders of classicism in art, royalism in polities and Anglo-Catholicism in religion while arguing for the "extinction of personality" in poetry. And so the great mocker Mark Twain, like Eliot a native of the state whose motto—"Show Me"—proclaims the skeptic's insistence on empirical realities, still needed God, if only as a scapegoat for human hypocrisy and fraud. And so Kazin himself, at the climax of his own peculiarly American success story, feels the stirrings of an atavistic awe.

But even though the first great American psychologist, Jonathan Edwards, was a philosopher of religion, and the greatest American philosopher of religion, William James, was a psychologist, American religion has never confined itself to matters of individual belief. One important motif in this suggestive, occasionally diffuse series of meditations involves the existential ordeal of dwelling in a metaphysically uncertain universe—what Melville described as "the intense concentration of self in the middle of such a heartless immensity." But another, more central concern, one that links the chapters on Emerson, Hawthorne, Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe with those on Twain and Faulkner, is with a more worldly ordeal, and with moral rather than metaphysical paradoxes. While the writer as a private individual may have agonized about what the old textbooks call "the problem of belief," the public life of the nation at the moment of its literary awakening was racked by the problem of human slavery, the legacy of which convulses it still.

"One cannot think of the long, long story of black bondage and the war that ended it without a shiver of awe," Kazin writes in his brilliant chapter on Lincoln. "It is the one chapter in American life that brings us back to biblical history." The abiding religious significance of the Civil War is a reflection of its religious character: "A great many people were certain that they lived and died overseen by God, for purposes instilled in them by God." Stowe claimed that the Lord was the real author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, and she the mere amanuensis. Thoreau, paradoxically a fervent believer in the abolitionist cause even as he came to oppose the war that would accomplish its ends, linked Brown's hanging with the crucifixion of Christ in "A Plea for Captain John Brown." And Julia Ward Howe imagined not only that the Grand Army of the Republic was visited by the incarnate Christ ("I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps") but that its soldiers would be themselves His virtual incarnation: "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.

Much as Kazin marvels at the righteousness that propelled both armies into battle, he recoils from the public religiosity of the present, directing several pointed rebukes at the "politicized, intolerant, and paranoiac" faith that characterizes the Christian right of the nineties. But many in that movement claim, with some historical accuracy, to find precursors in the Christian left of the 1840s and '50s. Kazin is not interested in the kind of historical analysis that would elucidate such connections, or that might treat religious expression in politics or literature as a manifestation of ideology. He prefers to address it in its own terms. When he calls Uncle Tom's Cabin "New England's last holiness," for instance, he means with minimal irony to indicate a dimension of literary and moral value that once flourished on native grounds, but is now lost.

To speak of a literary work in terms of its holiness is to speak in an idiom quite alien to what most literary critics use. In a sharp review of An American Procession (1984), Denis Donoghue once noted Kazin's tendency to stray from the analytic and evaluative tasks of criticism in his pursuit of narrative sweep and rhetorical elevation. "All that his writing undertakes to be is fecund," Donoghue rather archly remarked. But that of course is the point. In describing On Native Grounds as "an effort at moral history," Kazin signaled at the start of his career that he would not be bound by the usual conventions of literary discussion, any more than Emerson, forsaking the ministry and determining to follow "the laws of the soul," was bound by the doctrines of New England Christianity.

And now, in the twilight of that career, Kazin writes more than ever in an Emersonian key. "The maker, of a sentence," Emerson wrote, "launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight." These words nicely describe Kazin at his best, as does his own reminder that Emerson in the Divinity School address "was not delivering an academic lecture, he was rhapsodizing out of his heart and soul, communing with himself in order to address his audience."

Sometimes, of course, for Kazin as for Emerson, the result of such rhapsodizing is confusion. "There is no argument—one sentence does not necessarily connect with another." Thus Kazin on Emerson, in words that apply to some of his own passages. Reading Kazin's essays, like reading Emerson's, means submitting to a wild, chaotic ride replete with inductive and associative leaps, dense thickets of allusion and sudden shifts from anecdote to prophecy. Henry James Sr. (father of the novelist and the Philosopher, and a fellow-traveling Transcendentalist) is said to have called Emerson a man without a handle; at times the shape and direction of this book seem equally difficult to grasp.

For one thing, Kazin's two main concerns are pursued mostly along parallel tracks, so that the individual and the social manifestations of religious crisis seem almost entirely unrelated. The moral dilemma posed by slavery animates the chapters on Stowe, Lincoln and Faulkner, and figures significantly in those on Hawthorne, Emerson and Twain. The metaphysical dilemma of the individual's response to the intense otherwise of nature, the universe and the mind, on the other hand, recurs for Melville, Dickinson, James, Eliot and Frost. The lovely chapter on Whitman, like the Good Gray Poet himself, stands alone, a cosmos, containing multitudes, blithely self-contradictory. The ordering of the chapters, while roughly chronological, suggests not so much a procession as a portrait gallery; there are intimations of influence and resemblance, but each figure is framed and composed largely apart from the others.

One can't help but notice an empty space on the gallery wall. Taking Thoreau to task for his idealism, Kazin declares that "what is missing in [Thoreau's] opposition to slavery … is the presence of an actual, living, breathing slave." And what is missing in a book so admirable in its understanding of the role of racial injustice in the shaping of American self-expression is the recognition of an actual African-American presence. I don't mean simply to reiterate the familiar (and important) plea for a more inclusive canon. I mean rather to suggest that one writer in particular—Frederick Douglass—would fit seamlessly within the lines of Kazin's own argument. Douglass's autobiography is after all a product of the literary moment that produced Uncle Tom's Cabin, Walden, Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter and Leaves of Grass. Like Stowe, Douglass was pre-occupied with the need for providential justice in a world corrupted by sin; like Hawthorne and Melville, he investigated the dialectic of free will and social constraint; and like Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson (and Kazin), his deepest literary undertaking was the invention, and revision, of himself.

The omission of Douglass is regrettable, but forgivable—he is in a sense implicit in Kazin's treatment of his contemporaries, and Kazin has perhaps wisely emphasized the writers he feels most at home with. But Kazin's palpable sense of affinity—of communion—with the writers he does consider raises intriguing questions. All these writers belong, by ancestry if not by active belief, to the predominantly Calvinist tradition of American Protestantism. Among the few voices heard from outside this tradition—and these only marginally, by way of commentary—are the atheist Edmund Wilson (descended, as it happens, from Cotton Mather himself) and the Catholic Flannery O'Connor. These two stands as complementary figures of certainty in a landscape of longing and doubt. Wilson had no need of God; O'Connor's faith in hers was absolute. The rest had lost or abandoned theirs, and, whether they knew it or not, wanted Him back.

