Alfred Kazin (1915–1998) was a writer and teacher. Among his books are On Native Grounds, a study of American literature from Howells to Faulkner, and the memoirs A Walker in the Cityand New York Jew. In 1996, he received the first Lifetime Award in Literary Criticism from the Truman Capote Literary Trust.

Laughter in the Dark

In 1935 Isaac Bashevis Singer, a thirty-one-year-old Yiddish writer from Warsaw, arrived in New York so unsure of his prospects that he traveled on a tourist visa. Although he was lucky to escape the German occupation of Poland and the Holocaust, he did not anticipate the destruction of Polish Jewry …

God’s Own Terrorist

On a rainy Sunday night, October 16, 1859, seventeen men led by the violently religious abolitionist John Brown, who thought slavery a greater sin than murder and regarded himself as “an instrument in God’s hands” for extirpating it, took over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry in the Blue …

The Long Voyage Home

Inman, a Confederate soldier beset by flies drinking at the neck wound he sustained in the Petersburg campaign (1864), is in a hospital ward. He is desperate to get out of the war and back to his mountain home in western North Carolina. Aman born blind asks Inman to describe …

A Single Jew

Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel was awarded the National Book Award for 1958 against the outraged opposition of one judge. Malamud, amazed that he had won, exclaimed, “A miracle has passed.” He was delayed by a reporter in getting to the dinner in his honor. The waiter, looking him up …

Struggles of a Prophet

Saul Bellow will be eighty-two this summer. Not long ago, he told Playboy, he had been near death after partaking in the Caribbean of a fish that turned out to be toxic. But here he is, sharp as ever when he writes about low doings in Chicago and then adds …

A Genius of the Spiritual Life

In breaking away from Partisan Review to found his own journal, Politics, Dwight Macdonald did something altogether splendid and moving, in getting to clear new moral ground, away from Leninism, Trotskyism, the usual hates and polemics of the left. I owe to Politics my discovery of Simone Weil, whose essay …

A Jew on Horseback

Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel was born in Odessa in 1894. His middle-class family gave him a solid Jewish education (at sixteen he was studying Hebrew and the Talmud so hard at home that he had to “rest” at high school), and in 1911 he enrolled at the Kiev Institute of Financial …

Escape Artist

“Israel is an ideological state,” Yitzhak Shamir declared when he was Israel’s right-wing prime minister. Even in the Labor Party the ideology is more and more removed from its old vision of Jews united by the dream of socialism, but of course the official consensus in Israel remains that Jews …

Her Holiness

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), the biggest best seller of the nineteenth century after the Bible, is a central event in American history. By centering on and dramatizing the routine breakup of black families under slavery far more than the usual condemnations of slavery had done, Harriet Beecher Stowe elevated the …

The Way We Live Now

Robert Hughes, the Australian who arrived here in the late Sixties to become Time’s art critic, doesn’t like what Americans have become since Ronald Reagan, “with somnambulistic efficiency…educated America down to his level.” In Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America we find a brilliantly mocking cultural criticism in which …

Love at Harvard

Love’s Story Told is a remarkable biography, with a startling tale to tell about the man who is its subject, the woman he loved, and the literary presences and psychological myths that dominated their lives. One August morning in 1924, when the Cunard liner Scythia was on its way from …

The Middle Way

In 1974 John Updike published a long, fascinating closet drama, Buchanan Dying, about his fellow Pennsylvanian, James Buchanan, the fifteenth president of the United States, a figure generally viewed as Lincoln’s sorry predecessor. In the politically hysterical “secession winter,” the four months between Lincoln’s election in November 1860 and his …

The Opera of ‘The Scarlet Letter’

Why is there no opera of The Scarlet Letter? The novel opens on a scene, “The Prison-Door,” that is so dramatic in its starkness that one half-expects to hear an audience burst into applause. “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some …

The Art of ‘Call It Sleep’

Call It Sleep is the most profound novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American. It is a work of high art, written with the full resources of modernism, which subtly interweaves an account of the worlds of the city gutter and the tenement cellar with …

American Gothic

The largest memorial to Henry Adams is located, of all places, on the upper West Side of New York, Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street, just before the Hispanic barrio is replaced by Columbia University. The Cathedal of St. John the Divine, really two churches in one and eclipsed in size …

Fallen Creatures

“Low ceiling,” a distinguished novelist on an awards committee demurred when I spoke up for these stories by Richard Ford. Though often funny, his situations are not particularly sunny. In “Optimists” a railroad man who shunts engines through the yard sees a hobo mangled on the tracks. Returning home in …

Trachtenberg the Brain King

The city in Saul Bellow’s new novel is a Midwest power center that is clearly Chicago but not named. Benn Crader, a peaceful, contemplative, eminent botanist, something of a “plant mystic,” unaccountably finds himself married to the overpoweringly handsome, rich, socially ambitious Matilda Layamon. She is at least twenty years …

In Washington

On December 12, 1985, the President of the United States, returning from his summit meeting in Geneva with Soviet leader Gorbachev, went straight from the airfield to report to Congress. His helicopter was bathed in a corolla of many-colored spotlights as it swooped down upon what the designer of Washington, …

The Fascination and Terror of Ezra Pound

In the museum of modern literature no figure commands more space than Ezra Pound. Born in 1885 and dying at the ripe age of eighty-seven in 1972, he published his first book of poems, A Lume Spento, in Venice in 1908. My packed shelves hold almost thirty volumes of his …

New York: The Writer in the Powerhouse

From my windows on the Upper West Side I look out on buildings that clash so violently in age, style, size, shape, color, and purpose that I must locate myself within this mad geometry. Upright parallelograms run into one another and finally absorb one another into a dizzying urban mix.

‘Not One of Us’

His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he even begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. “Why I Write” (1946) The system …

A Nymph of the New

This full and fascinating biography of the poet Hilda Doolittle—her early and bossy boyfriend, Ezra Pound, on his own turned her into “H.D.”—reads as if the poet and her “world” excite Barbara Guest more than the poetry itself does. (The poems are used to document passions, breakdowns, travel, and events …

The Exceptional William James

William James, dead these seventy-three years, is a living and much-cherished figure to Jacques Barzun, whose sparkling appreciation honors his “mentor,” a man and thinker without a describable lapse who “knows better than anyone else the material and spiritual country I am traveling through.” Unlike all other philosophers Barzun likes …