It is late in God and the American Writer that readers discover Alfred Kazin’s definition of religion:
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 as indeed of “no account” . . .
This is an intriguing moment of definition in a study that explores the undefinable, ambiguous, contradictory, and restless relationship that Kazin’s collection of American writers “religiously” express with God, Universe, Soul, Self, and America. In a collection of essays themselves ambiguous, contradictory, and restless, Kazin explores the key theological tension he claims for his American writers: “[they] can neither believe nor be comfortable in [their] unbelief; and [they are] too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.”
It is perhaps out of respect for this tension that Kazin’s essays in God and the American Writer work less toward definitive analysis and more toward suggestively murking the Leviathan-laden waters of American religious, literary, and political history. Each essay offers multilayered analysis of the literary and social world of specific American writers. Kazin happily indulges in tangential foray and provocative commentary. Readers will no doubt just as happily return the favor, producing countercommentary and their own imaginative and political tangents as they read. Kazin’s focus is not only the ambiguity of the sacred as a literary trope but also the ambiguity of the political evocation of the sacred in American political history. God and the American Writer is part literary homage to writers long important to Kazin (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Faulkner) and part Kazin’s political challenge to an American Christianity “so publicly vehement, politicized, and censorious,” too often characterized by “the shallowness and aggressiveness of public religion in the service of hard-right politics.” By working with the philosophical and political restlessness of a select group of American writers who lived in relationship to, and often struggled against, the trajectories of the Anglo-American Christian tradition, Kazin provocatively develops his own counterargument to aggressive right-wing appropriations of “God.” He argues that an honest grappling with the “ineffable” entails much philosophical trouble and few political certainties, leaving human beings ultimately alone and responsible for themselves and their communities.God and the American Writer suggests this as the substance of Kazin’s metaphysical cultural politics, which will inspire some readers with its open embrace of theological uncertainty and frustrate others with its political vagueness. In this sense, the book invites animated intellectual response and will interest a wide range of readers.
In addition to presenting Kazin’s underlying political argument against making political claims to the authority of God, God and the American Writer also critiques American slavery, its treatment by selected writers, and its legacy in American race relations. Kazin’s recurring association of American slavery with the Nazi Holocaust animates the book’s cultural criticism with additional provocative political tension. The essays proceed not in a linear argument but along lines of loosely associative analysis. Each essay stands alone, yet they are conceptually related to one another. The book’s structure thus mirrors Kazin’s portrayal of each author’s struggle with religious tradition and the many American versions of God: Each person stands alone, metaphysically and creatively, yet in relation to the traditions and political tensions of his or her time. This dualistic portrayal of the “genius” in relation to “society” will be familiar to longtime readers of Kazin’s work, although the dualism is more emphatic in God and the American Writer than in, say, On Native Grounds (1942).
Kazin opens with “Hawthorne and His Puritans,” exploring the political perils of theocracy and the psychological depth of Hawthorne’s struggle with Calvinism in an extended reading of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter(1850). He then proceeds to Emerson’s philosophical Romanticism,...
(The entire section is 1823 words.)