And so does Kazin. But is it the same God? What's a good New York Jew doing communing with all these anxious goyim, for Christ's sake? The answer is suggested by the mad diasporist in Philip Roth's Operation Shylock. For him, the great modern American Jewish hero was Irving Berlin, who in composing "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade" brazenly laid claim to the holiest days on the Christian calendar, and then returned them wrapped in the vestments of American Universalism. Kazin belongs to a generation of writers and critics who have accomplished an analogous task: They rescued American literature from the genteel tradition and restored to it its difficulty, its strangeness and its power. Think of Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling and Leon Edel conspiring to elevate Henry James, who would never have set foot in a club that admitted them as members, to the status of a high cultural icon. Think of Leslie Fiedler lighting out for the territory with Huck and Jim. Think of Saul Bellow who for a time managed to unite the opposed sensibilities of James and Dreiser in a single dapper body. Think of Allen Ginsberg, the second coming of Whitman, or Norman Mailer, and Ahab smashing through the pasteboard mask of the American dream. And think of Alfred Kazin, like so many immigrant children at once in love with and estranged from America, who discovered in the work of its most exalted native sons and daughters the mirror of his own anxieties and hopes.

These are all Jews, all men, mostly gone. The religion they shared—although, in the time-honored fashion, they sometimes despised each other's versions of it—had only tangentially to do with Judaism. What they worshiped was literature. This faith has fallen on hard times—mocked on one side by a self-defeating iconoclasm, travestied on the other by a reactionary orthodoxy. But like all faiths, its next great revival is always imminent. It is not necessary to defend every aspect of the creed to appreciate what it has achieved, any more than it is necessary to believe you are reading the transcript of divine dictation to be moved by the death of Little Eva. But we should nonetheless be glad that a great prophet of the old religion is still among us, and still able, by the power of his preaching, to stir even the badly lapsed to momentary belief. We should, perhaps, thank God.

Jeffrey Hart (review date 8 December 1997)

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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, and finally to the ultimate sect—that is, the individual human being on his own, at once the preacher and the congregation, who allows himself to be overheard by an audience outside his sect of one. This church of one leads quite naturally to problems with form. Form is a restriction and not welcomed by the Imperial Self of late Protestantism.

It is not surprising that the sect of one produced extraordinary garrulousness. Mr. Kazin deals, of course, with Whitman, whose many luminous passages he rightly admires, but who did not know (Mr. Kazin doesn't stress this) when he was great and when he was just a windbag. Other sects of one include William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. Such poets cannot stop talking. Who is to confine individual judgment, that Protestant absolute? If Pound equally honors the economics of C. H. Douglas and the poetry of Cavalcanti, well, that has to be fine, because he said it, and he is the final authority in his sect of one.

Emerson was a stunningly gifted writer, but also believed that he himself was the Cosmos. He internalized the All, and spoke confidently from the perspective of that authority. The cosmic Eye was I. His orphic sentences, though they often seem highly challengeable, march along as if they were self-validating. One sentence does not even follow from the preceding one, and no need is felt for argumentation or evidence. Each sentence is true because he, the Cosmos itself, said it. By all accounts he was a helluva lecturer, serene, radiant, certain, inspired.

Of course some of these writers did have individual techniques of control: Hawthorne's distancing and cool syntax, Dickinson's deliberate solitude, Frost's skeptical edge, and so on.

Mr. Kazin's approach has its own problems. He wishes to answer his question about God and these writers and, more broadly, deliver or sum up each writer's world view. But the writing itself keeps jumping out of the box he is trying to construct for it, and this leads him to much mangling of the texts. For example, he wishes to say that Frost was this-worldly, a poet of the here and now, not transcendental. This leads Mr. Kazin to botch his reading of the major poem "Birches." He cites what he calls its great line: "Earth's the right place for love." But he does not consider what follows immediately after that: "I don't know where it's likely to go better." Frost is more complicated than Mr. Kazin wants him to be. Frost very carefully does not reject the possibility of a love that is not of this earth. He just does not "know" where it's "likely" to go better. He does want to swing on that birch "toward" Heaven. Indeed, the "pathless wood" he Dante's "dark wood" at the beginning of the Inferno. Mr. Kazin also misreads "Stopping by Woods" and much else in Frost, and in other writers.

In Eliot he rightly admires much in the poetry, especially the Cape Ann and river passages, where the perhaps excels Whitman. When important passages in Eliot do not appeal to Mr. Kazin however, he just quits: The "'religious' warnings of dissolution ending The Waste Land in thunder meant less to Eliot's admirers than to him." What? Those lines are of great importance to Eliot's subsequent poetry. What kind of "admirers" are we talking about?

Mr. Kazin does not seem to see the large problem posed by his subject, the late history of Protestantism. The Reformation was Utopian, and it became, in Dryden's phrase, a "downhill Reformation" because in due course the individual person whose judgment was the basis of Protestantism did not do the hard intellectual work necessary to make responsible judgments. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley would have been horrified to think that their followers would forget the key Biblical texts, remain ignorant of the strong evidence and arguments for Biblical truth—become so bemused, for instance, as to think Darwin and paleontology constituted a threat to Genesis 1, or even think the six days of creation were 24-hour solar days (when the sun was not created until the third day)—and not even know, much less refute, I Corinthians 15. The individual person whose judgment was projected as the basis of Protestantism merely heard that someone, somewhere—Darwin? T. H. Huxley? H. L. Mencken?—had refuted all the argue merged a new style of unconvincing preaching, either depending upon vehemence and enthusiasm or else sinking into mere secular politics—a far cry from the tightly reasoned sermons of, for example, Wesley or Newman.

Among the writers Mr. Kazin considers here, Eliot is singular because his journey is away from the downhill Reformation and the Imperial Self and toward a community of knowledge that has its source in history:

    And what there is to conquer     By strength and submission, has already     been discovered     Once or twice, or several times, by men     whom one cannot hope     To emulate—but there is no competition—     There is only the fight to recover what has been lost     And found and lost again and again: and now,     under conditions That seem unpropitious.

Eliot is willing to work with "colleagues." The Imperial Self has only one colleague.

That is the outline of Eliot's "position." Mr. Kazin suggests that it proceeded from personal weakness and a search for authority. Be that as it may, his position was mainstream in the West until, comparatively, yesterday.

As a matter of fact, nothing changed the evidence is the same as, or better than, what was available to, say, Richard Hooker. If it is true, as Mr. Kazin says, that for "the intellectual leaders of American society a deeply personal belief in God is tolerated as harmlessly personal, like a taste in food or a loyalty to the Red Sox," then this—even if true—is mere philistinism. The job of the intellect is to trouble the complacency of philistines and provincials.

There is more than a touch of the philistine about Mr. Kazin himself, notably in asides he throws off, such as describing the pioneers as "white male Protestants with theologies at the ready like their rifles." He is glad that Faulkner was not a believer, in view of the current "shal-lowness and aggressiveness of public religion in the service of hard-Right politics," and he gives it as his curbstone opinion that "moral leadership from the White House on the race question seems to have died" with Lincoln. Mr. Kazin places the following items in syntactical equality: "Auschwitz … the Gulag … American 'wasting' of peasant hamlets in Vietnam."

