Alfred Kazin (KAY-zihn) was an influential critic of twentieth century American literature, a writer of autobiography, and an editor. He was born to Charles and Gita Fagelman Kazin, an immigrant Jewish family living in the poverty of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Apparently a precocious child, Kazin was an avid reader who, according to some, had “read every important book in American literature” by the time he was twenty-seven years of age. As a young Jew searching for an American heritage and a world beyond the Brownsville area, he credits the Brooklyn Museum and the branch library for providing a breakthrough into the literary world and precipitating an awakening in his life. He completed a degree at the College of the City of New York (later City College of the City University of New York) in 1935 and received a master’s degree in 1938 from Columbia University. A Guggenheim Fellow in 1940, Kazin earned instant acclaim as a literary critic with On Native Grounds, which traces the beginnings of social realism in American literature. The work treats approximately fifty writers spanning three generations; it is concerned with demonstrating that literature has real meaning for humankind.
After spending a year in England as a Rockefeller Fellow in 1945 and receiving another Guggenheim Fellowship in 1947, Kazin published the first of several autobiographical memoirs, A Walker in the City, in 1951. Here he describes his experience of living in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Brownsville and of thinking of everywhere outside that restricted area as “beyond.” Kazin returned to England as a Fulbright lecturer at Cambridge University in 1952. In 1955, he published a collection of critical essays, The Inmost Leaf, which analyzes a wide range of writers including such American notables as Henry David Thoreau, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and E. E. Cummings and such European writers as Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, and Maxim Gorky; the major focus is more on the authors than on their works in this volume. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Kazin edited numerous texts, including studies of Fitzgerald and Theodore Dreiser; published editions of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and The Financier (1912, 1927), and Henry James’s The Ambassadors (1903); and collaborated with other editors on the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The decade of the 1960’s also saw the publication of The Open Form, followed by Contemporaries. The latter book includes criticism of earlier writers such as Melville, Thoreau, Emerson, and John Keats, as well as more recent ones such as J. D. Salinger, Sholom Aleichem, Dylan Thomas, and Saul Bellow. A revised edition appeared in 1982. Another autobiographical work, Starting out in the Thirties, appeared in 1965. This somewhat impressionistic, intellectual history communicates effectively what it was like to be a radical during the 1930’s, when many of the radical intellectuals had an optimism and an enthusiasm that contrasted with the anxiety of the day. In 1966, Kazin was the recipient of the George Polk Memorial Award for criticism.
In his 1973 volume Bright Book of Life, Kazin provides a study of the American novel spanning the 1930’s to the 1970’s. More of a survey than a history of this era of American literature, the discussion proceeds from the work of Ernest Hemingway to that of Norman Mailer. The autobiographical New York Jew, published in 1978, could be described as a spiritual voyage that includes discussion of various relationships, his marriages, the World War II years, and numerous persons of note whom he had known or met during the period between 1942 and the mid-1970’s. In 1977 and 1978, Kazin was a fellow of the Center for the Advanced Study of Behavioral Sciences and a senior fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
An American Procession, published in 1984, is a study of a number of major figures from what Kazin calls the “crucial century” that begins with Emerson in the 1830’s and ends with modernists such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald in the 1930’s. He also treats writers who were “modern before their time”—Henry Adams, Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. This book was followed in 1988 by another critical work, A Writer’s America. In his 1995 memoir Writing Was Everything, originally presented as the Massey Lectures at Harvard University, Kazin surveys his literary career, discusses many leading writers of the twentieth century, and describes the intellectual debates of the 1930’s. God and the American Writer, published in 1997, offers a comparative literary, theological, and political analysis of selected American authors, with close attention to religious or philosophical meanings and broad historical patterns and with a special focus on American slavery. Kazin died in 1998 on his eighty-third birthday.
One of the more distinctive features of Kazin’s criticism is that he believed that literature, as well as its writers, must not be approached apart from the culture out of which they come. While he was a conscientious, even rigorous critic, he avoided the abstract, instead focusing on a utilitarian kind of criticism rather than on formal analysis. In the final analysis, Kazin judged a literary work by what he had gained from it.
Alter, Robert. “The Education of Alfred Kazin.” In Motives for Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984. Praises Kazin’s interest in a realistic tradition and numbers him among those writers who respond to human predicaments and choices.
Cook, Richard. Alfred Kazin. New Haven: Yale, 2008. This biography discusses Kazin’s writing of his novel On Native Ground along with the ways in which he was influenced by other writers of his time. It also examines his public and private life and his literary achievements and failures.
Hicks, Granville. “The Ground Alfred Kazin Stands On.” The Antioch Review 3 (Spring, 1943). Although dated, this work is still useful for its appraisal of strengths and weaknesses in Kazin’s criticism.
Kramer, Hilton. “The Age of the Intellectuals.” The New Leader, September 27, 1965. Praises Kazin’s ability to stand apart from the change of which he is a product.
Sale, Roger. On Not Being Good Enough: Writings of a Working Critic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. As the title suggests, the author finds fault with Kazin and numerous other well-known critics; nevertheless, Sale praises what he refers to as “some fine sentences.”
Schuessler, Jennifer. “Alfred Kazin: An American Journey.” Publishers Weekly 244, no. 44 (October 27, 1997): 47-48. Schuessler surveys Kazin’s life and works. Includes commentary from the author.
Wilentz, Sean. “He Heard America Singing.” The New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1998, 31. Wilentz examines Kazin’s life and work, applauding the author’s accomplishments as a writer and historian.