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The Return of the Native

An American Procession

by Alfred Kazin
Knopf, 408 pp., $18.95

The title of Alfred Kazin’s new book, and something of its tone, come from Whitman’s tribute to Emerson:

There are some things in the expression of this philosoph, this poet, that are full mates of the best, the perennial masters, and will so stand in fame and the centuries. America in the future, in her long train of poets and writers, while knowing more vehement and luxuriant ones, will, I think, acknowledge nothing nearer [than] this man, the actual beginner of the whole procession….

Kazin doesn’t narrate the whole procession, only a century of it, beginning in September 1836 with Emerson’s first rhapsody, Nature, and ending with Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934) and John Dos Passos’s The Big Money (1936). His long train of poets, sages, and novelists goes roughly in this order: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Poe, Whitman, Lincoln, Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry Adams, William James, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, Dreiser, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos.

Some of these writers have already appeared in Kazin’s earlier books. Faulkner, Thoreau, Melville, Fitzgerald, and Dreiser were considered briefly in The Inmost Leaf (1955), Faulkner again and Hemingway in Bright Book of Life (1973). Howells, Henry James, Dreiser, Dos Passos, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway were figures in the landscape of Kazin’s first important book, On Native Grounds (1942). It is clear that Kazin has reconsidered these and other writers as they bear upon his current interests: he has not been content to let his early sense of them stand.

In the preface to On Native Grounds Kazin described that book as “a panel in the larger story,” in part “an effort at moral history, which is greater than literary history, and is needed to illuminate it.” The larger story is the moral history of America in the phase Kazin regards as crucial, the past 150 years. The literature of that phase is the most telling evidence that a moral history has indeed been enacted.

Kazin is willing to be called a literary critic and a literary historian, but only if these phrases admit an emphasis largely social and moral. His criticism is always found in some relation to literature, history, morality, and society, but none of these is securely dominant. Indeed, I have sometimes been dismayed to see him take dictation from current social themes and categories where, in my view, a distinctly critical intervention was required. In Bright Book of Life, especially, the categories he accepts—war novels, Jewish novels, novels by women writers, novels of the Absurd, novels of social documentation—serve the purposes of a sociologist rather than of a literary critic. A discursive category is not a literary form, though the insouciance with which it presents itself makes it hard for literary criticism to insist upon its own business. So it is often necessary to say, when one reads Kazin’s criticism, that he is a writer, a memoirist, an autobiographer, and to give him corresponding latitude when his criticism lends itself to other interests. All that his writing undertakes to be is fecund.

In the same preface to On Native Grounds Kazin said that “the greatest single fact about our modern American writing [is] our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it.” Kazin’s sense of an ambivalent relation, in American literature, between consciousness and the world gave On Native Grounds its particular stress. His official theme was the rise of American realism, the process, starting with Howells and James and ending with Wolfe and Faulkner, by which American minds came into possession of the available experience. But given this particular dualism—consciousness and the world—there is always a temptation to let one value dominate the other. A writer might define reality in blatant terms, relegating consciousness to the ignominy of being a nuisance; or he might insist on the pure air of consciousness, and deem reality to coincide with the forms his consciousness chooses to take.

In 1942 it was hard for Kazin to believe that a feasible relation between consciousness and the world was secure. “The pressure of the times is too great,” he wrote on the last page of On Native Grounds. Even in 1955, he couldn’t report that the relation had been recovered. In a postscript to a new edition of On Native Grounds (1956) he agreed with Lionel Trilling that modern American fiction “lacks the social thickness, the rich body of manners and morals, that is the classic atmosphere of the novel.” American writers, oppressed and bewildered by the pressure of public events, had withdrawn to consciousness and the private life; it was impossible even to think of changing the world. The writer, Kazin said, “who is always reaching out into this strangeness to say what things are really like—this man cannot feel the kind of old-fashioned force, the tonic resistance, that writers felt when the world had a more secure character for them, when it was still solidly there, for them to change.” American literature, for Kazin, hadn’t come to an end with the early Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, but it had begun to lose its ability “to carry the whole weight of our society.”

Increasingly, the period 1830–1930 has come to be Kazin’s century: when he writes of more recent literature, he becomes fretful, finding many brilliant gestures but not the values he has sought in literature, history, morality, and society.

At the end of An American Procession Kazin refers to an attitude “in the generally upper-class writers of the twenties,” an attitude “inseparable from the vitality, ingenuity, and openness to new experience that had been the mark of an American elect since the days of the Puritan migration and that helped, in the hands of a minority, to bring about the American Revolution and, with that remarkably self-sufficient man Emerson, our literary independence.” An American Procession is, in effect, Kazin’s history of that attitude, the forces that defined it, and the reasons why it could not survive in our “ghastly century,” “the pitiless century into which we were born.”