These vulgarities and absurdities no doubt are meant to reassure philistines that old Al's heart is in the right (left) place, but, really, who cares? What remains valuable in Mr. Kazin is his decades-long conviction that poems and stories are valuable objects.

Robert Stone (review date 26 March 1998)

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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 handsome families and shoplifting teenagers, seemed to need no wicked example borne across the lake to encourage their apparent avidity for Ojibway-inspired pole lamps, frozen latté, or glass grayling mobiles—all of which they seemed to be snapping up with a wholesomely Canadian inclination toward worldly possessions.

Toronto is such a problem to those of us from God's Country. It's clean. Everything works. Crime is discouraged, the subway routes are comprehensible. It's impossible not to wonder: Where did we go wrong? So I held my peace in the theater, instead of bearing witness as the power of Almighty God inclined, instead of demanding an explanation of the man's question.

Could he not know, after all, that the Lord had led Americans, alone among the world's peoples, out of bondage to proud, sinful, popishly anointed kings, from the vain mummery of prelates and the usurpation of posturing noblemen arrayed in office, drawling and strutting as though their pedigrees transcended the limits of their dark conception inter faeces et urinam? These fawners, parading with baubles, heathen honors, and jeweled crosses to adorn their little lives between the stink of the nappy and the stench of the shroud? That to humble them, we, uniquely, had been raised up, appointed a City on a Hill, a light unto the nations?

Probably not. He had come of age during the Vietnam War. All the rest would probably have been news to him. He might even, in invincible ignorance of the Word, have rejected it.

Alfred Kazin begins God and the American Writer by stating:

In the beginning at New England our writers were Calvinists, absolutely sure of God and all His purposes. He created man to glorify Him forever. But never sure of his obedience, distrustful of his innate disposition to sin, God kept man forever under His eye. Each claimed to know the other because there was a covenant between them, a contract. Each was eternally watchful of the other, each apparently needed the other. Nothing in the world around a Calvinist counted so much as his dependence on God, his knowledge of God, his standing with God. And God was as eternally occupied with man as man was with God. They were so bound to each other that to the Romantic poets and scientific rationalists who came in with the Age of Reason. God and man seemed born of each other. No wonder that the Puritans in the wilderness, lacking everything but God, were confident to the last that they knew God's mind.

The people who were soon to distance themselves from primitive New England, to call themselves "Americans" and to expand until they were all over the continent, had to be restless optimists, boosters and boasters always on the go. The writers who stood slightly apart inherited Calvinism with their distrust of human nature.

What Kazin appears to be describing is the origin of an ongoing tension between, on the one part, a populace whose reaction to its Calvinist roots was to cultivate a certain Jack of self-awareness and, on the other, its serious writers, whose role as authentic inheritors of the Calvinist tradition of moral introspection was to refuse them that luxury.

Thus "the individual's high sense of himself so famous in the American character" developed out of a psychological need permanently at odds with a literary culture that would always be pessimistic, conscientiously self-critical, and on the lookout for the depravity inherent in human nature.

Kazin finds a passage incorporating both attitudes, written in the years before the two tendencies separated themselves, in Increase Mather's "The Mystery of Israel's Salvation."

Consider … that some of us arc under special advantage to understand these mysterious truths of God; that is to say, such of us as are in an exiled condition in this wilderness…. God hath led us into a wilderness, and surely it was; not because the Lord hated us but because he loved us that he brought us into this Jeshimon….

Since then we have not quite been so sure. But the tension around the question has provided the best and most honest of American writing with a level of elemental moral concern that can seem naive to readers far removed from it, including many contemporary Americans. In his brief survey of early poets like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, Kazin detects a self annihilating mysticism that already seems to be breaking away from nascent Yankee positivism.

    Who spake all things from nothing;     And with ease,

wrote Taylor,

    Can speak all things to nothing, if he please.

This "'naive' devotion on the part of God-enraptured solitaries," Kazin says, "in a society still colonial could not absorb what Alfred North Whitehead called 'the century of genius'—the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century taking place in their old homeland." The general rate of literacy of the American settlers was among the highest in the world, rivaled only by that of certain bibliolatrous parts of Britain like the Scottish Lowlands. But the necessities of physical survival led to a society whose proficiency at technical improvisation and practical craft soon outstripped its thoughtful and subversive literature in importance.

One of the most profound works of self-examination in American letters is a work not cited by Kazin, though the historian Richard Slotkin celebrates it at length as an "archetype" in his classic Regeneration Through Violence. It is the first, or at least one of the earliest, examples of a dark mythic element in American writing, the captivity narrative. Its author was a woman named Mary Rowlandson; her work was entitled The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed.

The book was first published in 1682 and underwent many printings over the years, both in the colonies and in London. In his examination of Rowlandson's book, Slotkin draws parallels between it and other Puritan classics like Michael Wigglesworth's fearsome theological poem Day of Doom and Jonathan Edwards's similarly terrifying Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The Soveraignty and Goodness of God may he fairly held to stand as the progenitor and prototype of a long line of American poetry and prose. It was America's first international best seller. Though it is not fiction, it is a work whose structure and symbolism connect it to the moral imagination and the psychological core of the nation that produced it.

Mrs. Rowlandson, the wife of the minister at Lancaster, Massachusetts, was captured by the Narraganset Indians during King Philip's War in 1676, along with her two children. During eleven weeks of winter captivity, her youngest, a baby, died and she became separated from her elder child. Ransomed and returned to Lancaster, Goodwife Rowlandson commenced to deal with the experience in a way which may now seem to us essentially American.

For one thing, in an age where women, if literate, were generally expected to endure in silence, she wrote about it. In passionate, plain, but stately English that rivaled her era's most expired preaching, she laid her agonized questions before the reader, demanding, Job-like, an explanation from her own religious understanding for the experience of her own degradation and the loss of her baby. How American it seems in retrospect, this confessional impulse, the assertion of self, insistence on justification.

She had been guilty of pride, Mary Rowlandson concludes in her book, prideful in her confidence of rectitude. Thus God, in his appalling mercy, caused her faith to be tried, her baby to die, her Englishness, frock, bonnet, and all, to be stripped away until she was a starveling in a blanket, the lowest of creatures.

She had always despised the Indians, pagans, children of hell, who lived for their appetites. So unlike, she had always believed, herself, an Englishwoman, and better than mere English, reformed-English Puritan, raised to the word of God.

But God, by striking her down, had made her understand that nothing about her was superior to the Indians she despised. Only God's ineffable, incomprehensible grace made any difference.

Then I went to another Wigwam where there were two of the English Children … [An Indian woman] cut me off a piece [of meat] and gave one of the English Children a piece also. Being very hungry I had quickly eaten up mine, but the child could not bite it, it was so tough and sinewy, but lay sucking, gnawing, chewing and slabbering of it in the mouth and hand, then I took it of the Child and eat it myself, and it was as Job, chapter vi., 7. The things that my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat.

It was a dreadful moment, taking food from the mouths of other women's children. She had always secretly wanted to have God test her faith. Being tested, she finds herself a beast, in absolute dependence. "I have seen," she wrote, "the extreme vanity of the child."

