Tales of Manhattan

New York Jew

by Alfred Kazin
Knopf, 255 pp., $10.95

New York Jew—the third and much the longest installment of Alfred Kazin’s autobiography—begins on a note of high exhilaration: “One dreamlike week in 1942 I published my first book, On Native Grounds, became an editor of The New Republic, and with my wife Natasha, moved into a little apartment on Twenty-fourth Street and Lexington.” The young man from the outer reaches of Brooklyn had never lived in Manhattan before, and his move there was symbolic of his “arrival” on the New York literary scene; together these events produced a “dizzy exaltation” that was mixed with “the direst suspicion of what might happen next.” Then, taking up roughly where he left off in his previous volume of autobiography, Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), Kazin recapitulates the five years spent in writing the ambitious book of literary history that had placed him so conspicuously on the scene at the age of twenty-seven.

On Native Grounds was remarkable for its achievements as well as its ambition, and it holds up exceptionally well in an area where rapid obsolescence is the rule. Its sections on the American fin de siècle, on Wharton and Dreiser, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, on the naturalists of the Thirties, on the New Criticism—these still testify to the accuracy of Kazin’s vision, to his summarizing powers, and to the rightness, sustained over the decades, of so many of his critical judgments.

Yet this young man’s book, sweeping so confidently from the Brown Decades to whatever was still damp from the press in 1942, reveals an odd omission. The great immigration of East European Jews passes unnoticed, as though it had never happened, as though it had never appalled Henry Adams or bemused Henry James, as though it had not deposited Alfred Kazin’s bewildered parents on the Lower East Side. So powerful has been the subsequent impact of Jewish writing upon our consciousness that it seems incredible that Kazin should have found nothing to say about its early manifestations in a history so inclusive as On Native Grounds. Even in a book that largely ignores the drama, it is surprising that there is not the slightest reference to Clifford Odets, who meant so much to Kazin. And was the publication of Call It Sleep so dim an event that Kazin (like Henry Roth a native of the Brownsville ghetto) was unwilling to mention it at all?

The omission is more than made good in the autobiographical writings. The first of these, A Walker in the City (1951), contains as its frontispiece Alfred Stieglitz’s well-known photograph of Jewish immigrants, “The Steerage”—a photograph intensely charged with meaning for the author. As he later tells us in New York Jew, Kazin identified the most prominent figure in “The Steerage”—a woman draped in a shawl-like towel, her face averted—with his mother. His passionate need to see the averted face seems to have stimulated his effort to recover that old America—especially that old New …

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Letters

Steerage July 20, 1978