An American Procession by Alfred Kazin

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An American Procession

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

A new study of “the major American writers from 1830 to 1930,” as proclaimed on the jacket of An American Procession, induces great expectations. Given the immense amount of scholarship and critical attention that major American writers have received in recent decades, any attempt to encompass them in a volume is a difficult undertaking, and only an exceedingly well-prepared person (or a foolish one), steering between the Charybdis of captious specialist readers and the Scylla of bewildered lay readers, can hope to write a book both informed and original on such a comprehensive subject.

Alfred Kazin ranks among those qualified to try. As long ago as 1942, while still in his twenties, Kazin published On Native Grounds, a book remarkable for its breadth of knowledge. Surveying American literature in relation to American society from 1890 to the eve of World War II, Kazin expressed misgivings concerning the academic wing of literary criticism, and over the years he has retained a journalist’s interest in the contemporary scene and a journalist’s suspicion of abstruse and overspecialized literary scholarship. While continuing to write periodically on American literature, he was drawn (one is tempted to say “inevitably”) into the university orbit. He has also written several more books, including one, Bright Book of Life (1973) on the twentieth century American novel. Who could be blamed for hoping that An American Procession, its title from Walt Whitman, might not only be Kazin’s magnum opus but also one of the occasional indispensable studies of American literature?

To anyone approaching An American Procession thus hopefully, the book is a distinct disappointment. It divides its century into three rather equal periods, 1830 to 1865, 1865 to 1900, and 1900 to 1929, and studies six to eight writers in each section. So far, so good. It is always possible to quarrel with the divisions, inclusions, and exclusions of any such book. Because it is not encyclopedic (and An American Procession, with twice the territory to survey, is somewhat shorter than On Native Grounds), the book must exclude the merely almost great, and it can scarcely avoid some measure of arbitrariness in the divisions by which it orders and interprets the indisputable giants. Whereas he was determined in his earliest book to give the neglected William Dean Howells his due, here Kazin decides to subordinate him severely to Mark Twain and Henry James and Stephen Crane. Both decisions are defensible.

Nevertheless, a book whose table of contents makes such a show of organization, division, and exclusivity must argue its grounds and demonstrate the cogency of its arrangement. A glance at those contents raises questions: Why does Ralph Waldo Emerson alone receive two chapters to himself? Is there any basis besides conventional convenience for coupling Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in another? or for demanding that Theodore Dreiser, Henry Adams, and Twain march together in another? or...

(The entire section is 2,111 words.)