Alfred Kazin
Alfred Kazin; drawing by David Levine

New York Jew—the third and much the longest installment of Alfred Kazin’s autobiography—begins on a note of high exhilaration: “One dreamlike week in 1942 I published my first book, On Native Grounds, became an editor of The New Republic, and with my wife Natasha, moved into a little apartment on Twenty-fourth Street and Lexington.” The young man from the outer reaches of Brooklyn had never lived in Manhattan before, and his move there was symbolic of his “arrival” on the New York literary scene; together these events produced a “dizzy exaltation” that was mixed with “the direst suspicion of what might happen next.” Then, taking up roughly where he left off in his previous volume of autobiography, Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), Kazin recapitulates the five years spent in writing the ambitious book of literary history that had placed him so conspicuously on the scene at the age of twenty-seven.

On Native Grounds was remarkable for its achievements as well as its ambition, and it holds up exceptionally well in an area where rapid obsolescence is the rule. Its sections on the American fin de siècle, on Wharton and Dreiser, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, on the naturalists of the Thirties, on the New Criticism—these still testify to the accuracy of Kazin’s vision, to his summarizing powers, and to the rightness, sustained over the decades, of so many of his critical judgments.

Yet this young man’s book, sweeping so confidently from the Brown Decades to whatever was still damp from the press in 1942, reveals an odd omission. The great immigration of East European Jews passes unnoticed, as though it had never happened, as though it had never appalled Henry Adams or bemused Henry James, as though it had not deposited Alfred Kazin’s bewildered parents on the Lower East Side. So powerful has been the subsequent impact of Jewish writing upon our consciousness that it seems incredible that Kazin should have found nothing to say about its early manifestations in a history so inclusive as On Native Grounds. Even in a book that largely ignores the drama, it is surprising that there is not the slightest reference to Clifford Odets, who meant so much to Kazin. And was the publication of Call It Sleep so dim an event that Kazin (like Henry Roth a native of the Brownsville ghetto) was unwilling to mention it at all?

The omission is more than made good in the autobiographical writings. The first of these, A Walker in the City (1951), contains as its frontispiece Alfred Stieglitz’s well-known photograph of Jewish immigrants, “The Steerage”—a photograph intensely charged with meaning for the author. As he later tells us in New York Jew, Kazin identified the most prominent figure in “The Steerage”—a woman draped in a shawl-like towel, her face averted—with his mother. His passionate need to see the averted face seems to have stimulated his effort to recover that old America—especially that old New York—of the Eighties and Nineties and the first decade of the new century. “In some way,” he writes, “Stieglitz’s photographs of old New York possessed my soul, my unconscious past. His was the New York my mother and father had stumbled along as young immigrants.” In the final chapter of A Walker in the City he writes that “anything American, old, glazed, touched with dusk at the end of the nineteenth century,…immediately set my mind dancing. The present was mean, the eighteenth century too Anglo-Saxon, too far away. Between them, in the light of the steerage ships waiting to discharge my parents onto the final shore, was the world of dusk, of rust, of iron, of gaslight, where, I thought, I would find my way to that fork in the road where all American lives cross.”

And in Starting Out in the Thirties Kazin makes even more explicit the idea that On Native Grounds—a work so resolutely nonautobiographical—had its origins in a very private quest, and he does so in language that verges on the sexual, that might suggest to a psychoanalyst the reverberations of a “primal scene”:

I was in a constant state of arousement because of my book; and reading novels by Howells and James, I became watchful to the look and style of their time…. I had fallen in love with the Eighties and Nineties, with the dark seedtime of modern writers and modern art.

Native and non-native, old American and stumbling immigrant, insider and outsider—these preoccupations, together with the intimately related question of Jewish identity (proclaimed so bluntly in the title of the book under review), stitch together the three autobiographical volumes that are otherwise markedly dissimilar in style and tone. A Walker in the City is essentially an evocation of a family and a neighborhood, written in a prose that is lavishly sensuous, that lends itself to sustained lyric flights. The awakening sensibility of the boy Alfred is central, of course, but the emphasis is so much upon the sights and smells and the babble of voices bombarding his consciousness that no very clear impression of the boy himself—other than that he is studious and attentive—is allowed to emerge. The book fired my imagination when I first came to live in New York in 1954 and was eager to explore my adopted city; it even inspired a pilgrimage to Brownsville, where I poked around streets—Belmont Avenue, Pitkin Avenue, Blake Avenue—that were by then multiracial and broken up by public housing developments but not yet the charred detritus of Hell they have subsequently become.


