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.

The procedure has, indeed, its risk. Kazin regularly looks for an American writer’s precursors within American literature. The chapter on Henry James has little to say, and nothing specific, on James’s relation to Balzac, Flaubert, and Turgenev: Howells occupies their space, although James took him lightly. Reading Faulkner, Kazin hears Melville where I hear Conrad.

There is also a problem about relation itself. Kazin quotes this passage from The Education of Henry Adams:

Eight or ten years of study had led Adams to think he might use the century 1150–1250, expressed in Amiens Cathedral and the works of Thomas Aquinas, as the unit from which he might measure motion down to his own time, without assuming anything as true or untrue, except relation.

But how can relation be assumed, by Adams or by Kazin? Relation isn’t an unmediated function of nature: it is, supremely I almost say, a cultural act.

Take, as an extreme case which puts Kazin’s technique of relation under strain, his juxtaposition of Henry Adams and T.S. Eliot. There is sufficient textual justification. In the Athenaeum for May 23, 1919, Eliot wrote a caustic review of The Education of Henry Adams: a few highly charged phrases from that book got into “Gerontion,” published in December of that year. Eliot’s relation to Adams is a matter of considerable local interest, but Kazin’s sense of it is rather factitious. Adams is made to testify to the beginning of the end of America’s confidence in itself, and Eliot to the next phase of that dismalness. But this involves ignoring the precise criticism Eliot proposed of Adams, and the particular ground of his rebuke. What Eliot pointed to was an alleged defect of sensibility on Adams’s part, that sensory power and intelligence in him were not continuous—“there is nothing to indicate that Adams’s senses either flowered or fruited: he remains little Paul Dombey asking questions”—but not some terrible cultural or symptomatic fate attendant upon the end of an era.

Suppose we say, for the moment, that Kazin is a descriptive critic: meaning that he is concerned with an artist’s vision of the world. He developed his critical procedures at a time when there was much Jamesian talk of a “point of view,” or a “post of observation,” and he came to value an artist for the possession of such a thing. By “point of view,” he says in The Inmost Leaf, “I mean the angle of vision from which one recurringly sees the universe—that native disposition of mind which plants in us very early those particular words, those haunted stresses and inflections, those mysteriously echolaic repetitions, to which we most instinctively return.” It is a writer’s point of view “that gives us our immediate experience of his mind in all its particularity.” Given a sufficient degree of sympathy between one respected point of view and another, art then becomes “a form of love, or perfected communication, in which everything depends on what is given and received between one person and another.”

It follows that Kazin is suspicious of abstractions, which float upon “the wish to believe names equal to things.” It follows, too, that he is hostile to those writers “for whom a narrative is a situation one ‘supposes’ as philosophers do, in illustration of an argument—now just suppose that this table…—rather than a story the writer himself is the first to believe.” When William H. Gass proposed a kind of fiction in which characters “freed from existence, can shine in essence and purely Be,” Kazin gave the proposal short shrift: “To have one’s characters ‘freed from existence’ is not a sensible wish for a novelist.” Perhaps not: but wouldn’t it be permissible if the program enabled a writer to produce fictions and sentences he couldn’t otherwise write? In Bright Book of Life and elsewhere Kazin has been gruff on this issue, as if he feared that Western civilization would be destroyed by the appearance of a few decadent paragraphs. But I assume he resents any form of words that tries to keep itself intact or otherwise circumvent the tribunal of sympathy.

A descriptive critic, then, but not relentless in discrimination. Sometimes Kazin writes a sentence which, if pursued, would compel him to turn the world upside down; but he doesn’t pursue it. He says of Emerson that “the ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ had for him such total access to reality that it virtually replaced it.” I happened to read that sentence soon after I had read O.W. Firkins’s extraordinary Ralph Waldo Emerson (1915), where it is argued that “the absence of inspired books, which resulted from Emerson’s relinquishment of the churchly attitude toward the Bible, may have urged the young seeker to accept a substitute in an inspired faculty.” Put the two sentences together, and you have sufficient incitement to worry about your sense of Emerson, and the force of vanity in his creed. But Kazin lets the general sense of Emerson stand unquestioned, even when he quotes D.H. Lawrence’s outburst: “The fact of the matter is, all those gorgeous inrushes of exaltation and spiritual energy which made Emerson a great man, now make us sick.”