The informing spirit of Mary Rowlandson's journal, its antiheroic, self-questioning and self-despising embrace of the mystery of survival, its affirmation of a dark brotherhood of suffering and dependence on a perversely, cruelly merciful Providence, would be the prototype for innumerable works of American literature. Nearly three hundred years later Flannery O'Connor would reprise it to electrifying effect in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Even on the screen, in John Ford's The Searchers—in which John Wayne thinks his niece must be been defiled by the Comanches who kidnapped her—the captivity narrative, still trailing the last strands of its Calvinist mystery and contradictions, would endure, an ongoing American epic.


Though he leaves out Rowlandson, Kazin discusses other colonial roots of American letters, and he locates them, quite properly, in the soil of New England. In this brooding, speculative "New England," the faith was transformed by its marginal, pilgrim believers, somewhat in the way that Persianized Shia became the repository of innovative, mystical, and sometimes heterodox elements in Islam. American colonial Puritans, literate and forever in search of "justification," were, like Goodwife Rowlandson, great practitioners of the personal narrative, and a case can be made for this tendency as one source, a uniquely native one, of the American novel.

Thomas Jefferson, something of a man of letters in his own right, was an Enlightenment rationalist and an anti-clerical, given to referring to the clergy, who as a class despised him, as "the priests." It was he, the chief patriarch of the nation, who foresaw Unitarianism as the appropriate religion for the new country he had helped to create, and anticipated the denomination's playing that role. In the light of Jefferson's expectations and the actual results of our religious history, it is interesting to consider the contrast Kazin presents between Hawthorne and Emerson, two heirs of Puritanism, who labored all their lives in its shadow.

Emerson, one might think, was the national philosopher after Jefferson's heart. An ordained Unitarian minister who renounced his pulpit, his doctrines are often summarized under the rubric "self-reliance," a term since fossilized into the high-flown rhetoric of our inspirational self-definition, one of the things we like to think of ourselves as emhodying.

"[Man] learns that his being is without bound," Kazin quotes from the philosopher's address to the students of the Harvard Divinity School in July 1838, "that to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness."

In that declaration, delivered after Emerson had already left the ministry, Calvinism forces its way through the far side of night, leaving behind the terrors and pessimism of narrow predestination and realizing its positive potential. The Puritan heritage has born fruit in the message of that "refulgent summer" and produced a transcendent insight.

Kazin finds a particularly ambiguous quote from John Jay Chapman, a critic who he says "deeply admired" Emerson: "It a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson."

One day "self-reliance" would be vulgarized as the power of positive thinking and debased into the "can-do" spirit. But Emerson's positivism would also equip the country with a certain resourcefulness and progressiveness that—many steps forward, more than a few back—would always offer hope. Its moral authority, rooted in Calvinist speculation, would never disappear. Still, the subtler aspects of this doctrine were rooted in Emerson's personality and intellect and, Kazin writes, could not endure deprived of them.

At the other end of Concord, "the far end of our village," lived another heir of the Puritans, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Emerson had no time for fiction (leading the way there, as in so many other things); Hawthorne had little time for Emerson, whom he seems to have regarded as vaguely ridiculous. If one had transcended religious belief with pantheistic faith, the other was a plain unbeliever. But Hawthorne was one of those unbelieving American writers who never cease to writhe under the internalized scrutiny of the Calvinist or Jewish or Jansenist God, who arc condemned to endure the estrangement and loss and guilt of faithlessness all their days but whose religious inheritance is never more than an unsated thirst. It was the making of him as a writer, Kazin observes, and of course his slow undoing as a man.

In two chapters, "Christians and Their Slaves" and "Lincoln: The Almighty Has His Own Purposes." Kazin examines the role of American Protestantism in the abolitionist movement and that movement's consummation in the Civil War. His analysis is the familiar one and anti-revisionist: that the prevailing direction of the neo-Calvinist tradition brought about the end of slavery through a consciously religious crusade. With the erudition and instinct for the relevant quote he always brings to bear, Kazin offers the words of the chief justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in delivering the verdict that ended slavery in that state in 1783, just after the success of the Revolution.

… A different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate, desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses) has inspired all the human race.

The diction is that of the Enlightment but, as time passed, the religious aspect assumed a larger and larger role. It became, as Kazin points out, a commonplace for supporters of John Brown to invoke the traditions of militant Puritanism in the Kansas border wars and to speak of Brown as another Cromwell. Preachers like Henry Ward Beecher and the clerical abolitionists dwelt not only on the un-Christian cruelties of slavery but on the paganizing, spiritual corruption with which the institution infected the slave owners and their families.

In 1852, Reverend Beecher's daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe would publish Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book whose pervasive religiosity served to inflame the South, then on its own way to becoming the Bible Belt. This preemption of Protestant moralizing by the Yankees was particularly infuriating in Dixie, where the Cavalier skepticism of the Tidewater gentry was giving way to an Ulster-derived militant Calvinism with its own millenarian enthusiasm.

It is hard to cite a novel in the nineteenth century so unashamedly Christological and so politically explosive as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. On meeting her, Lincoln, whose mildly hyperbolic irony was always a vehicle of truth, famously declared, "This is the little lady who brought about the great big war." And she herself in later life would declare, with a singular presumptuous modesty, of the book: "I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did His dictation."

There is no question that Lincoln, with his sure sense of sound and his gift for the lambent phrase, was an American writer of great gifts. Kazin calls his second inaugural address a work of "literary genius." What he was not, however, was temperamentally religious, and the passage he made from canny, ambitious, and politically moderate railroad lawyer to world-historical figure is, in Kazin's rather traditional but convincing interpretation, an inspiring one. The more Lincoln came to understand what was at stake in the war for the Union, particularly when his generals nearly led him and the country to the defeat that international powers gleefully anticipated, the more he seemed to sense the moral forces engaged in the struggle.

Toward the end, when he realized that his war for the status quo was in fact a revolution, when, after Gettysburg, the vision of nothing less than "a new birth of freedom" impelled him, he seems, Kazin writes, to have come to believe that the source of universal human rights was somehow transcendent; they were not based on an arrangement of law and precedent but were somehow actually endowed by a creator, and henceforth available to all humanity. History made him live out the ideals he had absorbed in his boyhood. More than anyone, he needed a God to help him and though he was driven to the language of faith, he never appears to have truly experienced one.

A rationalist and a bit of a scoffer, he ironically became, unwittingly, the founder of the American civil religion as well as its first saint and martyr. It was a creed fashioned out of language. We invoke him continually not because he was a successful politician and war leader but because he was a great writer.

Kazin offers Whitman in his familiar role as force of nature, American self-confidence and nature worship itself. Like so many of his countrymen in the nineteenth century, Whitman was drenched in religion; he positively swam in it, without having to believe in much of it. There was no personal God. He was not a Christian.

