Madly in love with literature

Matthew Price is an occasional contributor to Book Review.

When he died in 1998 at 83, Alfred Kazin was rightly considered our reigning man of letters, a fitting heir to the previous holder of that title, Edmund Wilson. The comparison would have pleased Kazin: Coming of age in Depression-era New York, madly in love with literature, he idolized Wilson as the perfect critic. From him Kazin learned the art of historical criticism, a way of placing a writer and book into a rich web of interconnected social, historical, economic and literary realms. This method sustained Kazin over one of the steadiest and most fruitful careers of any American critic. He was an ecstatic literary interpreter, and to read him today is to be reminded of how important passion can be to a practicing critic. Sadly, it is also to be reminded how little passion figures in the critical resources of today's academic literary technicians, who study literature for a living without seeming to love it. There are exceptions, of course, but Kazin was part of a vanishing breed of intellectuals, mostly freelancers, whose hunger for literature and culture, history and social thought endowed them with a profound depth of vision.

Like other exemplars of this tradition -- Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, Elizabeth Hardwick -- Kazin possessed a gift for writing and an uncanny ability to explain why a certain writer succeeded or failed, and why it mattered. Yet to dub Kazin simply a "critic" is perhaps to diminish his place in American letters. As Ted Solotaroff writes in the introduction to this welcome new anthology culled from Kazin's essays, memoirs and critical works, Kazin "wrote less as a literary critic than as a writer possessed by literature as moral testimony and lived history."

This could not be better put. Like his heroes Edmund Wilson and the cultural historian Van Wyck Brooks, Kazin was a dramatist of literary ideas. His mastery of effect and anecdote, his finely modulated synthesis of biography and aesthetic judgment, cohered into a luminous, pulsating whole. Kazin once wrote of Wilson that "he has to show his subject as a character in a story and each book as an action; he has to find what is most permanent about a writer yet may be not so much in the writer as behind him, in the force of the age that is backing him up"; the same words apply to Kazin himself. In his major works -- which include his first book, "On Native Grounds," a landmark 1942 account of modern American prose; "Bright Book of Life," his 1973 tour of American fiction since World War II; and "An American Procession," one of his last major surveys (Solotaroff includes excerpts from each) -- Kazin approached criticism like an old-fashioned storyteller.

Has there ever been a more full-blooded novelistic critical survey than "On Native Grounds," his masterpiece? Published when he was only 27 -- one simply marvels at this fact! -- it is conceived on the scale and pitch of a 19th century novel. The fruit of four years of relentless all-day bouts of reading in the New York Public Library's Room 315 ("my intellectual armory," he called it), "On Native Grounds" takes as its starting point the "harsh combative end of the nineteenth century in America" and the emergence of realism; Kazin's theme is "our writers' absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it." Teeming with major writers like William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser (whom Kazin always championed), Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald; social critics like Thorstein Veblen and Randolph Bourne; and minor, now all but forgotten novelists like Hamlin Garland and James Branch Cabell, "On Native Grounds" is an exhilarating, often melodramatic, finally moving narrative of how American writing became modern.

Though Kazin often wrote astutely on the masters of European modernism, American writing was his special province. Born in 1915, the son of Russian Jews who lived in the hardscrabble tenements of Brooklyn's Brownsville quarter, he had a love for the American past, for Emerson, Melville, Whitman and the great pioneers of the American sensibility, that initially set him off from New York's mid-century Jewish intellectuals, most of whom fastened on Old World struggles. A thinker like Emerson seemed chilly and beside the point: "How could we, of all generations, give our hearts to a writer who had lived all his life 'in the country'?" Howe once asked. "Our own tradition, long rutted in shtetl mud and urban smoke, made little allowance for nature as presence or refreshment." Kazin was well aware of his anomalous passion: "Of course I love all this from the outside," he wrote in his journal in the late '30s. "But my personal need is great, my inquiry is urgent." (Indeed, Kazin once got so carried away in an essay that the acerbic Rahv teased: "Hey, Alfred, what's this about 'our mountains, our rivers?' ")

