With the death late last week of Alfred Kazin on his 83rd birthday, an era of American letters has ended. For more than half a century, he was one of our most vibrant and incisive literary critics. In more than a dozen books, Kazin explored the manifold ways in which Americans have set about to invent and imagine themselves.
The publication of "On Native Grounds" in 1942, while Kazin was still in his 20s, heralded the emergence of a gifted younger critic. He was swiftly taken up by what would later be called the New York intellectuals, joining such feisty writers as Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald and Irving Howe in the circles swirling about such scrappy and influential journals as Partisan Review and the New Republic, whose literary editor he was for two years, in 1942 and 1943.
Kazin and his colleagues breathed a critical spirit, urban and contentious, which provided a kind of oxygen through the suffocating years of the Cold War and, later, during the country's divisive embroilment in Indochina. It was a spirit rare then, as it is now. For in today's society, the model citizen too often is one with neither memory nor traditions. Kazin's refusal to relinquish either was perhaps his greatest achievement.
The son of a house painter and a dressmaker, both immigrants from Czarist Russia, Kazin was born in 1915 and grew up poor in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y. Though he would graduate in 1935 from City College and receive a master's degree in English three years later, Kazin, like so many other sons and daughters of immigrants, would find his true education in Room 315, the immense open reading room of the New York Public Library. It was there, in the midst of the Great Depression, that he would research and write his first book.
In his 1978 memoir, "New York Jew," Kazin recalled that for five years he would begin his day when the library opened at 9, only leaving when it closed its doors 13 hours later at 10. He loved the library--all the books he might wish to read were there for the asking--and the whole of his later work might be said to be an homage to that early love, a steady effort to honor what was a transforming experience. He couldn't wait each morning to "dash up those steps whose exhilaratingly smooth marble was so much a part of the lordly building" to find himself, at last, in the reading room, which, like the library itself, "gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers."
Like the "street philosophers, fanatics, advertising agents, the homeless" around him, Kazin sought "fame and fortune by sitting at the end of a long golden table next to the sets of American authors on the open shelves." He remembered how "I could feel on my skin the worry of all those people; I could hear day and evening those restless hungry footsteps; I was entangled in the hunger of all those aimless, bewildered, panicky seekers for 'opportunity.' . . .
"I was hungry for it all, hungry all the time. I was made so restless by the many minds within my reach that no matter how often I rushed to the Automat for another bun and coffee . . . I could never get back to my books and notes . . . without the same hunger pains tearing me inside.
"There was something about the vibrating empty rooms early in the morning--light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning the smooth tops of the golden tables as if they had been freshly painted--that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves."
The book that he wrote, "On Native Grounds," would change the entire direction of current and retrospective literary criticism in America. Other books would follow, including last year's "God and the American Writer," a look at how writers as divergent as Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Lincoln, Whitman, Dickinson, Twain, William James, Eliot, Frost and Faulkner have grappled with the complex issue of religion in American life.
Alfred Kazin never lost his love for the life of the mind, his avidity for all things human, his passionate commitment to the cosmopolitan life. Writing was everything, as he accurately titled a recent slim volume of memoirs. It was as necessary as breathing. For more than 60 years, he devoted himself to its demands while remaining tethered to the obligations of a larger citizenship. He never lost his belief that great writing matters greatly; that it involves us morally, socially and personally in profound ways. He had no patience for fashionable theories of academic criticism, which he found divorced from real life, full of contempt for ordinary readers, whose abilities to absorb the difficult and to think for themselves commanded his respect.
He was fiercely critical of today's publishing world, "the million-dollar advances, the deafening stupid hype, the 'Today' show for the promotion of manufactured big sellers."
"Books die today faster than ever, and in greater numbers, without anyone particularly noticing or caring," he observed, concluding that "our literary period may yet be remembered as one in which the book business replaced the literary world, in which literary theory replaced literature."
He was possessed of a long memory, a sense of humor and irony, a passion for life undimmed by age or illness. A man of fundamental decency, whose abhorrence of injustice and love of truth informed everything he wrote, he had a belief in reason, in persuasion, in moral sobriety, as refreshing as it is rare. He was our best and most engaged critic.
"Anybody can make history," wrote Oscar Wilde. "Only a great man can write it."