Kazin’s method, for the moment, is biographical. For him, as for Carlyle, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Or in Emerson’s terms, “there is properly no history; only biography.” It is my impression that Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce has shown writers how to move between local biographical detail and the analytical observances of criticism. Kazin evidently enjoys biographical writing, especially when he is engaged with a “representative man,” as in this passage on Melville in retirement:

The altogether proper, nobly stoical resident on East Twenty-sixth Street returned each evening to the bust of Antinoüs on a stand in the hall, the little white sails in the Bay of Naples on the wall, the oversized desk in his bedroom. On Sundays he walked with his grandchildren in the park. “At my years, and with my disposition,” he wrote to John Hoadley, “one gets to care less and less for everything except downright good feeling.” Home he is and taken his wages. Surely his feelings were those he had confessed to Hawthorne in the exultation of finishing Moby-Dick—“Am I now not at peace? Is not my supper good?”

It looks easy, as if the sentences wrote themselves and took up their proper sequence, instructed by innate good manners. “Surely” doesn’t assert a claim to know what Melville felt: it leaves the reader free to entertain the sentiment or not. The allusion to Shakespeare’s Cymbeline—“Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages”—is not only charming, it recalls the rhyme it succeeds—“the furious winter’s rages”—and Moby-Dick as it has survived its terrible element.

But the risk in Kazin’s biographical method is that he may regard a writer’s works as merely instrumental; evidence, perhaps conclusive, of the character of the man or woman. The chapter on Emily Dickinson, for instance, is so beautiful that it nearly refutes the misgiving I feel about its method: still, it comes close to regarding the poems as direct transcriptions of her life. “Whatever the woman’s actual relationship to the poet—obviously this poet is this woman thinking—we cannot help reading the tumultuous cycle as one of the fullest records ever left of a life, a life whose outlet more and more became poetry.” But Kazin’s sentence doesn’t let me say, what on balance I want to say, that this poet is this woman imagining forms of experience and not merely transcribing her own. “She often wrote to exorcise black depression.” Probably; but I think she often wrote to imagine depressions of whatever color in addition to her own.

The principle Kazin’s biographical method disowns is the one T.S. Eliot urged in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.” Kazin assumes that the work and the life are continuous, a seamless web. Even when he starts with the work, the attention he gives it is pointed toward its culmination in the life, the pattern it fulfills. In Bright Book of Life he says of John Cheever: “My deepest feeling about Cheever is that his marvelous brightness is an effort to cheer himself up.” It may be true of Cheever, but what I note in the sentence is that Kazin’s interest fulfills itself in the man, not the work, and that the pattern to be disclosed in the end is psychological.

Sometimes the perception is such that a distinction between the work and the man is not worth maintaining. Kazin has splendidly said of Cozzens that “the law was his great love and each novel competently closed in on itself as evidence.” And of Saul Bellow that he exhibits “a burning belief in commanding one’s own experience, in putting it right by thought.” I concede, too, that there are writers in whom the disclosure of a psychological pattern leaves little more to be done. Poe is a case in point. Kazin says of him, in a particularly telling chapter of An American Procession, that “to be trapped in a world altogether foreign to it was to Poe the condition of genius.” The superior intellect “tests itself by enduring the tomb, proves itself by describing every facet as such horror has never been described before, and raises itself through the power of mind alone.”

As a nuance of the biographical method, Kazin’s favorite procedure in An American Procession is to set two of his characters in relation, for the stir their mutuality causes. He may have taken the hint for this from Eliot’s essay on Hawthorne and James, where Hawthorne is praised for grasping “character through the relation of two or more persons to each other,” something “no one else, except James, has done.” Eliot’s example was the stir of relation between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Kazin’s most vivid performances in this procedure set in relation Emerson and Tocqueville, Emerson and Carlyle, Hawthorne and Poe, Whitman and Lincoln, Mark Twain and Henry James, Howells and James, Henry and William James, Dickinson and Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville, Dreiser and Faulkner, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. In some cases these relations have been given by literary history, and require only the beautiful development Kazin has given them. Other relations are produced not by an official psychology—I don’t find in these encounters Freud, Jung, Adler, Erikson, Goffman, or any other authority I might recognize—but by Kazin’s own intuition: he seems to play these relations by hunch, to begin with, and then to discover that they yield even more than he had divined they would.

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