A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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 entire section is 938 words.)