An American Procession

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2045

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.

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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 for juxtaposing Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in another? To many such questions, the text does not suggest satisfactory answers. Neither does Kazin’s prologue, an essay on the aged Henry Adams in 1918 (though interesting in itself), nor does his “Retrospect” on John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1932 provide any original hypothesis capable of tying together the separate essays or parts of the book. The arrangement of these writers seems as casual as the title of the whole work. Kazin parades his twenty writers in chapters of varying degrees of incisiveness and coherence, and ends by disappointing the reader who has anticipated an important contribution to American literary history or criticism.

Kazin’s coupling of the late Dreiser novel with the early Faulkner one piques the reader’s curiosity, but whereas a chapter in On Native Grounds established a thematic relationship between the fiction of Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, all Kazin does here to establish connections is write, “Dreiser was a novelist Faulkner once praised.” If the two novels have anything in common beyond publication in the 1920’s, the author has kept it a secret. The restriction of the Faulkner subchapter to Faulkner’s first great novel—despite the fact that, as Kazin himself correctly observes, Faulkner’s glory years extended from 1929 to 1936—seems to derive from a numerological principle: 1929 is the hundredth year after 1830. As a matter of fact, Kazin in his first two chapters is happier with 1832 as his starting point, the year of Emerson’s farewell sermon to his flock at the Second Church of Boston. Had he chosen 1836, the publication year of Nature, he might have had 1936, the year of Absalom, Absalom! as well as of the completion of Dos Passos’ trilogy U.S.A., a work Kazin holds in high regard and praises ably in his epilogue. What attracts Kazin to 1929 is more likely the stock market crash, an ominous ending to a decade and an unhappy preliminary to anyone “starting out in the thirties,” to borrow a phrase that makes the title of another Kazin book.

The structural weakness of An American Procession is epitomized in the fourth chapter, on Hawthorne and Poe. Kazin gives thirteen pages to the former, less than eight to the latter, and then, as a third subsection, four paragraphs ostensibly devoted to establishing a relationship between the two. After some desultory comparisons in the first paragraph, however, the remaining three are given over to Hawthorne, with emphasis on his difficulties with Puritanism. Is any reader of Poe likely to be satisfied with such short shrift, especially when Kazin’s attention is almost entirely taken up by The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838)? Kazin comes closer to summing up the essential Hawthorne, but why should he drag Poe behind him?

Nor do individual essays always cohere. Into his “Retrospect,” for example, Kazin abruptly inserts two paragraphs in praise of Margaret Anderson, founder of The Little Review. Only at the end of this material is the relationship between Anderson and the subject at hand, the work of Dos Passos, clarified: She was “another of those American pioneers, in all fields, whose biographies Dos Passos wrote into U.S.A.”—but no other pioneer has been previously identified as such, and the digression on Anderson seems gratuitous.

Unfortunately, this book also bristles with repetition—especially repetitious quotation. Twice within six pages in his prologue, Kazin quotes the same sentence from Henry Adams. Twice within eight pages in the same essay, he does the same with T. S. Eliot. Once each in two different chapters, he alludes to Herman Melville’s poem “The House-top” to make the same point about the antidraft rioters in 1863; then, fifteen pages later, he raises the same point yet again by quoting six lines from the poem. After quoting a Henry James character, “I call people rich when they’re able to meet the requirements of their imagination,” he paraphrases the same utterance a few pages later for no particular reason, with the result that the bon mot already cloys when he gives it his own metaphorical turn (The Golden Bowl was “rich” in being “able to meet the requirements of Henry James’s imagination”) a bit further on.

Stylistically and even grammatically, the book suffers from embarrassing lapses. The seventh sentence on page 6 and the second on page 102 are clumsily constructed at best. A parenthetical sentence near the bottom of page 212 simply makes no sense at all, and an extra “and” in the fifth sentence on page 334 renders it ungrammatical. Phrases are misplaced, such as the final one in this sentence: “The frontier, having no tradition, worked on images of the past like acid.” Sometimes, Kazin crowds a sentence with distracting irrelevancies: “The Capitol dome, from which Thomas Crawford’s bronze figure of Freedom was to surmount what poor Herman Melville, vainly looking for a job from Lincoln’s new administration, had admired as ’noble buildings, by far the richest in marble of any on the continent,’ would not be in place for another year.”