But Whitman had a number of transforming experiences in his career. One of the most significant, which Kazin does not mention, was his service as a nurse in Virginia and Washington during what proved to be the final days of primitive medicine. Specimen Daws is the work of a darker Whitman than the poet of whom we often think. His remark in it, "The story of the real war will never be told," has a curiously modern ring and reminds us that, almost alone among the figures in Kazin's book, Whitman, by virtue of the terrible things he had seen after Chancellorsville and elsewhere, qualified as a war veteran, and in that regard had lost his innocence in a way that many of his contemporaries never did

Kazin goes a long way toward making Herman Melville, out perplexing national prophet, comprehensible by his sense of Melville's said life Melville is a writer whose personal history usually distracts from examination of his work which can be runic and curiously circular. How many students have puzzled over "Bartleby The clerk's resistance to the process or incorporation, his apparently mindless refusal to be usefully industrialized, is puzzling until we see it as a prophecy of the America to come after the Civil War. Moby-Dick, his great work, is notable for its protagonist's rage at God and fate. Its origins are, of course, in Melville's "astonished reading of Shakespeare," as Kazin puts it, but also philosophically, in Milton. But Milton's Satan achieves his grandeur almost against the poet's pious will; Ahab is a self-conscious Prometheus, determined to strike "through the mask," to "strike the sun if it wronged me." One might think that a novel in which the hero sets out to kill God might cause something of a scandal in so godly a country as the United States. Americans, too busy or following Emerson, barely noticed.

Interestingly there is another aspect of Moby-Dick, what might be called its prophetic side, that Kazin does not discuss. If the whale is God and Fate, mindless and cruel, so it also is nature innocent and pure in its whiteness—evil in American eyes for its refusal to submit to the "can-do" spirit, to be tamed, commercialized, transformed into corsets and oil. Thus Ahab becomes a particularly American Prometheus and the whale a literary relative of Bartleby, the unaccommodating.

Of Emily Dickinson, plainly his darling and to his mind "the most penetrating intellect" among American writers, Kazin gives this summary:

Religion was habitually at the center of her intelligence, but God was alone in her thought, another "character" in her universe, popping up from time to time because she had no name but "God" for so much power over her life, so many promises, so much remoteness.

Hawthorne, Emerson, and Stowe had at least this in common: each had a belief consistent with itself. Melville drove himself near crazy, "not able either to believe or disbelieve." After them. God, though not yet "dead," was to be taken or to be left just as you please. The question of His reality was no longer a burning one. For Dickinson the question did not come up, since God and the absence of God, the mercy of God and the horror of God haunted her thought just as death did. Her starting point was always mortality and her protest against it. She never got over the impermanence of everything she saw, the fragility of human relationships, the flight of the seasons, the taste of death in winter. But God, if only as a name, a tradition, a hope, a symbol, a word so recurrent that we no longer ask where it came from, was her association with immortality. He had been around so long that doubting His existence or justifying it had the same resonance in words. The language of her poetry, wavelike and whirling, made it easier to deal with our life in His shadow than religion did. He had so many faces (and often no face at all) from poem to poem:

      Of Course—I prayed—       And did God Care?       He cared as much as on the Air       A Bird—had stamped her foot—       And cried "Give Me"—       My Reason—Life—       I had not had but for Yourself.

His essay on her and her poetry, which stands in many senses midway between Mary Rowlandson and ourselves, is the best thing in Kazin's book. From it he takes the typically Dickinsonian tag that is the epigraph for his prelude.

We thank thee, Father, for these strange minds that enamor us against thee.

His conclusion about Dickinson brings together the elements of desperation and acceptance he finds in her:

At times she was unhinged. One of her greatest poems describes herself at the close as "wrecked, solitary, here." But finally accepting her life (if she ever did accept it) as the round of life she had always lived—it left her free to write, positively impelled her to write—she was able to make some supreme poems out of the return of the seasons, the fall of night, the spring of birds, "the angle of a landscape," the leaves that "like women interchange":

     There came a Day at Summer's full,      Entirely for me—      I thought that such were for the Saints      Where Resurrections—be.

Kazin emphasizes the affection in which William James was held by everyone who knew him. James seems to have been the kind of necessary figure who does not necessarily appear on demand. When James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, the intellectual and scientific community in this country was turning with some violence against religious tradition. On the other hand, American tub-thumping evangelism was spreading quickly, particularly in the wake of the millenarianism imported by the English preacher John Nelson Darby (whose doctrines occasionally startle the unsuspecting American public in the mouths of various Republican conservatives and live in the preachments of Pat Robertson) The eloquent tolerance generosity and understanding in James's Varieties argued the irreplaceability of the religious impulse and provided a compass to many lost in bitterness and controversy. It was James who defined the "once-born" and "twice-born" religious typology, "the idea," as Kazin puts it, "of giving ourselves the second chance in life of which conversion is the paradigm." Besides being America's greatest work of nonfiction, Varieties is a useful prism through which the religiously indifferent may understand the strivings of the people with whom they have to share the country, people for whom religion is very life. James, Kazin writes, "wins us as a fellow soul, not as a believer. Which is ironic, since the most impressive case histories he presents are those for whom faith came to be as real as the personal hell from which they were delivered."


"In the frenzied years of sudden opportunity after the Civil War, a self-declared and self-promoting type emerged from the West calling himself the real and only true 'American.'"

Thus Kazin introduces Mark Twain, with the writer in the role of obstreperous galoot. Kazin does not like Twain or most of his work very much; perhaps for this reason his essay on the comic Foxy Grandpa of the Gilded Age is one of the most interesting and original in his book.

To Kazin, Twain at the outset of his career embodied the lost illusions of the post-bellum nation the opportunism, the compromise, the hypocrisy. Twain despised not only organized religion but religious faith itself, although he was careful, in an increasingly conformist era, never to quite let the depths of his loathing show, to keep it light. His one religious impulse was to employ (in vain) a faith healer when his beloved daughter was dying. It was a tragic confirmation of Chesterton's dictum that the man who believes nothing ends by believing anything, and the embittered Twain never forgave himself for the lapse.

In his chapter on Twain Kazin demonstrates continually how much he seemed of his period and his newly, arrogantly on-the-make nation. Two things, familiar to us now, distinguish him in Kazin's portrait: his avidity for money and his compulsion to clean up the messy American life he'd left behind.

… He [Twain] was created by the New World when it was still really new, and as "Maik Twain" (a name he patented), genius, greed, and all, he returned the compliment by turning American into an emblem of itself.

His life and its compromises drove him to a bitterness he did his best to repress in public; he held back much of his truly iconoclastic work for posthumous publication. The satire published in his lifetime was directed at acceptable targets, though he sometimes look on, indirectly, the Calvinist God he had learned to hate in his youth.

Twain, Kazin tells us, "was consumed by the dream of big (but big) money" And his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was a sanitizing, an idealization even an exorcising of his boyhood on the Mississippi His masterpiece, the world knows, was Huckleberry Finn and Kazin concurs although the book's conclusion is slightly spoiled for him (and for many others, a too) when Tom Sawyer appears toward the end. Twain, Kazin says, was always Tom, the sharpie who gets away with it, never Huck, the outlaw adventurer he imagined, who somehow outstrips in wisdom his creator.

