Score-Settling and Book Chat: A Great Critic, Sustained By His City

ALFRED KAZIN: A BIOGRAPHY
By Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press, 452 pages, $35

With the death of Alfred Kazin in 1998 at the age of 83, the kind of high-end literary journalism that he’d devoted his life to in over a thousand book reviews, an epochal 1942 history of realism in American literature and three memoirs of life among the New York intellectuals, came at last to an end. Kazin’s legacy, like that of his idol Edmund Wilson, consisted almost entirely of occasional pieces on incidental topics aimed at an educated general public, and in brooding memoirs that mixed score-settling and book-chat in even measure.

A freelancer to the last, Kazin never quit hustling for the next book review or fellowship or visiting professor appointment. “Between October 1997 and his death on June 5, 1998,” writes Richard M. Cook in his exhaustively researched biography, “Kazin published five essays in the New York Review of Books, three essays and reviews in The New York Times, and two essays and a poem in The New Republic.”

The peculiar arc of Kazin’s career left him a famous literary critic without a doctorate or permanent academic appointment. No tenure meant no captive audience: Criticism, for Kazin, was making a story out of the progress of art, a story readers could find bracing and momentous whether or not they’d read the books under discussion. His style, as Mr. Cook gracefully describes it, was “neither close argument nor precise analysis, but rather its evocation of the ‘feel’ of the book, together with a lyrical and almost mimicking response to the distinctive sensibility of the author.”

Born in 1915 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Kazin spent the early 1930’s as a student at City College with classmates that included Norman Podhoretz, Irving Howe and Sydney Hook. But Kazin kept his distance from his classmates’ now-legendary disputes over radical ideology, preferring the quiet of the library to the chatter of the alcoves. “Although I was a ‘Socialist,’” Kazin explained in his memoir of the period, “like everyone else I knew, I thought of socialism as orthodox Christians might think of the Second Coming—a wholly supernatural event which one might await with perfect faith but which had no immediate relevance to my life. … But if anyone who had thought his own way into Socialism had questioned me sharply as to what I accepted or did not accept of Marxism, he would have discovered very little to please him except my violent class prejudice.”

As a 19-year-old book reviewer for The New Republic under literary editor Malcolm Cowley, Kazin suspected that Cowley and his haughty retinue of Harvard-bred intellectuals viewed the ambitious young critic first and last as a Jew. “It struck me as being a question of manners,” Kazin wrote. “The general view [was that] Jews were low.” The same went for Lionel Trilling, himself Jewish: “For Trilling I would always be ‘too Jewish,’ too full of my lower-class experience. He would always defend himself of the things he had left behind. … It was the barrier, like his fondness for the words ‘scarcely,’ ‘modulation,’ ‘our educated classes.’ I had scarcely enough modulation.”

Even in 1986 at the age of 71, Kazin the eminent scholar-critic, Kazin the conversation partner and portraitist-in-memoir of Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow and countless others, would confide to his journal after a party at William Styron’s house, “There is a gift here, a long-bred talent for sociability, that I certainly lack. … And it makes me bitter, bitter.”

This refrain of self-consciousness that sounds across five decades of memoir-writing belies a rise to cultural prominence that began soon after he graduated college. His book reviews in The New Republic, The Times and The New York World brought Kazin to the attention of Columbia professor Carl Van Doren, who used his connections to secure Kazin a deal with a publisher to write a history of realism in American writing. It was to be an account of the emergent American tradition of naturalism—the first of its kind, thanks mainly to the low esteem accorded American writers by status-wary academics. Kazin saw his opening and, with the added help of a Guggenheim fellowship, embarked on the defining work of his career.

Written between 1938 and 1942, On Native Grounds remains one of the few genuinely exciting books about American literature. It brought a motley set of novelists, journalists and radical pamphleteers under the banner of a tradition identified, expounded upon and culminated practically on the spot. With a command of his subject shocking for a writer in his 20’s, Kazin argued that late-19th-century America had given rise to a radically indigenous literary sensibility, a stock of themes and personalities generated far from the universities, in the interior of the pioneer West and immigrant cities.

Emerson and the transcendentalists, William James and the pragmatists, had all made the claim for a homegrown American intellectual tradition. But Kazin, child of the radical 1930’s, repopulated the canon with a cast of characters decidedly less genteel. William Dean Howells, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser and many others—proletarians, provincials, muckraking journalists—formed an American tradition whose defining obsession was commerce.

“What need had the business mind to apologize for itself?” Kazin asked, not so innocently. “The new commercialism was to become the theme … of a hundred histories, plays, novels, satires; to be analyzed and excoriated and praised with a ferocious interest that was itself the highest flattery.” With no abstract philosophical systems to limit or protect them, Kazin’s American writers responded to the urge to create using whatever they found in front of them. More often than not, what they found was the creeping dehumanization of Gilded Age capitalism.

Kazin’s career, by contrast, was assisted at every stage by the fruits of progressive policy and the New Deal: From public school in Brownsville to the Trotskyite alcoves of City College to the extended teaching appointments at the CUNY Graduate Center at the end of his career, Kazin was sustained by New York’s free-of-charge public institutions. And it’s to Room 315 of the 42nd Street branch of the New York Public Library that we owe On Native Grounds. Kazin commuted daily from Brooklyn Heights to work on his book. “I could hear day and evening those restless hungry footsteps,” he wrote about the great reading room. “I was entangled in the hunger of all those aimless, bewildered, panicky seekers of ‘opportunity.’”

 

Damian Da Costa is on the staff of The Observer. He can be reached at ddacosta@observer.com.

Score-Settling and Book Chat: A Great Critic, Sustained By His City