My copy of Alfred Kazin’s masterpiece, On Native Grounds (1942), is an English edition printed in accordance with wartime production standards on cheap paper and bound in boards not much more rigid than matchbook covers. It was bought by my mother in a London bookstall in 1943, the year the German army was stopped at Stalingrad and expelled from Africa by Montgomery and Patton. In that year, when it began to be possible to imagine an end to the war, my mother (born Barbara Bernstein in Berlin, she had fled in 1936 to England, where she married my father and gave birth to my brothers) turned her thoughts to America as the country in which she wished to raise her children.
On Native Grounds was an inspired guidebook to the country of her dreams. The work of an amazingly young man (twenty-three when he undertook it, twenty-seven when it was published), it began by describing the American “yearning for a world no one ever really possessed,” and it ended five hundred pages later, after a brilliant exposition of modern American literature, by denouncing the so-called “Axis Ministers of Culture” as “half-men, the death’s-heads grinning over their spoil,” with “no culture and no belief in culture.”
Like everything else Alfred Kazin was to write in the ensuing fifty-five years, On Native Grounds was a belligerent expression of hope. Hope drove his sentences and filled his speaking voice, which, as he grew older, often seemed on the verge of cracking under the strain of his passion and his anger at the dispassionate. He demanded hope from every writer he assessed; and even when he reviewed a book harshly, it was with a kind of outrage on behalf of readers cheated, he thought, by a work that fell short of its obligation to disclose some ground for building a better future.
His trilogy of memoirs, A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and the pugnaciously titled New York Jew (1978), tells the story of hard times, but always with a sense of bright expectation. He was sometimes embarrassed by the ways of his immigrant parents, as when he brought gentile friends to the family table in Brooklyn, and his “father kept slurping the soup and reaching out for the meat with his own fork.” But the young man “hugged my aloneness, our apartness, my parents’ poverty, as a sign of our call to create the future.” What grated on his increasingly American sensibility was his parents’ self-denial (his mother refused “ever to enjoy openly or even to admit that she craved enjoyment”) and their stubborn fidelity to the past. In New York Jew he recalls walking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with his father, who “as a Jew segregated in the Pale… would never have been allowed into St. Petersburg,” but who compared the botanical pavilions unfavorably to the Tsar’s summer palace. Here is the son’s comment on the father’s misplaced pride: “What …