I remember my disappointment when Jewish friends—a number of them from backgrounds similar to Kazin’s—complained that the book was not only overwritten but sentimentally false; they implied that only a gentile reader, thirsty for exoticism, would be taken in by it. Having reread the book I can partly see what they mean—certainly the style is lush—but I stand by my original impression of its power. I suspect, too, that A Walker in the City was one of the really influential books in establishing in the public consciousness what are now almost stereotypes of the Jewish immigrant experience: the dominance of the kitchen, the claustrophobic intensity of family life, the tension between impoverished, fearful parents and outwardly thrusting sons and daughers.

In the next installment of his autobiography Kazin displays a rigorously pruned style and a complex awareness of the extent to which literary and personal strivings were conditioned by the economic and political turbulence of the period he is writing about. All through Starting Out in the Thirties the big guns are constantly booming, close up and at a distance: the Depression, the rise of Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, the Moscow Trials, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The radical young men of Kazin’s generation are drive by economic necessity into the new welfare and civil service jobs in which they can still see themselves as socialists; the neighborhood poets are hustled by loneliness and insecurity into early marriages, often to women older than themselves who have steady jobs in the garment industry or the public schools. Meanwhile, on the literary front, the pipe-smoking Malcolm Cowley, with his Hemingway looks and his vividly striped seersucker suit, has been shifting The New Republic’s “back-of-the-book” in the direction of “a sophisticated literary Stalinism,” going so far as to write a lead review condemning the helpless defendants of the Moscow Trials.

Kazin conveys, as well as any other writer I can think of, the special fervor of the Thirties, the flushed excitement of listening to André Malraux as he described “the suffering and heroism of the Spanish Republicans in stabbing phrases that had driven the agony of Spain like nails into our flesh….” Kazin heaps ridicule upon the contortions of the hard-line communists—“miserable evening college teachers,…pale twenty-five-dollar-a-week accountants”—as they justify the “cleverness” of Stalin in reaching his diabolical accord with Hitler—and all with “not a breath, not a hint, of sympathy for the thousands of human beings who within a week were dead because of Stalin’s cleverness.”

In the course of Starting Out in the Thirties person after person steps forward to be held—sometimes briefly, sometimes for many pages—in Kazin’s lucid scrutiny: Cowley, James T. Farrell, William Saroyan, Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy; now forgotten writers like Otis Ferguson and V.F. Calverton; Kazin’s bent and joyless mother and his unhappily unmarried Cousin Sophie; his good friends Harriet and John (to be identified in New York Jew as Felice Swados and Richard Hofstadter). Throughout, Kazin manages to keep the public and the private concerns of his book in a nicely adjusted balance. He tells of his prolonged involvement—almost an engagement—with the neighborhood girl called Nora and then his sudden marriage, at the age of twenty-three, to Natasha, a bacteriologist who wears Russian blouses and whose face remains “as closed and shut-in” as it had been on the day he first met her.

Again and again he returns to the question of Jewish identity and to his own position as an outsider: “Poor as we were [the Kazins and their like], anxious, lonely, it seemed to me obvious that everywhere, even in Hitler Germany, to be outside of society and to be Jewish was to be at the heart of things.” On the last page of this excellent short book he leaps five years ahead—to 1945—to describe the first screening, in a London newsreel theater, of films showing the living sticks and the corpses piled like cordwood in Belsen, which had just been liberated by the British army. “It was unbearable,” he writes. “People coughed in embarrassment—and in embarrassment many laughed.”


