Alfred Kazin: The Good Enemy

James Atlas is a staff writer for The New Yorker

"I used to want to live to avoid your elegy," Robert Lowell wrote ruefully in a poem to his late friend John Berryman. I thought of this line when I sat down to write about Alfred Kazin, who died June 5 on his 83rd birthday after a protracted battle with cancer. Would Alfred (as I only learned to call him when I'd known him for many years; to me, he was the eminent critic and mentor, I the youthful disciple) have wanted a tribute from me? Over the course of the nearly quarter-century I knew him, we spent as much time not speaking as speaking; misunderstandings, insults, fits of hostility and rage were as characteristic of our relationship--I don't dare call it a friendship, though to me it was one--as were genial exchanges. We fought, snarled, dashed off angry letters. But that's how Kazin was--that's who he was. His passionate, flaring temper helped make him the person I admired, it made him vivid, memorable, intense, someone whose very presence in a room kindled powerful feelings. Maybe he wouldn't have minded a few commemorative words from me after all.

We met when I was in my mid-20s and at work on my first book, a biography of Delmore Schwartz. One of the things that excited me the most about this project was the chance to meet my literary heroes, not least among them Kazin, who had been a significant figure in Delmore's life. "A Walker in the City," Kazin's lyrical memoir of a New York childhood, was one of the most cherished books in my extensive high school library of coming-of-age paperbacks. (I can still conjure up the cover, a portrait of a moody boy gazing longingly at the Brooklyn Bridge, his connection to the great world of Manhattan.) "I'm so glad that you are going to do a biography of Delmore, but I don't envy some of the interviews you are going to have!" he wrote me on a postcard in reply to my request for an interview. I have described elsewhere the awkward encounter that ensued: I found myself reading aloud to him the very pages in my work-in-progress in which Delmore denounced him as "a serious menace to criticism." After a tense dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Village, a few blocks from Kazin's bleak writing warren above an auto driving school on West 8th Street, he saw me off with a summation of where matters stood with us: "I like you, Atlas, but cut the crap."

I failed to obey this pithy advice. A few years later, still working out my authority problems with the old Partisan Review crowd, I referred to Alfred in the New York Times as a "culture apparatchik"--a particularly tone-deaf deployment of political nomenclature. He called me up the next day. "Do you know what an apparatchik is?" he shouted--and proceeded to give me a concise lecture on Stalinism. I was ashamed of myself, but my abject tone only made things worse. "Really, Atlas," he said, "if you're going to use words like that, at least know what they mean."

I must have written him a belated apology, because I have among my papers a letter from him dated around this time; it was the winter of 1979, and he was teaching at Notre Dame:

"Since my favorite character in history is A. Lincoln, who detested vindictiveness, I have to admit that I forgot long ago about your article and have long wanted to clear up certain things. But having also a highly Jewish sense of the absurd, I cannot help laughing at the contrast of my 'apparatchik' self in South Bend, Ind., the land-bound icebound frozen and already numb and numbskull capital of nothing, with New York and especially New York Times Book Review [I was working there as an editor], where the railroad men direct and redirect the switches that make it possible for certain prominent books to come roaring down the rails. Man, that is power! Or is it? But I never wanted to be on any magazine or review!"

He meant it. Part of Alfred's charm--a quality he possessed in considerable degree, despite his curmudgeonly side--was his indifference to the worldly element of power. What consumed him was literature. His idea of power was to write a book that lasted. The rest--literary politics, jockeying for editorial position, getting ahead--was a distraction from the work at hand. The title of his last book but one said it all: "Writing Was Everything."

I saw him now and again at literary functions, but I didn't have occasion to sit down with him again for a real talk until a decade later, when I embarked on a biography of Saul Bellow. They had known each other for half a century, and had had a typically on-again off-again relationship definitively off after their politics diverged irreconcilably in the early '90s, Bellow going in the direction of neo-conservatism (though not in a doctrinaire way) while Kazin remained immovably on the left. I called him up from a phone booth at the Harvard Club. He'd heard about my project, and was full of enthusiasm: Bellow was a natural subject for me, he said, launching into a nonstop discourse that I straggled to jot down on the back of an envelope. He wanted to "start a new relationship with me," he announced, and invited me for lunch at the Century Club. "But you're not allowed to take notes there," I objected. "Just listen and write it all down afterwards," he counseled.

Kazin was keenly interested in Bellow, despite their rift--he considered him the greatest living American writer and a historical soul-mate, never mind his politics. We kept in touch about my progress, and I sent him chapters from the book. He was looking forward to reviewing it.

It wasn't a lasting peace, alas. Reviewing "Writing Was Everything" for The New York Times Book Review, I gave what I believed--and still believe--was a fair assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. Years of strenuous living had cured me of the need to stab my elders in the back. I spoke of the "sheer passion" he brought to the literary task, but noted his habit of cribbing themes and even passages from his earlier books. ("They are good stories," I acknowledged.) Was it unkind to end my review with what could have been construed as a dismissal of Kazin's relevance? "The pathos of his latest book is in its title," I concluded: "The past tense says it all." Perhaps; but the fact is, Kazin was 80 when he wrote the book. His best work was behind him. I was simply pointing out the truth.

I was shaken by the letter he wrote me--so shaken that I threw it out, violating my own impulse as a biographer to save every scrap. I do recall a few phrases--most notably that I was "an acne scar on the face of literature."

A few months later, the phone rang on a Sunday morning. It was "Alfred," as he called himself. He sounded shy, conciliatory. The New York Review of Books had asked him to review Bellow's new book, and it occurred to him that writing about my forthcoming biography would provide "a natural tie-in." When was it coming out? Yes, but Alfred, I was tempted to reply, didn't you write in your last letter, "Wait until your book comes out"--meaning that he could kill it in print? Now you want an early look at the manuscript? Amazingly enough, I wasn't angry; I was flattered that he'd called. "I'm dying to read it," he said--an unnerving phrase in view of the fact that he was literally dying. He begged me to send him a few more chapters. "I'm sure you've done a wonderful job, but I'm not going to be around that much longer."

"I'll think about it," I said. "Sending you chapters would be a serious matter, for lots of reasons"--namely, you'll slaughter me in print.

"I'd appreciate it," he said humbly. "Sorry to bother you. It was nice to talk to you." I hung up stunned. Death: the great leveler. Once we believe in its reality, nothing else matters.

The last time I saw Alfred, at a book party a few months later, he was cordial, and he called the next morning to discuss some literary matter. It wasn't as if he were denying what he'd written, it was past. He was interested in now--today. To forgive and be forgiven seemed to him a natural part of life.

"Was he a good friend?" a colleague asked me when I mentioned that I was going to write something about him. "He was a good enemy," I replied.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World