In both his life and his writings Alfred Kazin was divided between two ideas of what it meant to be a Jew in America. He was committed to one idea and tempted by the other.
Kazin was committed to the idea that a Jew was an outsider, with no special loyalties to any collective identity, not even that of other Jews, and that a Jew could therefore sympathize with other outsiders, regardless of their ethnicity, skin color, or other marker of identity. For him to be a Jew was to be an individual, with all of individuality’s responsibility, loneliness, and willingness to take risks, someone whose deepest concern was justice—justice for all other outsiders as well as for himself. Whenever Kazin lapsed from this commitment, he later returned to it with a sense of exhilaration at seeing clearly again.
He was tempted by the idea that a Jew was a member of a separate and unique group of people, loyal to one another and their history, with a collective experience that differed from all others. To be a Jew, in this way of thinking, was to share in a group identity to which individuality must ultimately be sacrificed, and to be concerned most deeply with power—power wielded by other groups against one’s own, and power that one’s own group can gain through alliances with those more powerful. Kazin slipped into this temptation whenever he most despaired about politics or himself.
Kazin was a literary critic and a memoirist whose best books were On Native Grounds (1942), the first of seven volumes of criticism, all mostly about American literature, and A Walker in the City (1951), the first of three volumes of memoirs. He wrote hundreds of lectures, essays, and reviews on books, culture, and politics, and kept a journal which he excerpted in a late book, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment (1996). He taught for a semester or two at each of a dozen different colleges, then had two tenured professorships. He spent much of his adult life on the road, giving public lectures and attending boring conferences.
His public life was not the kind that demands to be retold in a four-hundred-page book, but Richard M. Cook succeeds in making Alfred Kazin: A Biography readable and even fascinating. The young Jack Kerouac, after an hour in Kazin’s classroom, wrote, “I like this guy because he is excited.” Kazin suspected some of his intellectual rivals of using literature as a ladder for social climbing; his own excitement went deeper. His third wife, Ann Birstein, in her memoir What I Saw at the Fair (2003), reports that he was sexually aroused by intense literary discussion. His excitement over literature is less evident in Cook’s biography than in his own writings, but Cook makes Kazin’s excitement over his life alternately infectious and appalling: infectious when Kazin fights the good fight against hypocrisy, bootlicking, and complacency; appalling when he plunges into yet another self-destructive …