Most readers of Alfred Kazin’s works know him as a major critic of American literature. On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature (1942), his first work, was highly praised for its description of the rise of social realism in American literature. In it Kazin stresses that literature must always be studied from within the contexts of the culture in which it is written, in marked contrast to the New Critics of that time, who disregarded historical and social criticism in favor of a close analysis of the text and its form.
Kazin’s autobiographical works have received much less critical attention. A Walker in the City (1951) describes his boyhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the early years of the Depression. New York Jew (1978) covers Kazin’s life from 1942 to 1978, paying particular attention to the socially turbulent 1960’s. As with Starting Out in the Thirties, in each of these works Kazin does not present a day-by-day account of his life but prefers to use the same principles that he uses in his literary criticism. In order to reveal Kazin the man, he focuses on key people and key ideas, presenting himself within the social context of his day. He captures even better the optimism that raged for improving the plight of all mankind through individual sacrifice—as well as the loss of that optimism, and a shift away from personal sacrifice and toward personal power, that grew out of World War II.