Few American critics have been as close to the authors they write about as Alfred Kazin. For nearly three decades, Kazin has written about the changing patterns in American literature. In New York Jew, Kazin’s latest memoir which serves as a companion piece to his earlier autobiographical writings, Starting Out in the Thirties and A Walker in the City, the critic becomes the object of an intense study. Anyone interested in the life of letters in our times will not be able to avoid Kazin’s probing, witty, and bittersweet recollections of those American writers whose work has left its mark on the intellectual history of contemporary America. Kazin, a son of New York’s Lower East Side, through luck and talent, becomes the observer of everything: from the vagaries of literary society in New York during the mid-1940’s, to the rumbling criticisms of Edmund Wilson, a man whose incredible knowledge of modern literature was only matched by his arcane sense of humor about everything else.
Much of what Kazin writes about in his memoir has to do with the people he met, liked, or never understood. Kazin was, through sheer hard work, blessed as a young man. He recalls how during “one dreamlike week in 1942” he managed to become an editor of the important liberal magazine, The New Republic, got his excellent first book, On Native Grounds, published, and along with his wife, Natasha, moved into the center of Manhattan to begin the life he had always wanted. The New Republic’s newly chosen editor just wanted to become part of the literary establishment he had always worshiped from a respectful distance. The life of literature fascinated the young critic, and he wanted to be close to it, to know how it worked, and to understand those who were so devoted to maintaining American literature.
Kazin learned that the life of letters was a kind of calling. Early on in his career he met the formidable critic Edmund Wilson who, during a terrible afternoon when the older critic summoned the acolyte to his apartment in New York, dismissed the young Kazin’s work as an immature bit of fluff. Wilson informed Kazin that the modern era in literature, American or European, was an area that Wilson had chosen for himself: Wilson did not wish any competition. But Kazin, ever respectful, learned to admire Wilson for his obvious, remarkable talents. He appeared to Kazin as a wonder, a man whose talents soared far above those of other critics. Edmund Wilson was unique, a squire of literature who wanted to know everything and had opinions to match.
In the same way that Kazin’s own grandfather had wandered around the streets of the Lower East Side looking for work, his aging sewing machine strapped to his shoulder, Kazin, too, wandered through the literary worlds of New York during the mid-1940’s looking for work and meanings. The young man who took charge of one of The New Republic’s departments in 1942, quickly learned about the source of much of the energy and vitality of American letters during those years. He recollects with great sympathy meeting the poet and short-story writer Delmore Schwartz, the young novelist-to-be, Saul Bellow, and the doomed writer, Isaac Rosenfeld. Kazin recognized the inherent talent each of them brought to his work, the electric energy they transmitted to those around them, and, in the case of Bellow, a talent apart, a writer so special and talented that his future was understood even before he had published his first work.
Kazin has the ability to record in a revealing series of miniature studies much of the stress inherent for those who chose to write or create. He saw in Paul Goodman a man whose devotion to all matters of the intellect turned him into “a man of letters in the old fashioned sense—like Erasmus or Diderot.” He noted how Goodman often became so intense that he forgot to consider that his own idealism was not...
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