Also brilliant is Kazin's perceptive study of T. S. Eliot. The scion of a New England Unitarian family, Eliot turned utterly from the spiritual adventurousness and Yankee independence that was his birthright, aspiring to a level of serene High Englishness that was already disappearing in its native sceptered isle. Eliot's God, in Kazin's view, was a Being the poet sought to rescue from His Own slightly vulgar universality, best contemplated between the Gothic imposts of the Church of England. The Incarnation, Kazin suggests, was emphasized by Eliot because it was un-Unitarian, useful as a dogmatic shibboleth and an instrument of exclusion. Otherwise a humanized Christ seemed to him to represent an excess of condescension on the part of the deity.

In Eliot's Anglicanism, Kazin finds exotic social posturing, an escape to an imaginary hierarchical anti-historical Europe. Religion can be for some writers an inescapable shadow, for others a stage prop, and it can be either without any conscious insincerity on the part of the writer. Eliot's Kazin makes clear, was a prop and spiritually soiled by "vile" anti-Semitism which was no mere aristocratic lapse but something expressed by startling out-bursts of what can only be called hatred. Yet, Kazin's esteem is plain. He quotes perhaps more liberally from Eliot than from any of his other subjects:

Poetry was everything to him, for poetry alone could display the "bits and pieces" that he saw the modern world reflecting in himself, the "many voices" in the disordered modern world he was to echo in the interstices of consciousness. Poetry organized the fragments of being and triumphed over them through its supremacy as sound.

This, finally, is high praise for a poet, the incantatory murmur of whose great modernist critic, though Kazin is not indulgent of Eliot where he finds moral lapses infecting the verse.

Four Quartets is for me the great elegy that Eliot wrote in order to forgive himself at last. So much is forgiven, or can happily be overlooked. What has so long been divided in himself is now united—as in the Incarnation of God in man. In "The Dry Salvages" Eliot wrote in rapture of the Incarnation, "Here the impossible union/Of spheres of existence is actual."

All this follows from the ambiguity Eliot set out to resolve. And so he did, in the most beautiful music:

     All manner of things shall be well      When the tongues of flame are in-folded      Into the crowned knot of fire      And the fire and the rose are one.

Robert Frost, Kazin says, was of a "… species where people were harder, more fundamental, and not afraid to suffer." He was a tough old bird: "… 'Courage' was his highest personal ideal" and "'strength' was his test of a man and his opinions." These are qualities not too often uttered these days on the self-realization circuit, but they were very central to Frost's work. Reading him, we know he believed it required much strength and courage to simply go on living and how often he doubted his own.

Frost, Kazin tells us, "in later life was to toss the idea of God up and down like a ball—it was always something to play with." Some of his quasi-metaphysical endings seem to dabble in a piety "all too agreeable to future audiences still hoping for a moral."

Here Kazin cites the last lines of "The Tuft of Flowers" in which "Frost feels in the mysterious mower's a spirit kindred to my own; / So that hence-forth I worked no more alone." Yet at its core, Kazin concludes, Frost's work can be seen as embodying a Calvinism laboring "under some snow-white / Minerva's snow-white marble eyes … Without the gift of sight."

On Faulkner, in the book's last essay, Kazin writes:

Because I think of religion as the most intimate expression of the human heart, as the most secret of personal confessions, where we admit to ourselves alone our fears and our losses, our sense of holy dread and our awe before the unflagging power of a universe that regards us indeed of 'no account,' I find it hard to think of Faulkner confiding in a personal God.

But Faulkner's South is so God-ridden, his characters are so prone to look above and within for the Presence who seems more often to curse than bless their lives, that it is hard to consider his writing without reference to religion Kazin seems to me right about Faulkner's own distance from a personal God and right as well about the way religious figures and symbols keep turning up in his work. A race of winners consigned to defeat, the Southern men in Faulkner are as maddened as Job, as sacrificial as Christ. Jason Compson's rantings against the Almighty, and the character of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, and Joe Christmas in Light in August, suggest a darkly transcendent dimension, perhaps a God whose dwelling is no more than a higher Hell than the one they inhabit, a Memphis brothel as Paradise to the shadowed land they inhabit. Invoked, the deity appears as "the Player," "the blind dice man." It's a short theomorphic jump to heroin as God, the Connection.

Kazin has taken the God-infused, post-Calvinist literature of America as his own. He has served and attended it through fads, renunciations, and redefinitions on the part of many others, never wavering in his irreplaceable common sense, his love for the subject, his insight. He has written much to identify himself as a Jew, the child of immigrants, raided to a new country. His long career proclaims an affinity among the People of the Book that made the Puritan tradition in America congenial to many like him, a tradition they could claim as birthright simply by recognizing it. Exponent is too cold a word for the relationship of Kazin and American letters. Apostle is more like it.

Andrew Delbanco (essay date 16 July 1998)

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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 and no belief in culture."

Like everything else Alfred Kazin was to write in the ensuing fifty-five years, On Native Grounds was a belligerent expression of hope. Hope drove his sentences and filled his speaking voice, which, as he grew older, often seemed on the verge of cracking under the strain of his passion and his anger at the dispassionate. He demanded hope from every writer he assessed; and even when he reviewed a book harshly, it was with a kind of outrage on behalf of readers cheated, he thought, by a work that fell short of its obligation to disclose some ground for building a better future.

His trilogy of memoirs, A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and the pugnaciously titled New York Jew (1978), tells the story of hard times, but always with a sense of bright expectation. He was sometimes embarrassed by the ways of his immigrant parents, as when he brought gentile friends to the family able in Brooklyn, and his "father kept slurping the soup and reaching out for the meat with his own fork." But the young man "hugged my aloneness, our apartness, my parents' poverty, as a sign of our call to create the future." What grated on his increasingly American sensibility was his parents' self-denial (his mother refused "ever to enjoy openly or even to admit that she craved enjoyment") and their stubborn fidelity to the past. In New York Jew he recalls walking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with his father, who "as a Jew segregated in the Pale … would never have been allowed into St. Petersburg," but who compared the botanical pavilions unfavorably to the Tsar's summer palace. Here is the son's comment on the father's misplaced pride: "What beautiful myths and obstinate delusions these despised Russian Jews lived on!"

Alfred Kazin was among the last of our major literary intellectuals to have come of age during the Depression. Yet even in a city of bread lines and shanties, he loved the undiscriminating country into which he had been born, where palaces were public and Jews could go where they pleased. City College was his yeshiva and the New York Public Library his shul. "There was nothing strange or unexpected in 1938," he recently recalled, knowing that such a claim now seems to some an incongruity, "about my being both critical of 'the system' and crazy about the country." In large measure America meant New York to him; but he also looked beyond the great city—listening, enraptured, to his father's stories of having worked as a laborer for the Union Pacific Railroad in the enchanted West. The last time I heard him speak, at a symposium in his honor last fall at the City University of New York, he talked movingly of how his father wept upon hearing of the death of Eugene V. Debs and of Robert La Follette's failure to win the presidency—plainspoken prairie men in whom patriotism and outrage on behalf of the oppressed seemed the same thing. One of the pleasures of rereading On Native Grounds today is to encounter afresh this delight with which a precocious son of immigrant Jews discovered his own ideals in writers from the American heartland (Sherwood Anderson, William Dean Howells) who "brought home the Middle West to me as the valley of democracy and the fountainhead of hope."

