God and the American Writer Summary
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, highlighting Emerson’s moral claim that “We Are as Gods.” In these first chapters, readers are introduced to the important central concerns of the book and to a stylistic and rhetorical practice that foreshadows a more serious problem in God and the American Writer: In these opening chapters, readers meet the sweeping, monolithic, and overgeneralizing first person plural of Kazin’s analytical voice, the “we” and “us” of “America.” This affected inclusiveness becomes increasingly problematic in a study that soon reveals other clear political choices by its author.
The next chapters introduce the book’s structuring analysis of American slavery, which figures centrally in Kazin’s chapters on Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln, threading through later chapters on Melville, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Twain, and culminating in a more contemporary critique of “race” in Kazin’s reading of Faulkner in the closing chapter, titled “Faulkner: God over the South.” Kazin interprets the theology (explicitly and implicitly politicized) employed by these writers as they confront slavery as a foundational American institution. As he proceeds, Kazin also plays out the contradictory impulses toward—and away from—God, Universe, Mystery, Self, and Justice by these writers, and he creatively reads the political and historical context of these “intimate expression[s] of the human heart.” Many readers will be particularly interested in the chapter on Lincoln in this regard; Kazin’s literary interpretation of Lincoln’s speeches is suggestive for productive further work.
God and the American Writer also reveals a severely restricted interpretive lens in the third chapter, titled “Christians and Their Slaves (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Others).” The title is suggestive of possible (and important) irony in a study of white Christian theological presumptuousness, but many American readers will be startled by Kazin’s claim early in the chapter that “No abolitionist before the Civil War condemned slavery as fiercely as Jefferson did in 1781.” Kazin does offer here a perceptive analysis of Jefferson’s (and Stowe’s, and Lincoln’s) theological and political preoccupation with the salvation of the white slaveholder, white Northern Christian, and white nation—but “No abolitionist before the Civil War . . .”? Kazin briefly mentions Frederick Douglass but identifies him in this chapter only as “the runaway slave who had become the leading black abolitionist,” not as the author of three autobiographies, the 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass being one of the most widely taught works of nineteenth century American literature. Douglass also wrote one novella (The Heroic Slave, 1853), extensive journalism, and numerous speeches. Kazin’s literary analysis of Lincoln’s speeches clearly opens the range of his literary analysis to include speeches (and sermons) as literary genres, and the language in all these works by Douglass matches and exceeds the condemnation of slavery attributed to Jefferson. In addition, what of William Wells Brown (abolitionist, playwright, and novelist), whose 1853 novel Clotel: Or, The President’s Daughter directly explores Jefferson’s contradictory participation in slavery and American democratic philosophy? What of the antebellum oratory of Maria Stewart? David Walker’s political theology? The poetry of Frances Harper? Harriet Wilson’s 1859 abolitionist novel Our Nig? Kazin includes in God and the American Writer an insightful chapter on William James but makes no mention of work of another American political philosopher and pragmatist, W. E. B. Du Bois. The American writers listed above are all preoccupied with questions related to American slavery, and all write in ambivalent relationship to ambiguous American Christianity. All these writers are also African American.
If Kazin had clearly delineated his focus as white American literature and theology, then his exclusion of black American literary and political perspectives on slavery would not, in itself, be problematic. The topic of white political and literary theology is important, and Kazin’s essays do illuminate an essential aspect of American literary, theological, and racial history. Kazin, however, explicitly claims for his work a broader focus on “the American writer,” “our writers,” and “our literary heritage,” a sweepingly inclusive analysis of race in relation to “the” American “us.” It is only late in the book, in his closing and very productive chapter on Faulkner, that Kazin begins to distinguish and fine tune his own racial and theological critique. For many readers, this effort will appear as too little, too late. In the Faulkner chapter, Kazin clearly acknowledges that experiences of Christianity have varied among, and between, black and white Americans. It is also in this last chapter that Kazin fine tunes his important indictment of right- leaning Christian political authoritarianism, associating early American invocations of God to sanction slavery with later forms of Christian self-righteousness. True to the allusive style of analysis in the book, Kazin also uses the last chapter to again associate American slavery with the Holocaust, a comparison explored by other historians and social analysts, and reflective of the progressiveness of much of the political impulse undercurrent in God and the American Writer. Kazin’s delay in acknowledging the “Americanness” of black experience seriously damages the credibility of his book—one quote from Toni Morrison will not suffice. God and the American Writer covers much more than slavery, race, and theology, but Kazin claims a central place for relating these themes in his work, so the issue of his explicit, and unexplained, exclusion of black American writers on slavery and race will be, for many readers, a debilitating problem in a study otherwise laudable for its extension of literary, theological, and political boundaries.
The strengths of God and the American Writer evolve as Kazin successfully opens new questions and possibilities for theological and political literary criticism of both the familiar Kazin canon of Anglo-American writers as well as thinkers not usually included in traditional literary study. His chapter on William James is especially strong in this regard.
Kazin’s problematic exclusions in the book themselves reflect the continued echoes of slavery and race in American history. Specifically, many Americans, even those such as Kazin who have shown in other work a clear sensitivity to political and ethnic complexity in American experience, still struggle to shake off the habits of white-defined “reality” when it comes to literary, historical, and social analysis. In reference to Wallace Stevens, Kazin says, “Replacing religion with literature, Stevens was laboring within his inheritance of religion. . . . He could not forget the fathers he was leaving behind.” Kazin seems to be in a similar position: Replacing history with literary analysis, he is laboring within his inheritance of that history; he could not forget the “fathers” of white perspective on slavery and race, nor could he leave them behind.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, October 1, 1997, p. 290.
The Christian Science Monitor. November 13, 1997, p. 12.
Hungry Mind Review. XLIV, Winter 1997-1998, p. 28
Library Journal. CXXII, September 15, 1997, p. 75.
The Nation. CCLXV, November 3, 1997, p. 34.
National Review. XLIX, December 8, 1997, p. 50.
The New Republic. CCXVII, November 10, 1997, p. 48.
The New York Times Book Review. CII, October 12, 1997, p. 7.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, October 27, 1997, p. 47.
The Wall Street Journal. November 11, 1997, p. A16.