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...
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