To read Alfred Kazin's early work is to go back to a time far from our age of celebrity magazines and academic free agency. He tells of going down to the Chelsea office of The New Republic and forcing a place for himself on the crowded bench in the waiting room among those hoping for a reviewing assignment from its literary editor, Malcolm Cowley.

Unable to supply all the hopefuls, Cowley would sell off extra review copies and dole out the proceeds to those who went home without a book in hand—mostly bookish boys sustained not only by their ambition and sense of romance, but by an ingenuous belief that a few columns in The New Republic could change the world.

This sense of high stakes never slackened for Alfred Kazin. Yet he also knew, as he put it mischievously not long ago to an academic audience, that "writing criticism was the booby prize for people who were not creative—that is, all those who couldn't write novels." Despite his ample pride, he had humility and a sense of proportion, and he spoke mercilessly about presumptuous professors "riding herd on students who are so unused to general reading that they have little taste of their own and are glad to be told how to read, especially what to discount." He hated pretense, whether he found it in the latest critical jargon, or sixty years ago among "those middle-class and doctrinaire radicals who, after graduating from Harvard or Yale in the Twenties, had made it a matter of personal honor to become Marxists, and who now worried in the New Masses whether Proust should be read after the Revolution and why there seemed to be no simple proletarians in the novels of André Malraux."

Alfred Kazin was not chiefly interested in abstract ideas, and he never adopted a lofty cerebral style like that of his friend and older contemporary Lionel Trilling. His only methodological principle was that good criticism requires openness and immersion, and he believed that "what gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art is not instruction but another work of art." Though in his later years he held a Distinguished Professorship at the City University, he never seemed quite at home in the academy. It was a boon to all of us that he had no certified "specialty."

A little sentimental and sometimes rash, he remained an exclamatory writer—which is why it is refreshing to read him in our age of critical technologia. His love for literature was irrepressible. From his first ventures into print to his final reviews (his last piece for The New York Review—on a posthumously published novel by I.B. Singer—was typically both thought, and full of delight), he was almost always worth reading for the reason that Emerson gave when he wrote, "If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only this one dream which holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism."

He had a keen instinct for the psychological dynamics of literary history, as when he remarked (long before Harold Bloom coined the term "anxiety of influence") how certain American modernists (Bierce, Stephen Crane, Anderson) made Howells "their bête noir, since he had been afraid of sex," and thereby missed—or deliberately obscured—the fact that Howells's social criticism went deeper than their own. But Alfred Kazin's special talent was for evoking the texture of a place or style, as when he recalled the smoky balconies of Times Square theaters in the Thirties, where one could find refuge and sleep during the triple features, or when he identified Richard Wright's "most striking technical gift" as his ability to express the relentless momentum of life as act after act in an atmosphere of undeviating cruelty."

Upon hearing the news of his death, I spent some time rambling through his books and came upon this wonderful passage about Scott Fitzgerald near the end of An American Procession (1984). It is not fanciful, I think, to glimpse in it a hint of a self-portrait that suggests the special quality that distinguished Alfred Kazin among the so-called "New York intellectuals" with whom he is often casually grouped:

Fitzgerald, more than Mencken or Hemingway or Dos Passos, loved America and attached himself to its myths. (No one else in his generation so seriously took American history as his history.) At the same time, he had this extraordinary and perhaps self-destructive gift of feeling himself to be the center of the universe and so a marked man. He was the reason for everything in sight yet was the wallflower-observer…. He was the center of things and its everlasting margin.

Alfred Kazin "took American history as his history" by inhabiting it with a fiercely sympathetic imagination. He had the judgment and learning of an estimable critic. But like only a very few other American critics—one thinks of John Jay Chapman and Edmund Wilson—he infused the language with himself and thereby became a writer who will last.

Sean Wilentz (essay date 19 July 1998)

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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, "thinking that I had at last opened the great trunk of forgotten time in New York in which I, too, I thought, would someday find the source of my unrest."

That the poor Jewish immigrant's son from Brooklyn would grow up to be the greatest champion of American literature of his time would have amazed both Roosevelt and Whitman. It amazed Kazin, too, enough so that he often pondered (explicitly in his memoirs and in his journals, covertly in his literary criticism) the inner drama of his continuing sentimental education and his bookish hunger for more. Always be returned to his love of the past, both in written records and in half-hidden presences, as the enduring touchstone of his critical imagination. "I keep seeing Willa Cather on that train doing the long homeward trek to Nebraska," be noted in his journal while composing An American Procession, and those lonely reporters from Mark Twain to Ambrose Bierce, Hemingway and Ring Lardner, hunched down in the dead of night in small-town newspaper offices and with the tawny yellow shades drawn against the one street light." Literature, for Kazin, arose within tactile and telling historical places, just as surely as did politics and diplomacy and religion.

Throughout his adult life, Kazin, who died last month on his 83rd birthday, surrounded himself with historians as well as with history books. Seated beside his young companion, Richard Hofstadter, at the New York Public Library in 1938, he undertook all-day books of reading, punctuated by lunch-time games of Ping-Pong, that eventually went into On Native Grounds. (Hofstadter, who died at 54 in 1970, would remain Kazin's closest kindred spirit, his mordant charm balancing Kazin's more romantic impulses—the "absent friend" to whom Kazin dedicated his last book, "God and the American Writer.") Among the older critics he knew, Kazin was drawn chiefly to Edmund Wilson, "not a reporter," he wrote in 1958, "but a literary artist driven by historical imagination—like Henry Adams and Carlyle." (He would carry on a vigorous and illuminating correspondence with Wilson, which someone ought someday to publish in full, challenging the Jaundiced view of the Civil War and the Union cause in "Patriotic Gore.") In the 1960's, as a New York literary eminence, he socialized with the Daniel Aarons and the Arthur Schlesingers (as well as the Hofstadters and Wilsons) on the beach at Wellfleet, Mass. He handed his enthusiasm for history to his historian son, Michael, and to his historian-turned-labor lawyer daughter, Kate. And in the last decade of his life, when he thought that deconstruction and other English department devotions had left him in the cold, be sought out the company of literary minded historians and historically-minded critics, some of them 40 years his junior—surprised, I suspect, to discover that they even existed.