On more specific matters, Kazin is inclined to let received assessments stand. After a glowing account of Portrait of a Lady, he refers to The Golden Bowl as “the greatest, richest novel of [James’s] triumphant last period.” He doesn’t oven acknowledge that there is a critical question about The Golden Bowl, a question put with typical vigor by F.R. Leavis in The Common Pursuit—“It is in this late period that the inherited symbolism assumes control, and we can see why this should be so: it moves into the place once occupied in force by the system of interests belonging to the novelist as novelist—the system of interests derived from James’s most vital experience.” In his long appreciation of Portrait of a Lady, it doesn’t occur to Kazin to test his intuitions by any sustained analysis of the language of the novel; or to pursue the discriminating interest Q.D. Leavis had in view when she compared the scene in which Isabel Archer in Rome drives out to be alone with her disappointment—“She had long before this taken old Rome into her confidence”—with the corresponding scenes in Little Dorrit and Middlemarch. Perhaps Kazin assumed that his narrative and biographical concerns would be impeded by a discriminating nicety.

Indeed Kazin’s narrative zeal is unlimited. In that cause he is willing to risk nearly any exorbitance. Disowning the distinction between the man who suffered and the writer who created, he goes on to respect the legend in which the mere life of a writer has become what the age has made of it. He writes of Scott Fitzgerald:

Fitzgerald was unweariedly, insatiably, worrisomely personal. Dick Diver’s need to marry Nicole is not convincing, but since it is explained by Fitzgerald’s need to marry Zelda, we accept the one as we accept the other. So much has the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald—not without the help of his work!—become the legend that embraces his work.

But Kazin hasn’t done anything to dissociate himself from the “we” who accept the one as we accept the other. He seems entirely willing to let the legend embrace both the work and the life.

One consequence is that Kazin’s chosen writers are presented as if they were major characters in a novel, required only to be interesting and to enter upon relations with other characters only a little less interesting. Critical qualifications which would retard the narrative are kept out. In On Native Grounds Kazin was willing to say that “it is precisely because Faulkner’s characters are charged with a vitality not their own that he is able to do everything with them except make us believe instinctively and absolutely in them”; but no such consideration is allowed to delay Faulkner’s march in An American Procession. An extraordinarily far-reaching sentence in The Inmost Leaf—“Dreiser’s greatest characters are all the more real because they are unconscious of their classic burdens; they have the sort of worn, deeply engraved dignity that is given to those who know only that they are doomed to face in one direction and never another”—isn’t given a chance to reach any development in the new book.

I can only explain the withholding quality of An American Procession by assuming that the larger story of American literature since Emerson has become a legend, a myth of endless grandeur, in Kazin’s mind; and that, in such a legend, the mere limitations and defects of a writer cease to matter. But I can’t explain, then, why some few writers, Eliot for instance, are grudgingly given the benefit of the myth, and some, notably Pound, are driven out of it. Pound’s Cantos are dismissed as the diary of a man drunk on many languages.

Only a possible explanation occurs to me. An American Procession is Kazin’s narrative: it proposes to discover the history of American experience, with literature as main evidence. The hero of the narrative is History itself. But since personifications are hard to manage, Kazin has identified History with Henry Adams, who understood the power he could not control. Kazin says of Adams:

Of course he believed, as every reader of the Education knows, that American politicians were too naive to understand the power they held in their hands, that the scientists were too specialized to know what they had wrought, that the masses were too far from the head of the procession, “its few score of leaders,” to know what was going on. Only the historian, with the whole scale of development open to him, could do justice to the gradually overwhelming concentration of power in modern times—and above all in America, the “modern” country…. In the full consciousness of so much growth and change, the historian became equal to history.

Of Adams’s History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Kazin says that its most striking characteristic is “its easiness, its intellectual address, that magisterial command over the materials that is associated with the historian’s natural confidence in himself as a judge of history.”

