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 …

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