Kazin’s Heterodox Heroes Battling God With Pen in Hand

God and the American Writer , by Alfred Kazin. Alfred A. Knopf, 272 pages, $25.

You would think that Alfred Kazin, on his pleasant stroll through the upscale neighborhoods of our literature, might feel encumbered by a grandiose title like God and the American Writer , but his book is relaxed and humble in its aspirations. It’s not about America or the American religion or the American people; it’s about a dozen mightily talented writers, almost every one of them blessed with a deity-sized ego, each contending with a “supreme being.” Mr. Kazin confirms our suspicion that Norman Mailer, whose wretched Gospel According to the Son claimed to channel Jesus, is by no means the first American author to take God for a sparring partner.

Actually, Mr. Mailer doesn’t even rate a mention in these pages. Ditto Philip Roth. John Updike’s name crops up as a writer “modestly acquiescent to religious tradition,” but he’s dismissed with a casual slap. This is a book about canonical authors, figures in a canon Mr. Kazin helped clinch with On Native Grounds , his remarkable, enduring volume of popular criticism published 55 years ago. Here, in what his publishers tactfully advertise as his “culminating work” (Mr. Kazin is 82), he begins with Nathaniel Hawthorne and ends with William Faulkner and slots only the biggest names in between. If you’ve got God in one corner, better line up heavyweights in the other.

A genial referee, Mr. Kazin is confident but never arrogant, certain of his taste, which is impeccable, and tough with the cocky competitors who climb into the ring. He displays a virtue rare among critics: He knows when to step modestly aside and let the writer’s work speak for itself. Thus God and the American Writer doubles as a treasury of wonderful quotations.

Mr. Kazin has a thesis, an unsurprising corollary to the theory of American individualism: In line with our “personalist” tradition, the great American writer believes, or not, on his own terms -he is “self-sufficient,” Mr. Kazin argues. “[H]is art was entirely his own, [and] so (if he had one) was his religion.” To ask for more would be asking Mr. Kazin to herd cats. Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain-there’s a crew that will not march lock step. We live today, Mr. Kazin notes, hemmed in by “politicized, intolerant, and paranoic religion.” Think of this book as a celebration of the joys of heterodoxy. Think of it as a roundabout protest against the Christian Coalition and lemminglike Promise Keepers.

Like Robert Frost, another of Mr. Kazin’s heterodox heroes, scribblers of every nation in every age tend to take the road less traveled. “No orthodoxy, ever, permits the irony, skepticism, personal despair-above all the sense of contradiction and unreality in human affairs that makes up the true storyteller.” Count that double for the American writer, who inherits at least the echo of the Puritan legacy, with its Calvinist inwardness, and also something of the frontier’s loneliness.

Perhaps the loneliest of the bunch, Emily Dickinson, is Mr. Kazin’s clear favorite. He calls her “the most penetrating literary intelligence honored in this book.” He argues that God, for Dickinson, was a measure of distance, “her association with immortality,” a token of infinity and a looming, immense absence-a “circumference,” as he handsomely puts it, that “recedes further and further from our sight.” Dickinson’s link with God was purely verbal (“she had no other,” Mr. Kazin writes). She invoked Him with words, called Him a “Force illegible,” used Him as a changeable character in her poems, roughed Him up with her sly humor. In a letter she writes, “God was penurious with me which makes me shrewd with Him.” The critic looks on fondly: “No question about it, He and she would always circle around each other in the hope of meeting.”

Dickinson provides Mr. Kazin with a brilliant and subtle line, one that might well have served as the epigraph for his book: “It is true that the unknown is the largest need of intellect, although for this no one thinks to thank God.”

Except perhaps William James, who, as Mr. Kazin puts it, “candidly look[ed] on religion as therapy,” as “an individual psychological experience” that offers a chance for personal “enlargement.” James himself could not believe in God. He was not, he acknowledged, “personally favored with … specific revelations,” but he understood how faith in the divine could satisfy urgent needs. If Dickinson supplies Mr. Kazin with brilliance and subtlety, the usually affable James contributes the big chill: “Our civilization is founded upon the shambles, and every individual existence goes out in a lonely spasm of helpless agony. If you protest, my friend, wait till you arrive there yourself!” God help us, you think-James’ point exactly.

T.S. Eliot plays the heavy, not only bigoted but cold and somewhat pathetic, clinging to High Church dogma and the tinsel comfort of ceremony. Ralph Waldo Emerson, usually cast as the benign, fatherly type, here wins the swelled-head award. Mr. Kazin doesn’t deflate their genius, but he makes them seem less than pleasant folk.

God and the American Writer is perfectly digestible in sections-no need to swallow it whole. And yet a front-to-back reading reveals a kind of subplot, or at least an organizing fascination: the Civil War and the dueling fanatical righteousness of North and South over the God-laden question of slavery. In the chapters on Lincoln and Faulkner and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who said of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , “I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did His dictation”), this topic naturally hogs the foreground. It intrudes, as well, into other chapters: Hawthorne was an apologist for his college buddy, Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States, who was himself an apologist for slavery; Emerson was slow to condemn the peculiar institution; William James had two younger brothers wounded in the war; Whitman (Lincoln’s elegist) and Melville both wrote battlefield poems; Dickinson was isolated in Amherst from the shock of the war until hometown boys started coming home in coffins.

The chapter on Lincoln best illustrates how deep and prolonged thinking on slavery and the war it caused can alter religious sensibility. When he was a lawyer immersed in the law, Lincoln’s creed was reason, his observance legal reasoning. He was churchless, devoted to rationalism. In the White House, as he wrestled with the political problem of emancipation, and as he suffered through the war, he became the believer who would pronounce, in his second inaugural address, these grand, doomy sentences: “Fondly do we hope-fervently do we pray-that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid with another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so it still must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.'” Mr. Kazin argues that the nation’s crisis, horrors “God inexplicably allowed into human history,” brought Lincoln “to his knees, so to speak, in the heartbreaking awareness of the restrictions imposed by a mystery so encompassing it can only be called ‘God.'”

These moments of intensity pass. Reading Mr. Kazin today is mostly like tagging along as he visits with celebrated old pals. He’s mellow and ruminative, by and large tolerant of his cronies’ foibles. It’s a shock to look back at On Native Grounds and encounter again a bold, restless, delightfully opinionated young critic. He was once all dash and bristle, quick to praise or implacably damn. But some things haven’t changed: He is a writer who has never coasted, never jumped on a bandwagon, never piggybacked on trendy theory, and never, ever uttered a word of jargon.

Kazin’s Heterodox Heroes Battling God With Pen in Hand