A Self-Made Man

Writing Was Everything

by Alfred Kazin
Harvard University Press, 152 pp., $17.95

Alfred Kazin’s modest memoir, Writing Was Everything, marks its author’s entry into his ninth decade. This, if ever, is a proper time to summarize and retrospect. (I remember the surprise with which I learned that my classmate and coeval at Columbia College, Thomas Merton, had written and published to acclaim his full life history, before I’d so much as started living my life, let alone written the history of it.) Kazin’s essays, though originally delivered as the William E. Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard, are by no means so portentous as that. Rather, they are a casual and often ingratiating set of autobiographical reminiscences and critical reflections from the different periods of Kazin’s life.

As a literary journalist and publisher’s adviser in the heart of the American literary marketplace, he got to know a great many interesting people, including such writers as Edmund Wilson, Robert Lowell, and Flannery O’Connor, some more intimately than others. They are recalled in brief anecdotes; none of them is subjected here to systematic characterization or intensive analysis. The lectures are informal talks, and in this context their chronological remoteness from most of the events described stands them in good stead. The period he has to cover—approximately the last sixty years—was full of quarrels, antipathies, and animosities, in many of which the young Kazin took part, but most of which have by now faded into forgetfulness. Moving through literary circles in those days, one had to take positions for or against the New Humanists (few of whom can barely be summoned up by name any more), for or against the short-lived but aggressive Agrarians, toward the ill-defined but influential New Critics, and then thread one’s way through the minefields of the numerous opposing but always truculent dialecticians, Marxist and otherwise, of the Thirties and Forties.

Most of these engagements appear in the present pages as background noise—and a good thing too. The story of our own time is too familiar to need full recital, and as for important landmarks like the Spanish Civil War, the Russo-German pact, and Pearl Harbor, one finds them only casually alluded to. But after all, Kazin’s central story is the rise of a ragged boy from the streets of Brownsville, with few shreds of cultural background, to a position of prestige and authority, not only as a well-known literary essayist but in the academic community as Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

He had, to begin with, a passion for reading and for discussing books; stimulated by Edmund Wilson, he was also a born teacher, but seemingly condemned by his lack of formal graduate training to labor in the lower purlieus of academe, when suddenly in the 1950s, to his great surprise, he “became a full-fledged professor at distinguished universities here and abroad.” This was about ten years after the publication of his major critical work, On Native Grounds (1942). It was…

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