While Kazin never hid his lower-class roots, which he movingly explored in his 1951 memoir, "A Walker in the City," some deep, hard-to-define stirring drove him to burrow into the heart of the American sensibility and translate his private ecstasies into trenchant appreciations of America's literary traditions. He identified a certain radical, questing spirit in his favorite writers that consorted well with his own restless, maverick vigor. Like most of his fellow intellectuals, he was on the left in the '30s and haunted the offices of the New Republic (then based in New York and unabashedly progressive), prowling for assignments. Though a convinced anti-Stalinist, he was never a party man of any sort; Kazin's socialism was more a mood, an inherited orientation. (His father, a vagabond laborer, worshiped Eugene Debs and Robert LaFollette.) "I thought of socialism simply as a moral idea, an invocation of History in all its righteous sweep," he writes stirringly in another of his memoirs, "Starting Out in the Thirties." Never one for the brutal factional fights that raged in New York intellectual circles during the Popular Front years, Kazin stuck mostly to the literary side of things; unlike Howe or Rahv, he never had an appetite for political ideology, though he had strong opinions about politics.

Nor did he much heed the ever-shifting fashions of 20th century criticism; as interpretive fads came and went -- the coarse Marxist sociology of the '30s, the New Critical orthodoxies of the '40s and '50s, the structuralism of the '60s and beyond -- Kazin kept to his historical focus. It must be admitted that he was never an especially incisive, close reader of texts, but as a close reader of a milieu -- whether of Nathaniel Hawthorne's New England or Saul Bellow's Chicago -- or of a writer's temperament (Henry Adams' patrician gloom was a particular obsession), he remains unmatched.

Kazin had a talent for vividly taking the measure of a writer with just a few short, sharp strokes. Here is his estimate of John O'Hara, "fantastically over specialized in the social signs, as fanatical at keeping up the class struggle as a nineteenth century coal baron." And this on Hemingway: "He brought a major art to a minor vision of life"; and on William Faulkner's "inability to choose between Dostoevsky and Hollywood Boulevard." If Kazin's writing has any faults, it's that his prose can sometimes be too radiant, too intense; certain of his passages, as T.S. Eliot once said of poetry, communicate before they can be understood.

The selections in "Alfred Kazin's America" do justice to the richness of Kazin's life and writing, though one wishes Solotaroff had used more of the essays from "The Inmost Leaf" (now out of print), which includes Kazin's fine piece on Wilson. Solotaroff has instead concentrated on sections from the longer critical books and the memoirs, which offer acid portraits of the ex-revolutionaries of the Partisan Review crowd.

Kazin could bite. Never deferential, his pages on PR's supremo Rahv ("inherently one of the most narrow men I knew"), fellow critic Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy show him at his most cutting. Though Trilling had lauded "On Native Grounds" in the Nation, Kazin recoiled at his genteel airs and "nerveless compromised accents." ("Trilling cannot stand the ghetto Jew in me -- he cannot stand my vitality," Kazin mordantly noted in his journal.) About McCarthy's effect on the circle, he mocks: "The wretches who had so long believed in revolutionary progress now cowered before the crisp Vassar girl with the Irish jaw who proclaimed the endless treacheries of the human heart."

If not all of this is entirely fair, it is good to see his caustic side deployed against a really deserving target. In a rare political excursion, he reports for the New York Review of Books on Midge Decter's fatuous 1983 convocation of neoconservatives, who gathered at the Plaza Hotel to trash -- what else? -- the American left. Chafing at the narrowness of the proceedings, Kazin jibes that Decter et al. have forgotten that "there has been no stronger American tradition than the struggle for a just society." Kazin was faithful to this vital current of our culture. As a writer deeply in the American grain, he reminds us again and again, in his expansive sense of American possibility, that passion and hope are the best native virtues.

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