Writing Was Everything Summary
by Alfred Kazin

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Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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Writing Was Everything, originally delivered as the William E. Massey, Sr., lectures at Harvard University, is Alfred Kazin’s account of his early years as a critic. More than a memoir, the book offers a deeply personal argument for the shaping influence of reading and writing on the lives of the individual and the group. In his prologue, Kazin offers a definition of criticism as “the ability to state preferences, to make choices on the basis of what is said in the only way available to that particular writer to say it.” Comparing himself with academic writers who are more interested in telling readers “how to read a particular text,” Kazin stresses the “common humanity” of reading and suggests that reading and writing ultimately involve people in the continuing need to express inexpressible human desire.

In this context, he begins an anecdotal review of his early career with special emphasis on how the intellectual life of the 1930’s demonstrated the deep connections among reading, writing, and people’s lives. As a reviewer for The New Republic, Kazin was able to meet and learn from a variety of leading intellectuals, including Edmund Wilson, the most influential critic of the era. More important than such direct personal acquaintances, however, were Kazin’s encounters with books and their authors. His descriptions of the impact made by the writings of William Faulkner, Henry Roth, Richard Wright, and Simone Weil, among others, provide a strong picture of the intellectual life of the time. These encounters demonstrated to Kazin the power that books have to mirror and to influence history.

Kazin also reflects on the role that his own writing has played in his life. He recalls the excitement he felt as he read the works of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William James, and Ralph Waldo Emerson in preparation for his first book, On Native Grounds (1942). In particular, Kazin emphasizes his personal engagement with the books and authors he writes about, stressing the way in which criticism can become a type of self-examination that leads to personal growth.

Throughout Writing Was Everything, Kazin relates the impact of historical and political events on his own life and the lives of other writers. His account of the aftermath of World War II, particularly the effects of the Holocaust, helps solidify his general contention that literature is essential if society is to avoid future horrors. His consideration of postwar writers reinforces this point by stressing the presence or absence of moral engagement in the works of modern novelists and philosophers.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. August 20, 1995, p. 34.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 27, 1995, p. 6.

The New Republic. CCXIII, October 9, 1995, p. 37.

The New York Review of Books. XLII, October 5, 1995, p. 23.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 3, 1995, p. 6.

The Sewanee Review. CIII, Fall, 1995, p. 661.

The Wilson Quarterly. XIX, Autumn, 1995, p. 89.