Although Kazin is usually designated a critic, the strengths of On Native Grounds are those associated with the competent literary historian: an ability to combine a chronological and typological organization, and the faculty of relating significant literature to its intellectual, cultural, political, and social contexts. Without a critical facility, of course, the literary historian cannot hope to succeed, but Kazin has been at his best when bringing his alert, well-stocked historical sense to bear on a literary text or congeries of texts. He is not an analytical critic and as a matter of fact was one of the fiercest opponents of the New Critics when those literary analysts were themselves gaining prominence by assaulting the excesses of earlier historical and biographical criticism. Neither is he a theorist who can systematically apply an original idea to a selection of literary works. The plan of this book does not involve Kazin’s virtues as literary historian, and An American Procession does not make a pleasing whole.

The book nevertheless furnishes a number of pleasurable moments. Many of Kazin’s insights are illuminating. His suggestion that Mark Twain’s decision to tell Huckleberry Finn’s story in the first person “forced” him into a masterpiece is provocative. Kazin observes that Huck’s naïveté enhances enormously the satiric possibilities in such material as the Grangerford-Shepherdson episode. Similarly, Kazin’s identification of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie as a type of the modern tragedy of “unreflectiveness” seems to be the fruit of considerable reflectiveness on his part, as does his discussion of Ezra Pound as a “ventriloquist” who assimilated and imitated other languages and other poets in much the same way, without understanding them thoroughly or even wishing to. Many of Kazin’s best observations occur in his criticism of Henry Adams, Dreiser, and Dos Passos—men who, like Kazin, are particularly sensitive to the throb and murmur of urban life.

As a counterweight to the stylistic deficiencies, Kazin offers a number of enviable, often epigrammatical, formulations: “Emerson was always to have a positive effect on people who did not know what he was talking about”; “Thoreau can hold us to the glory of a moment.” Henry Adams, Kazin says, recognized himself as “a seismograph of history, an advance guard of the race.”

Kazin’s triumphs are so often brief ones because his talent is nimbleness rather than endurance. He makes in a page or two, sometimes in a paragraph, points that an academic critic—one used to writing for the journals—would develop into twenty-page essays. He seldom acknowledges any borrowing of ideas and has no use for a panoply of footnotes. One suspects that he neither knows nor cares where “his” ideas leave off and someone else’s begin. He has been thinking about American literature for a long time and moves lightly through familiar terrain which he is content to share with other travelers. He does provide what other writers of this sort of book too seldom do: an index of authors and works mentioned.

Although the conceptual framework of the book is frail, An American Procession is more than a random collection of essays on American writers. The reader is conscious throughout of a literary sensibility that relishes writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson and Theodore Dreiser and is adept at cross-reference. That sensibility is not sufficient to unify the book, but it challenges the reader already acquainted with the great American writers to test his own against it, as Francis Bacon challenged his readers to test their own experience against his moral essays. Reading the book is an authentic intellectual experience even when it is an irritating one.

Kazin must have realized that no amount of argument would convince everyone that a “crucial century” of American literature began when Emerson vacated his pulpit. Champions of James Fenimore Cooper must arise to assert the claims of the immortal Natty Bumppo, adherents of William Cullen Bryant observe that his 1826 lectures on poetry constitute a clarion call earlier than Nature or American Scholar, and cases can be made for Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards and even Cotton Mather, perhaps the first literary man to write out of a developed consciousness of “America.” Kazin chooses not to argue but to proceed. The journey is attractive, and if the guide is inclined to ramble and stumble, he is usually lively and discerning.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66

America. CLI, August 18, 1984, p. 86.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, July 12, 1984, p. 24.

Commentary. LXXVIII, July, 1984, p. 69.

The Georgia Review. XXXVIII, Fall, 1984, p. 660.

Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 900.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 20, 1984, p. 1.

The New Republic. CXC, June 18, 1984, p. 33.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, May 13, 1984, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LX, June 18, 1984, p. 114.

Newsweek. CIII, May 21, 1984, p. 83.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 23, 1984, p. 60.

Smithsonian. XV, August, 1984, p. 127.

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