According to Richard M. Cook, who is Alfred Kazin’s biographer as well as the editor of his journals, the nearly 600 pages of entries assembled in this book represent only one sixth of the total mass Kazin deposited in the archives of the New York Public Library.
According to Richard M. Cook, who is Alfred Kazin’s biographer as well as the editor of his journals, the nearly 600 pages of entries assembled in this book represent only one sixth of the total mass Kazin deposited in the archives of the New York Public Library. Kazin himself hoped to bring forth an edition of the journals, evidence of the pride he took in the observations, impressions, enthusiasms, speculations, sexual conquests and competitive urges he recorded several mornings a week, scribbling in bed as well as ‘on the subway, the train, and the plane’, with the gusto of one convinced that ‘the pouring river of all [my] associations’ formed the true record not only of his life but also of his life’s work.
This claim was based, it appears, not on hubris but on its opposite, Kazin’s suspicion, deepened over the years, that his private writings surpassed his public ones — a self-appraisal unusual in a serious literary man and quite remarkable for one who at the time of his death in 1998 at the age of 83 ‘was remembered’, Cook asserts, ‘as one of the two or three most influential writer-intellectuals of postwar America’. The phrase ‘writer-intellectual’ cagily obscures Kazin’s actual vocation, that of literary historian and critic — in fact he was considered a likely heir to his hero Edmund Wilson.
Wilson too was an indefatigable journalist. But it is hard to imagine him ever thinking his personal jottings were definitive of his creative being. A literary artist, secure in his gifts, he assumed his legacy rested on the classics he laboriously conceived and meticulously executed: Axel’s Castle, To the Finland Station, Patriotic Gore and others. Kazin, the ‘writer-intellectual’, completed half a dozen volumes of literary criticism, but scarcely any of them are read today. The one work Cook describes as ‘canonical’, Walker in the City, a loving memoir of Kazin’s early years in immigrant Brooklyn, was one of three such books he wrote, each a journal-like narrative of linked rhapsodic memories in which kitchen quarrels fuse with the books he read and the contemporaries he knew.
Oscar Wilde’s dictum that criticism is the highest form of autobiography achieved an almost grotesque extreme in Kazin. He read a great many books, but always with his finger pressed against his pulse. ‘Astounding, how evocative my writing is, naturally, rather than analytic,’ he observed in 1986, when he was 71. True enough. And what he evoked, in his books no less than in his journals, was his own giddy responsiveness. He was Whitman warbling the song not of the open road, but of the open library stacks. Here is Kazin in the preface to the book that made him famous, On Native Grounds:
To speak of modern American writing as a revolt against the Genteel Tradition alone, against Victorianism alone, against even the dominance of the state by special groups, does not explain why our liberations have often proved so empty; it does not tell us why the light-bringers brought us light and live themselves in darkness. To speak of it only as a struggle toward the modern emancipation — and it was that — does not even hint at the lean and shadowy tragic strain in our modern American writing, that sense of tragedy which is not Aristotle’s, not even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, but a clutching violence, and from Dreiser to Faulkner, an often great depth of suffering. Nor does it tell us why our modern writers have had to discover and rediscover and chart the country in every generation, rewriting Emerson’s The American Scholar in every generation (and the generations are many in modern American writing, so many), but must still cry America! America! as if we had never known America. As perhaps we have not.
And on it goes, an onrush of fluency, an addict’s tranced elation, leading nowhere but to the next excited high. Some 460 pages later we remain at the same pitch of ecstasy where we began:
Faulkner’s perpetual need for some verbal splendor, a merely illustrative richness, always suggests some self-fascinated energy, not the moving intensity of a writer who throws the weight of his body into each word; and it is not strange that his most fascinated efforts should so often seem pointless.
Is it too obvious to say that ‘Faulkner’ is interchangeable with ‘Kazin’? And yet after reading On Native Grounds Harold Laski pronounced its 27-year-old author ‘among the best six critical minds America has had since Emerson’.
Why? Timing is one good reason. The book was published in October 1942, not quite a year after the United States entered the second world war. The upsurge of patriotic sentiment had created a vacuum in the realm of literary study, depleted by the stickling axioms of ‘practical criticism’ and ‘dry hardness’. Kazin’s emotive appreciations implied a new brotherhood of critic and author, bound in a spirit of ‘radicalism’ loosely applied, for in Kazin’s world every major author must be a radical of one kind or another.
The oddity is that while Kazin’s criticism today feels sodden, his journals, like his superb memoirs, are startlingly alive, in great part because they expose the dark complement of Kazin’s self-love, his bountiful hatreds, particularly (no surprise) of rival ‘writer-intellectuals’. Cook praises Kazin’s ‘genuine gift for literary portraiture,’ dabbed in animus much of the time. After dining out with Philip Roth and Claire Bloom in 1987 Kazin is relieved when Roth departs the restaurant ‘in all his prosperity and self-satisfaction. The cleverness, the sharpness, the continual edge somehow turn an evening, to say nothing of his fiction, into performance.’ There is also ‘that pointy nose of his’. But Roth gets off lightly compared to Kazin’s bête noire, Lionel Trilling,
the pompously respectable professor… the Jew’s dream of literary England, of surpassing his servile state by culture. No one was ever so much the prisoner of culture as Trilling. No one was so much the victim of the genteel fantasy.
Kazin also nursed fantasies, gentile if not genteel, though distinctly American. He was crazy for old-stock Yankees, above all his idol Wilson, tucked away ‘in his wonderful “old” house’ on Cape Cod, crankily Olympian in his ‘big belly, white shirt, dark tie, dark suit, always formally dressed, always talking in formal sentences and on formal topics’. Kazin savours Wilson’s ‘straight Roman nose, sensitive, but thin and controlled mouth,’ and the suggestion ‘behind the formality, the self-possessed but elephantine manner of the rubicund body, [that] he plans mischief’.
One famous American Jew also escaped Kazin’s censure: his exact contemporary, Saul Bellow, ‘our plebeian princeling and imaginative king, standing there, gray, compact, friendly and aloof, receiving his old friends whom he had invited to ’21,’ for the launch of Herzog in 1964. ‘Saul alone of the old gang has achieved first-class status,’ Kazin marvels, transported for a moment beyond envy. ‘There’s more yet for me, he cries in his heart more, much more!’
Worldly success was the ultimate calculus for Kazin, as it was for so many of his era’s striving immigrants, though if they were ‘writer-intellectuals’ and radicals manqué they were not supposed to admit it. ‘Oh, those successes of whom I was always hearing so much, and whom we admired despi
te all our socialism!’ Kazin wrote in Walker in the City, remembering the ‘alrightniks’ who sneered down at his family from a rung or two above in the hard early Brooklyn years. But when Norman Podhoretz, a junior member of the New York crowd, openly courted the bitch-goddess success in his book Making It (1967), he was shunned by one and all, as he more or less still is.
Kazin, whom Trilling’s wife Diana described as a ‘starry-eyed opportunist’ mastered the game far better, filling the pages of prestigious magazines with exercises in ‘complacently agonised humanism’, in John Updike’s wickedly apposite phrase. But Kazin was, in the end, an honest keeper of his own flame, and all along he hoarded up the evidence of the appetites and resentments that together formed his one lasting message to the world.