History was, in part, Kazin's refuge from what he called the "twin fanaticisms" of his formative years as a writer: sociological fanaticism, by which he meant, primarily, Marxism, and the hyperesthetic fanaticism of the New Critics. Born and bred a socialist (like so many of Brownsville's Yiddishe bokhrim), yet with an introspective liberal temperament, he hated how the Marxists manipulated history into a materialist abstraction—History—and then subjected art and literature to History's inexorable laws. Equally be hated how the New Critics denied history altogether. "I have never been able to understand why the study of literature in relation to society should be divorced from a full devotion to what literature in itself," be wrote at the start of On Native Grounds, "or why those who seek to analyze literary texts should cut off the act of writing from its irreducible sources in the life of men." (He meant women, too: On Native Grounds examined Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow in depth.) When rehashes of the Depression-era fanaticisms proliferated in the universities during the 1960's and after, Kazin stuck to his guns, insisting on seeing writers, in Richard Elimann's phrase, "as at once facing the world and facing their desks."

History also lived for Kazin as a literary endeavor. He knew, as few academic historians of his generation knew or wanted to admit, that it is the remarkable historians who truly make the history we know, and that the most remarkable of them do so as magnificent and confident writers, armed with (as he wrote of Henry Adams) "a literary power so great that we come to think of it as historical truth." He may well have been the last prominent literary critic to respect the 19th century conception of history as a branch of literature. To be sure, it was not historians but the realist novelist—William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson—who first pulled Kazin's imagination to Boston and Chicago, to the rural vastness of the Middle West and beyond. (The shining example of Eugene V. Debs, the humane, hopeful, all-American Socialist from Indiana, also helped.) But once Kazin enlarged his trunk of forgotten time to include not just New York but America, be communed, as empathetically as be could, with the characters as well as the chroniclers of American history: Kansas newspapermen and California gold miners and Massachusetts schoolmarms and Mississippi sharecroppers (trapped, as he said in a passage on Richard Wright, in "an atmosphere of undeviating cruelty"). Presidents, past and present, also caught his eye. Only a critic like Kazin, who was as crazy about America as F. Scott Fitzgerald was, could have detected the Gatsby-like features of the intellectuals' darling. John F. Kennedy. (Kennedy's "most essential quality," Kazin observed in 1961, "Is that of the man who is always making and remaking himself.") And at the end of his life, Kazin finally took the measure of Abraham Lincoln, the not-so-secret literary, political and spiritual hero of God and the American Writer, and of the "unfailing moral exaltation in Lincoln's greatest utterances, riveting his arguments together like the linked verses of biblical prophecy."

He wrote that last book under the grimmest of deadlines, having just completed two others (including a little masterpiece called Writing Was Everything); and the result was prose at once sparer than his earlier writing and unsparing, sometimes fierce, in its moral clarity. Although he examined American writers' quarrels with God from Emerson to Faulkner, the crux of Kazin's concerns lay in slavery and the Civil War, and in how a nation as obsessed with God as 19th-century America was could have countenanced the first and fought the second. Of his own conviction that slavery caused the war, thus making the Union fight a holy fight, he left no doubt (finishing off, in a sense, his old argument with Wilson). Reviewing the bloodshed, Kazin took a certain amused delight in puncturing Confederate myths, not least what he called the South's "seemingly built-in religiosity," emblematized "In the fundamentalism of that expert killer Gen. Thomas Jonathan Jackson—them! immortal Stonewall—who in battle cried 'Kill them! Kill them!' but who was not sure it was proper to kill on the Sabbath."

Lincoln's heroism comes through, meanwhile, not as any intrinsic piety—Lincoln always prided himself on his rationalism—but in his hesitations before the Almighty, and in his gradual, heartbreaking awareness, amid the carnage, "of the restrictions imposed by a mystery so encompassing it can only be called 'God'":

"Lincoln's God was born of war. It would not have survived without him, since only Lincoln understood Him. Lincoln had nothing to say about Jesus as redeemer and intervener in his life. What was personal to Lincoln was a sense of divinity wrested from the many contradictions in human effort. God came to him through a certain exhaustion."

And then, with a shiver of awe, Kazin looked back at slavery and the war that ended it as "the one chapter in American life that brings us back to biblical history." No historian has said that better than Alfred Kazin—or, I should say, no other historian.

John L. Brown (review date Winter 1998)

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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 in the Thirties (1965), and New York Jew (1978).

Quite understandably, many entries deal with the author's contacts with other critics and intellectuals. A traditionalist in his critical views, Kazin is "proud to be a critic outside the fashionable university opinion." He defends the accepted canon against postmodernist attacks, has little sympathy with multiculturalism, which "has replaced truth and knowledge by opinion." He lauds the work of Henry Adams (despite Adams's anti-Jewish prejudice), "which is central to my sense of American history," and of Whitman, "the great voice of American nationality." He knew Robert Frost when both were teaching at Amherst and found him "a tragic figure, fighting to throw off the curse." He comments perceptively and often astringently on dozens of his contemporaries, both European and American-he loved Italy in particular and speaks of many Italian writers and thinkers, including Ignazio Silone, Carlo Levi, Paolo Milano, Salvemini. Visiting Bernard Berenson's villa "I Tatti," he encountered Leo Stein, Gertrude's brother, who abominated his "big sister." Later, in Rome, he met Berenson himself, "who took me in quickly, quietly, absolutely."

As a young Jewish critic in New York in the 1930s, Kazin became closely associated with "the Partisan Review crowd." In London, during the war, he met T. S. Eliot, "kind and gentle," and seemed tolerant of the poet's anti-Semitism. He remembers F. O. Matthissen, whom he knew at Harvard, and recalls contacts with Elizabeth Bishop, Josephine Herbst, Ralph Ellison, and fellow Jews like Harold Bloom, Saul Bellow, and Irving Kristol, about whom he had mixed feelings.

But literary discussion does not completely dominate these journals. Kazin would seem to be even more concerned in recording frankly a life which has been far from idyllic. With the passage of the years, in spite of "the glow of fame" surrounding him, he has suffered a mounting sense of the "bleakness" of his life, indeed of all human life. One day, in Central Park, watching a frightened cat fleeing up a tree, he ruminates: "I am like that cat-up a tree and waiting to fall from this stupid life, this loveless life." After his three failed marriages, he felt "bruised and starved for love." (With Judith, his fourth wife, he finally found happiness). Unable to sleep, "pursued by the Furies," he weeps "in the emptiness for the emptiness." The burden of mortality, of death, weighs heavily upon him. During his weekly radiation treatments for cancer, he believes that he "is making a desperate effort to cheat death." He seeks salvation from "the emptiness" in his Jewish heritage and in a renewal of faith and spiritual life. Deeply moved by a visit to Israel, he strengthens his ties with Jewish friends like Elie Wiesel ("meeting him was an extraordinary experience"). After making the acquaintance of Hannah Arendt, he writes, "I love this woman intensely," and devotes several entries to praising her work. He also has a deep reverence for two other Jewish women: Simone Weil, who played a heroic role in the Resistance; and the martyred Edith Stein, murdered in Auschwitz. (A convert to Catholicism, she has recently been canonized.)

The concluding pages of the journals, like the final chapters of Writing Was Everything, turn to prayer, to God, to Christianity, and to the tragic fate of the Jewish people and express Kazin's fervent desire "to see our lives with the eyes of faith and to make the world shine again."


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