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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 also a time when the colleges and universities of America were flooded with students financed by the GI Bill and cosmopolitanized to a degree by their war experiences. It was a rising tide that lifted an entire generation; and Alfred Kazin was prepared to rise with it. There is no question that he has learned more by associating, however informally, with New York editors, writers, and fellow journalists than he would have learned in the traditional marathon of graduate classes, preparation of a dissertation, and service in the lower grades for the required terms. Perhaps in one respect his training fell short—he did not pick up a strong sense of scholarly discipline. On the other hand, acquiring that forbidding quality might have been at the expense of his lively sympathy, his vivid sense of a social situation, his strong awareness of social injustice.

So Alfred Kazin has been what he has made himself, and that’s no small achievement. As he has told in detail in the three volumes of his full-scale autobiography published between 1951 and 1978 (A Walker in the City, 1951; Starting Out in the Thirties, 1965; and New York Jew, 1978), it was a literary education acquired at the cost of immense effort, in the teeth of much avowed and unavowed hostility, and starting from surroundings that were hardly congenial. Kazin has told his story in the trilogy, not without vainglory, but it’s pardonable and leaves the reader warm with sympathy.

And, in passing, let it be said that no one who is in the least interested in Alfred Kazin, his milieu, and the climate of modern American literature should rest content with the perfunctory, incomplete version delivered here as lectures at Harvard. The three-volume autobiography from which much of Writing was Everything, has been drawn is infinitely richer and more rewarding. Taken together, the three autobiographical books are no doubt formidable, and that’s apparently why they have never been re-issued with an overall title. But the poignant story of his Cousin Sophie is a jewel of heartfelt narration; the character sketches of V.F. Calverton, Delmore Schwartz, and Isaac Rosenfeld, as well as quick insights into Henry Luce and Robert Frost, provide literary observation of a high order. No less interesting are the insights into the cross-currents of thought and feeling leading up to America’s entry into the second great war.

It takes a while to work through the three volumes—Kazin is nothing if not lavish with details—but despite a quarrelsome section on the McCarthy era and a condescending note on Lionel Trilling, they rank, for simple, sustained grace, among the most lyrical prose that Kazin has written and show how acute he can be about the changing moods among intellectuals during the past sixty years or so. Impressionistic views of postwar Rome, Americanized Salzburg, and war-battered Britain may bear only an incidental relation to criticism and for that matter to formal literature, but in their own right they are no mean literary achievements.

Toward the end of his new book Kazin concludes that Saul Bellow and Flannery O’Connor were the “only two American writers I knew [who] had a sense of the radical evil that had burst upon the century.” In a characteristic comment, he adds that “they were both so rooted in their contrary religious backgrounds, and each had such an unswerving, deeply engraved view of the world, that it amused me to think of one trying to do justice to the other.” But for a fact, literature gets fairly short shrift in the later pages of Kazin’s new memoir. Part of the reason for this brevity may be that there hasn’t been any spectacular flowering of postwar fiction, such as followed the first great war. Still, an age that can point to Beckett, Brecht, and Stoppard, as well as to writers of fiction like Borges and Vladimir Nabokov, plus devisers of science fiction and mysteries beyond number, not to speak of volumes of imposing criticism, is not to be passed over largely in silence.

Kazin’s overlooking of criticism—not absolute but relative—calls for a brief comment. His avoidance of the subject seems itself some kind of statement. The three memoirs and the current book say a little about Edmund Wilson, but not much about his actual critical work. Other imaginative critics such as Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye are passed over in silence. This omission contrasts with the more spacious treatment of criticism in Kazin’s first book, On Native Grounds, which devotes almost as much space to critical opinion as to prose fiction. The task would be more formidable now since the subject is more tangled and the scope of the current book limited; in dealing with criticism, much space would have to be given to complex argumentation; and in back of the technical discussion of deconstruction, for example, would lie the obscure scandal of Paul de Man’s youthful contributions to a collaborationist journal in Belgium. That would be too much to expect Kazin to handle—though the result of avoidance is a certain sparseness of intellectual background. It’s all too obvious that a culture’s critical writing, whatever its intrinsic character, must be an integral part of its literature or defense against literature.

As befits a volume to mark the close of a career, Writing Was Everything is devoted less to rigorous analysis than to quiet nostalgia. Among the best passages are excerpts from early diaries:

Every once in a while a sentence in a book is a voice heard, recalling for me the delight in American landscape that I felt as I began serious work on On Native Grounds. The sentence this morning, fresh as a spring wind, is from Constance Rourke’s book on Audubon. His ornithology tokened the newly recognized national sense of scale. Like Whitman’s lines, Audubon’s birds spoke for a continent. Rourke recalls the excitement under which I lived for weeks and weeks in 1939, when I recognized my professional as well as passionate interest in so much long-past American writing and art. In those weeks I used to walk up and down the halls of the Metropolitan Museum’s American galleries, delighted by the dull glazed views of a Sunday morning in 1836 in the village of Flatbush, the solemn faces of colonial and revolutionary worthies as they posed for history—how different from the struggle to express character in the work Thomas Eakins made of the human face!

To delight in the dull and feel ecstasy in the presence of the commonplace is very much the privilege of youth. Alfred Kazin has captured more than a patch of that feeling in his short memoir, as he could hardly have done if it had not been there from the beginning. For his eightieth anniversary, the heartiest of congratulations.

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