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 choice in his erotic and family life.
Cook’s narrative is shapely and satisfying, if often awkward in detail. Kazin’s personal life proceeds through three disastrous marriages punctuated by recurrent affairs, before he makes an apparently faithful and happy fourth marriage. His public life begins with the spectacular success of his first books, then loses its way with his later ones, and finally ends in high-spirited political commentary on the left-wing contemporaries of his youth who became power-hungry conservatives as they aged. Kazin knew he could not win these late battles, but died knowing that they were worth fighting.
Cook portrays Kazin as both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, at times tilting against real and imaginary enemies or in ecstatic pursuit of a new Dulcinea, sometimes seeing grim political and personal reality when everyone around him is dazzled by self-serving fantasies.
A summary account of Kazin’s childhood sounds like the story of any of a dozen Jewish intellectuals of his time. He was born in 1915 to impoverished, mismatched, Orthodox Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. His relations with his mother were intense, with his father distant. Kazin lost interest in Judaism, discovered radical politics, attended City College, overcame a stammer, and talked his way into the literary and political world of Manhattan. In his early twenties he was reviewing for The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and The New Republic.
The details diverge from the stereotype in ways that shaped Kazin’s difficult relations with his City College and New York–intellectual contemporaries. His father had worked in the Chicago stockyards, had roamed the Midwest while working for the Union Pacific Railroad, and would have settled in Colorado had he found a Jewish girl there to marry. Kazin traced to his father’s stories his own love of the American heartland, his identification with every kind of American wanderer. He was more of a literary loner than a political joiner. As Cook notes, Norman Podhoretz belonged to a Brownsville street gang as a teenager; Kazin never did. At City College Kazin thought of himself as a socialist, but avoided the sectarian political fights, fueled by the narcissism of small differences, that famously made a battleground of the cafeteria.
On Native Grounds, which made him famous at twenty-seven, was a spacious, enthusiastic history of the previous fifty years of American prose literature in the form of quick biographical vignettes of writers arranged to suggest an extended narrative of social progress. “In a word,” he wrote in the preface,
our modern literature came out of those great critical years of the late nineteenth century which saw the emergence of modern America, and was molded in its struggles.
What was exhilarating about the book was Kazin’s ability to use the wise-cracking style of an irreverent young rebel as a medium of praise; he aimed his wit at the previous generation of critics who had been too convinced by their own sense of themselves as enlightened rebels to perceive the greatness of the generation they had rebelled against. The “light-bringers of 1920” had dismissed William Dean Howells as a prude; Kazin saw in his novels the moral and social profundity of an American Tolstoy.
“There is a terrible estrangement in this writing,” Kazin wrote. (He meant “the writings I discuss in my book”; Edmund Wilson warned him that his prose lacked precision.) “All modern writers, it may be, have known that alienation equally well.” The theme of the book was not literary or cultural exile in a place distant from one’s homeland, but “our alienation on native grounds,” the condition of being alone in the place where one was born.
A telling moment in the book occurs when Kazin quotes Thorstein Veblen on the ability of a Jew to become an intellectual leader by escaping from his native culture and refusing to be assimilated into a Gentile one. As an outsider to both cultures, the unassimilated Jew is necessarily a skeptic, and “the first requisite for constructive work in modern science, Veblen continued, is skepticism.” Kazin comments, “It was one of Veblen’s rare self-portraits,” and he thought it wholly appropriate for a lapsed Norwegian Lutheran to portray himself by describing a Jew.
For Kazin in the early 1940s, Jews were no more alienated than were any other recent arrivals in America. When the Contemporary Jewish Record (the magazine of the American Jewish Committee before Commentary) surveyed young writers in 1944 on their debt to their “Jewish heritage,” Kazin went out of his way to renounce any sense of a special Jewish experience:
I think it is about time we stopped confusing the experience of being an immigrant, or an immigrant’s son, with the experience of being Jewish.
Most of the other contributors to the survey, including Clement Greenberg and Lionel Trilling, shared Kazin’s ambivalence about their heritage, but Kazin was the most blunt:
I know how easy it is for the American Jew, at least in my circumstances and of my generation, to confuse his timidity with devotion, his parochialism…with a conscious faith…. I learned long ago to accept the fact that I was Jewish without being a part of any meaningful Jewish life or culture.
He also learned, he added, “to follow what I really believed in, not that which would move me through associations or naive community feelings…. Like many another American, I have had to make my own culture.”
When he was writing On Native Grounds, Kazin felt (as he remembered it later) a “world-historical sense of purpose,” a belief that he was caught up in a great political transformation, a member of “the vanguard on the side of history.” He accepted the Marxist assumption that literature was shaped by social forces and class conflict, but beyond a passion for socialism and a hatred for reaction, he endorsed no specific agenda and hated no class enemies. Edith Wharton left him sorrowful, not angry; if she was “not a great artist” she was at least “an unusual American, one who brought the weight of her personal experience to bear upon a modern American literature to which she was spiritually alien.”
Kazin was too much of a skeptic to organize the minute particulars of history into a teleological plot, but his sense of historical purpose gave his book its energy and almost gave it a shape. He had begun to lose his political faith before he finished the book, and by the late 1940s he had lost it altogether. He never found a satisfactory substitute as an organizing principle for his later books. He wrote in his journal in 1947: “What all of us lack more than anything else is a political solvent for our ideas.”
Reviewers of Cook’s biography tend to divide between those for whom Kazin’s criticism is “indelible” and those who call it “strangely uninfluential.” Both are right. Literary criticism can be influential and memorable when it performs the double function of history and aphorism. As history it tells the unique story of a single book, author, or era; as aphorism it offers a general principle through which to understand any of a multitude of books, authors, and eras. The greatest critics—from Samuel Johnson through Virginia Woolf, William Empson, and beyond—could combine history and aphorism because each had a cohesive ethical vision that made sense of the connections between unique persons and general principles, and between literature and life.
Kazin’s criticism was almost all history. In place of aphorism, he offered vague spiritual uplift, as when he wrote of Henry and William James that “they burned with that indestructible zeal we need so badly to recover,” and underlined the point with incendiary adjectives such as “burning,” “fiery,” and “blazing.” As a result, the experience of reading his criticism is often more memorable, more “indelible,” than anything he actually said.
His memoirs tend to be more memorable than his criticism, partly because when writing about himself he never felt the same obligation to be factual that he felt toward the writers he revered. He constantly reshapes the facts of his past—marriages are foreshortened, the same wife gets different names in different books, his sister is never mentioned—but he does so in order to portray himself simultaneously as a universal allegorical type and as the boy who grew up in a unique family unhappy in its own way. In his journal he praises himself as a critic in terms that apply more accurately to himself as a memoirist: