Celebrating Alfred Kazin; How Provocative Critic Felt American Literature in His Bones

Article excerpt


Alfred Kazin, who died in 1998 on his eighty-third birthday, was one of the so-called New York Intellectuals - Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy and Irving Howe were others - who seem remote indeed from literary discourse as currently practiced in America. Certainly as practiced in the academy, where Kazin taught from time to time but always with the sense of really being somewhere else.

In "To Be a Critic," the essay Ted Solotaroff has chosen to conclude this selection of his writings, Kazin makes a list of 20th century critics in English who have been of use to him. It is a list of literary figures-T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Randall Jarrell, Edmund Wilson are some of them-who show, as Kazin thinks poets especially show, "the most intense personal consciousness of art." He adds pointedly that his list "would not include academics whose sense of their own authority has never instructed or even provoked me." One gathers that a list of the not-to-be-included would be heavy with current professors of literature, and the combative tone is worth noting.

"I had the good fortune to fall in love with a then unfashionable subject, American literature," writes Kazin at the beginning of the same essay. Mr. Solotaroff, himself an experienced lively critic, memoirist and editor, decided the best way to celebrate Kazin's achievement was to bring together many of his essays on American writers and to include generous extracts from his autobiographical volumes along with the critical pieces.

This makes good sense, since Kazin truly felt in intimate possession of American literature. Mr. Solotaroff quotes an amusing anecdote in which Kazin, reviewing a book about the American West, had spoken of "our" mountains and rivers, eliciting from a sardonic Philip Rahv the query, "What's this about our mountains, our rivers?" Rahv was teasing Kazin for assuming that a Jew from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn had the right to take over the American landscape with such aplomb. But Kazin's strong identification with what he saw as the radically democratic tone of the American writers he cherished, spilled over into a similarly possessive air toward this country's rivers and mountains.

Mr. Solotaroff begins the anthology appropriately with selections from Kazin's first memoir, "A Walker in the City," a book that offers a memorable portrait of the kitchen-"the largest room and center of the household"-in the Brownsville tenement where he grew up. At the kitchen's center in every sense was his mother, a dressmaker who had begun her trade in Poland at age 13, now "lashed to her machine" as she "stamped the treadle hard against the floor, hard, hard, and silently, grimly at war."

It was this intense activity, Kazin declares, that "beat out the first rhythm of the world for me." His career as a young reader and writer is cast in similarly heroic terms: Nothing filled him with such pleasure as did reading, and there were never enough books, he says, to fill up this need "nor words enough to describe the transformations taking place in me as I read." He began his career as a reviewer in the mid-1930s, primarily with The New Republic; then in 1938, Carl Van Doren, literary editor of The Nation, suggested he write a book about American writers from the past few decades. Thus was born "On Native Grounds," his first book and most valuable achievement.

This "interpretation of modern American prose literature," published the year he became all of age 27, is an astonishing feat in its confident sweep from the 1890s, through Dreiser and Edith Wharton, down to Hemingway, Steinbeck and the "herculean innocence" of Thomas Wolfe. Kazin seemed to have read everything-not just American literature but the critical books about it-during the years he spent at "the golden tables in room 315" of the New York Public Library (Mr. …