The Jew Who Read America

Article excerpt

Alfred Kazin: A Biography

By Richard M. Cook

Yale University Press

2007, $35, pp. 452


Any account of American intellectual history in the last century is bound to note the shaping power of free-lance intellectuals who booted themselves up without the institutional support of university professorships and mapped out their terrain on the strength of their own originality and tenacity. Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Edmund Wilson, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag and Cynthia Ozick spring to mind. Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) occupies a secure place in that company.

These days, Kazin is probably best remembered for his magisterial literary history of America, On Native Grounds, published in 1942 when he was just 27 years old, and A Walker in the City (1951). In the latter, a memoir of his Brooklyn youth he recalled his first tentative steps at venturing forth and provided a non-fiction complement to the novels of the era as an imaginative recreation of the Jewish immigrant generation and its children. Two more memoirs followed--Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) and New York Jew (1979)--plus a steady outpouring of books: anthologies like The Viking Portable Blake, essay collections and selections from his journals, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment (1996). A sturdy compilation, Alfred Kazin's America (2003), edited by Ted Solotaroff, supplies a judicious harvest from the full spectrum of Kazin's writing.

Kazin set his sights on being an intellectual-at-large, the Jewish Edmund Wilson. While he lacked Wilson's passion for languages and global literary reach, he had no less a gift for extracting from literature its essential features and cultural meaning. Like Wilson, Kazin mastered critical prose in long and short forms--the sweeping panorama and the slashing review--and both men enjoyed briefly the pulpit of The New Republic as associate editors, though more than a decade apart. Kazin shared with Wilson an "ever more pressing urge to make order of his life with words." Like Wilson, Kazin kept a daily journal. And both were four times married, with sometimes punishing consequences. In domestic disorder and sorrow, the Jewish apprentice kept pace with the Yankee master, wife for wife.

Kazin emerges in Richard M. Cook's ambitious biography as a passionate and troubled man who sublimated his personal disappointments into a singular eloquence. Cook explores the agitated Brooklyn youth and the Emersonian thinker-at-large, one brooding on his past and the other roaming freely through literature. He connects the dots between Kazin the estranged son, Kazin the baffled husband and Kazin the embattled father; Kazin the celebrant of America and Kazin the mourner for Hitler's victims; Kazin the rhapsodist and Kazin the Jeremiah; Kazin the walker in the city, ardently harvesting its sensations, and Kazin the scholar in the library, taking the republic's measure through its fiction. Through it all is Kazin the autodidact, who saw into a book's essence not so much through critical judgment but through a fusion with its author.

Cook, a professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has written a jam-packed, sprawling and generous book, which combines elements of a novel with those of a gigantic notebook. Aided in the early stages by Kazin himself and by Kazin's son and his widow, Cook has amassed an astonishing amount of information about his subject's comings and goings. Here is ample evidence that despite Kazin's hectic life he somehow left room for long bouts of writing. For a man who spoke often and mournfully about his own loneliness, Kazin suffered perhaps the most sociable loneliness in history.

Seen in a longer perspective, the biography is about rising in the world, a Bildungsroman about an actual Bildung. "The story of Alfred Kazin's Brownsville youth and rapid ascent to literary-cultural fame has become part of the larger story . …