But The Education of Henry Adams, written in 1905, privately distributed in 1907, and published in 1918, is the turning point, the “recognition scene,” of a story which rushes toward its catastrophe. In that book, consciousness leaps to an ironic sense of its predicament, the only alternative being bewilderment. R.P. Blackmur once remarked that the great question, according to Adams, was “whether the American mind could catch up with American energy: he doubted it, but thought a good jump might do it.” Kazin thinks that those writers, American or not, who were in a position to jump—Eliot, Pound, Joyce—jumped in the wrong direction. The Joyce of Finnegans Wake “fled history into the interstices of language.” Pound moved “into the terror of twentieth-century history” but got it hideously wrong. As for Eliot:

Eliot told us that the order of the past is transformed by every new work; everything past becomes an aspect of present taste. The greatest effect of “Eliot–Pound” was to abolish among the literary all historicism and to coerce the whole past into the fashions of the present. African masks are viewed by the museum crowd as a stimulant to Picasso’s roving imagination.

The end of the story is not the end of history, but the loss of confidence in its social and moral bearing:

Writers emerging in the 1940s, too late to take in the legends of America’s special destiny, were quickly persuaded that history sooner or later becomes the same. And all history is essentially obscure and problematical, in some ways too “cunning” ever to be fully understood by the individual novelist, who can no longer feel that history is on his side—that he can depend on history to hold him up, to supply him effortlessly with material, to infuse him with the vitality that only confidence in one’s subject can.

This passage comes at the end of An American Procession, after four hundred pages of remarkable intellectual and narrative verve. It should be the beginning of Kazin’s next book, toward which I would goad him by asking some unpleasant questions.

Doesn’t the passage arise from his assumption that “History as order”—it is his phrase—coincides with “America’s special destiny,” or at least with the legends in its favor? “History may be servitude, history may be freedom,” as Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding.” According to Kazin, it was still freedom in September 1836, but turned into servitude a century later, perhaps most wretchedly at Pearl Harbor. In any case, Kazin’s plot, like Adams’s, goes from unity to multiplicity, from the Virgin to the Dynamo, or from Yeats’s “honey of generation” to technology as “the savage god.”

Adams’s story took seven hundred years, say from 1200 to 1900, to tell itself. Kazin crowds his myth of catastrophe into one century, 1830–1930. But his idea of cause and sequence and effect is more tendentious than Adams’s. Adams implies that the relations he propounds are such as he might disclose anywhere, and that Chicago is no more decisive than Paris or Chartres. “The world’s great ever-recurring winter” would chill your bones, wherever you stopped to take note of them. But Kazin implies that for “History as order” to run amok, it is enough that America’s purposes be impeded. Is he asking us to believe that the thwarting of America’s destiny, as in Vietnam, the Middle East, the arms race, and Central America, means the death of those values which prompt us to find significance in history? If so: how does Kazin’s sense of American experience—specifically in its bearing upon the relation between energy and mind—differ from the conviction, in many British writers in the last years of the nineteenth century, that civilization coincided with the writ of the British Empire and would collapse if that writ failed to hold?

The quotation marks surrounding “cunning” in that passage indicate that Kazin is alluding to Eliot’s “Gerontion”—

   …Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.

Gerontion” doesn’t commit the naiveté of relying on history to sustain us or to make applicable sense of our experience. History is a fiction taken as true enough to act upon, but there is no merit in leaning your weight upon it beyond that consideration. “Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history,” Emerson said; which means, I take it, that man is explicable only in a longer run than any individual is likely to get. Adams warned, in the Education, that “modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces,” so I don’t see how Kazin—or the writers of his chosen century—have ever been justified in relying so confidently on history; or why he should think himself abused, now that such confidence turns out to have been exorbitant.

I am not sure that Kazin’s wonderfully moving story has a moral, unless it is that we should try to resist the pressure of the time and learn to live with anxiety. The book ends with Scott Fitzgerald, praised for including America in his romanticism; more particularly with Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway imagining how the first settler saw in America “something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It is as if Kazin couldn’t bear to see the great procession end and chose to turn it around, and send it, for an enchanted moment, back to its Emersonian beginnings.