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Brooklyn-born literary critic Alfred Kazin established his credentials as a leading authority on American literature with his very first book, On Native Grounds (1942), published when he was twenty-seven years old. That first study sought to show that American prose writing came of age as something distinctively American only with the work of William Dean Howells and his contemporaries, during the second half of the nineteenth century. Kazin argued that the predecessors of Howells and his group had looked primarily to Europe for inspirational models and for recognition; the exponents of American realism and naturalism, he said, were the first to address the American public directly, with depictions of the daily life they saw around them, thereby creating a literature that was, in every sense, indigenous to their native soil.

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Recognizing that there was something inherently contradictory, or at least puzzling, in this strong advocacy of what was most American about American literature by a child of recent immigrants to the United States, Kazin soon followed On Native Grounds with a personal essay designed to explain—perhaps to himself as much as to his readers—how it was possible for a young man who had grown up in the insular and impoverished world of the Jewish ghetto of Brownsville, in East Brooklyn, to develop so passionate a commitment and so firm a sense of belonging to American culture. The essay gradually expanded, taking the form of painful yet lyrical reminiscences of his entire Brownsville youth, from childhood to graduation from high school, at which time he symbolically left the ghetto and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to enroll in Manhattan’s College of the City of New York. The reminiscences were not intended to constitute a systematic and complete autobiography; rather, they were impressionistic and selective, focusing on the details that illuminated the process by which immigrant parents with little formal education produced a son who grew up with a passion for reading and a well-developed taste for literature, music, and painting. The reminiscences were organized into four chapters which traced Kazin’s journey—in time and space, in body and spirit— from Brownsville to Manhattan, the heart of American cultural life. Because most of the stages of the journey had been accomplished on foot, during the many exploratory walks the young Kazin liked to take beyond the ghetto, he called his book A Walker in the City.

The memoir begins with an account of the sensations experienced, and the consequent memories recalled, whenever Kazin, as a young Manhattan-dwelling critic, returned by subway to Brownsville to visit his family. This chapter, titled “From the Subway to the Synagogue,” uses the opening walk between the subway station and his old home as a springboard to the world of his childhood, which was limited to the few streets and landmarks of the five city blocks that made up his old neighborhood. Each of the landmarks passed on the walk triggers a host of memories, the richest by far being evoked by the school, the cinema, and, at the end of the walk, within sight of the tenement in which his family lived, the small wooden synagogue that was the social and spiritual center of his family’s life. The second chapter focuses on the quality of Kazin’s home life as a child. Titled “The Kitchen,” it describes the central roles played by his mother, who held the family together, and by the kitchen, the main stage on which his childhood unfolded. All Kazin’s contacts with the world beyond the neighborhood—effected by visits from family and friends, the New York newspaper his father brought home every evening, and the English books owned by an unmarried cousin who lived with the Kazins— are made in the kitchen. The third chapter, “The Block and Beyond,” concentrates on Kazin’s early teens, when his experiences and contacts widened considerably, taking him into other parts of Brownsville and beyond Brownsville into the more prosperous central sections of Brooklyn. By the final chapter, “Summer: The Way to Highland Park,” Kazin is a high school student, the Depression has begun, and he has formed friendships with contemporaries who have intellectual and political interests like his own. He has ventured into “the real world,” taking summer jobs in Flatbush and Borough Park and beginning to put distance between himself and Brownsville. He has a steady girl with whom he regularly walks to Highland Park, near the border of Queens, where from the hilltop reservoir it is possible to look across at the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the promised land, soon to be his home.

These four “chapters of the journey,” as Kazin designates them, actually describe a circle, which returns Kazin from his adult home in Manhattan to his origins in a far corner of eastern Brooklyn and then follows him, step by step, on walks of ever-increasing length until he is back home in New York’s literary world. During the journey, the reader not only experiences vicariously the author’s emotions and struggles but also arrives at an understanding of how the outsider became an insider: how the intensely Jewish child of poor immigrant parents entered the American literary mainstream helped, not hindered, by his strong ethnic and religious heritage.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 66

Byam, M.S. Review in Library Journal. LXXVI (October 1, 1951), p. 1560.

Edman, Irwin. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LVI (October 28, 1951), p. 1.

Gill, Brendan. Review in The New Yorker. XXVII (November 17, 1951), p. 180.

Handlin, Oscar. Review in The Saturday Review of Literature. XXXIV (November 17, 1951), p. 14.

Rolo, C.J. Review in Atlantic Monthly. CLXXXIX (January, 1952), p. 88.

Sugrue, Thomas. Review in New York Herald-Tribune Book Review. November 4, 1951, p. 6.

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