A Walker in the City

by Alfred Kazin

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1076

The essential drama at the heart of this memoir is already present in embryo in its opening sentences: “Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue . . . an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.” These emotions are symptoms of the love-hate relationship all first-generation Americans seem to have with the world of their origins. On the one hand, the warmth of family life and the nurturing environment of a supportive culture give shape and meaning to existence, forging unbreakable bonds. On the other hand, the squalid poverty in which recent immigrants were usually forced to live and the endless struggles to survive and somehow advance one’s fortunes engendered deep resentments and fears of authority, of the system, and of the ever-present threat of violence generated by the frustrations inherent in those social and economic conditions. Sensitive youngsters growing up in such communities necessarily feel the contradictory emotions of the desperate desire to escape and the tender need to belong. Such are the emotions that Alfred Kazin places at the heart of A Walker in the City, emotions he reawakens in himself every time he returns to the scenes of his childhood.

The range and variety of those emotions probably suggested to Kazin the impressionistic mode of presentation that he chose for the intricate drama of his growing up. Instead of trying to separate the emotions and depict and explain them one at a time, Kazin makes almost every paragraph into a strong mixture of contraries. He shows himself to be constantly angry with his parents, for example, over their complacent acceptance of their poverty at the same time as he is sympathetic toward their suffering and even grateful for the antimaterialistic values they gave him. Similarly, his recollections of his school days, his teachers, his synagogue and cinema visits, and his neighborhood associations all inspire an interplay of opposite feelings which he tries to communicate through a tumbling, pell-mell writing style. The observations and the accompanying emotions flow forth profusely, tripping over one another as they emerge and creating a melange of irritation, apprehension, and warm nostalgia. This technique of constantly fusing contrasting reactions evoked by objects observed and tastes, smells, and sounds experienced gives the prose of A Walker in the City its distinctive rhythmic pattern and its lyrical tone.

The danger of an undisciplined outpouring of emotion has been effectively countered by the conscious use of several organizing principles and devices. The clearest sense of order is provided by Kazin’s attention to the different stages of growing up. The first chapter is based predominantly on the earliest memories of childhood, when Alfred was perhaps five or six years old and his world was confined to the immediate vicinity of home. The second chapter depicts a boy of perhaps ten, more literate and articulate, curious about the concerns and conversations of the grownups who frequent the house and bring intimations of the great world beyond the neighborhood. By the third chapter, the narrator is usually recalling his teenage self, when he first began to see and know “the beyond” outside Brownsville and to sense the excitement it offered. Finally, in the last chapter, graduation from high school is the central event, suggesting arrival at the threshold of maturity and a readiness to leave Brownsville behind and plunge into the wider world.

To the seasons of youth, Kazin adds the seasons of the year to help give some sense of orderly progression...

(This entire section contains 1076 words.)

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to his book; each of the four chapters is given over, in the main, to the evocation of a single season, starting with fall in chapter one and concluding in chapter four with the narrator’s favorite among the seasons, summer, when he feels liberated from the disciplined routines of the school year and exhilarated by the freedom to pursue his interests.

A final device is the use of recurring motifs and symbols, several of which are repeated at least once in every chapter. For example, the neighborhood practice of releasing pet pigeons from their rooftop cages in the evening is described in every chapter; it is a symbol of the need to escape Brownsville for a while, even though the pigeons are seen to follow the same circular sweep each time they are released and to return safely to their cages. Mention is also made in every chapter of the sweet sadness Kazin experiences when he hears the plaintive melody of kol nidre, the prayer sung at the start of the evening service on the Day of Atonement. That memory is intended as a symbol of the narrator’s unbreakable bond with his cultural heritage. Other customs, places, persons, and cultural artifacts are brought repeatedly into the narrative, where they function as a refrain to make the reader comfortably familiar with the world the author is re-creating. Moreover, these devices help the reader to understand the tension Kazin experienced between the lure of the cultural world beyond Brownsville and the bond he felt with the family and community of his origins. With those organizing and unifying devices, Kazin is able to communicate fully the bewilderingly contradictory themes of A Walker in the City, an angry yet loving memoir, in the form of a prose poem, about the discovery of a literary vocation in a remote section of Brooklyn.

An important concluding point must be added to this analysis. Although A Walker in the City is autobiographical, it is not solipsistic, self-important, or even narrowly ethnic. Kazin avoids those faults by steering a middle course between the particular and the general. Whether speaking of himself, the Jewish cultural environment, or Brownsville, Kazin gives enough specifics to provide the ring of authenticity but never enough to become embarrassingly personal or local. The particulars he chooses to record always reflect something universal in human nature. A Walker in the City is indeed about a sensitive Jewish boy, a stammerer, growing up in a Brooklyn ghetto in the 1920’s, but in a larger and more important sense, it is the story of every first-generation American born to recent immigrants and growing up in the impoverished environment to which most immigrant groups were confined for the United States’ expansionist years. Kazin’s book is a poetic account of the immigrant experience in America as seen through the eyes of their American-born children.


Critical Context