As autobiographical writing New York Jew achieves neither the lyric intensity of A Walker in the City nor the stereoptical focus and the shapeliness of Starting Out in the Thirties. Its greater length and the time span covered (1942 to the present) work against such qualities. In the new book the impulses of the autobiographer, the memoirist, and the social commentator seem to clash, to jostle each other for position instead of providing a mutually enriching counterpoint. Perhaps a really successful autobiography of a certain length needs, as much as does a novel of comparable size, the propulsive force of a sustained narrative to carry the reader along. Or, failing that, it requires the unifying imprint of an artfully “realized” sensibility (as in Rousseau’s Confessions) or else—paradoxically—the subordination of the self to some great movement or system or unfolding idea (The Confessions of St. Augustine, The Education of Henry Adams). Too often in New York Jew Kazin gives the impression of halting the action in order to resume his roll call of the Famous People I Have Met (Henry Luce, T.S. Eliot, Bernard Berenson, etc.); after appending a few paragraphs of description and character analysis, he takes up where he left off. One misses the integration of portrait and narration which he achieved in Starting Out in the Thirties.

The writing, too, seems to move in sudden bursts and remissions. Some of Kazin’s most consciously “brilliant” effects—his description of the perpetual freak show of upper Broadway (“the fat lady; the bearded lady; the transvestite in pink curlers who needed a shave;…the madwoman in carpet slippers and shopping bag…”) or his desolating account of his father’s illness and death in a Coney Island hospital and old-age home—seem not merely the heightening of an always fluent style but rather the assumption of a voice quite other than the one that prevails elsewhere in the book.

The personal story draws attention to its omissions. Some of these (like the changing of the names of wives and children) are clearly dictated by considerations of discretion or tenderness, but others seem gratuitous to a reader interested in the ongoing saga of a man’s life. Could we not be told, in a friendly way, what happened to the first wife, Natasha? Was it necessary to treat the second marriage so briefly and so gingerly that it leaves hardly any residue in one’s memory of the book? Though Kazin writes that his second wife (called Louise) was someone that he would “never know,” he might have found it possible to dramatize more vividly this very fact about her—and its impact on him.

Kazin regularly presents himself as the free-lance, independently minded critic at odds with the pedagogues and stylish critics entrenched in academia—especially those who in the late Sixties whored after the radicalized young or celebrated their “performing” selves. He writes bitterly about the English Department at Amherst which effectively isolated him during his several unhappy years of residence there. It is therefore strange, given his anti-institutional bias, that he fails even to mention that he spent ten years as a Distinguished Professor of English at Stony Brook. One would like to know more about this particular professor’s running fight with the professoriat. One would like to know more, too, about his attitude toward his own literary career. After the heady section on the publication of On Native Grounds he says little about his ambitions and goals—an odd omission in an autobiography. Does he feel that he has achieved them?

There are problems of tone, too, especially when Kazin is writing with some explicitness about his sexual experience. This is a subject that is likely to create difficulties for any autobiographer less cheerfully exhibitionistic and “unconscious” than a Casanova. How does one write about ecstasy or even satisfaction in such a way as to avoid a note of self-congratulation? Unfair though it may be, what is acceptable in a novel narrated in the first person is likely to become slightly embarrassing in the autobiography of a literary critic. So it is with Kazin’s account of his rapture in the arms of the Greenwich Village “priestess” of sex called Mary Ellen. Even when the experiences described are to some degree chastening, the note still faintly sounds: “Women found the much-married man not without promise, but definitely in need of guidance…. After stretching themselves on the bed and satisfying themselves on me as if I were a bedpost, one after another told me that I knew nothing about women, that I was running away from life.” Perhaps a deadpan approach is best, a straightforward account of events and feelings without resort to metaphoric language or a novelistic attempt to “recreate” the scene.

The old themes of Jewish identity and of being an outsider surface repeatedly throughout the book. From 1943 on, Kazin’s consciousness of the Holocaust becomes “the nightmare that would bring everything else into question, that will haunt me to my last breath.” He takes down every “morsel of fact and rumor” relating to the murder of the Jews. “The line-up was always before my eyes. I could imagine my father and mother, my sister and myself, our original tenement family of ‘small Jews’ all too clearly—fuel for the flames, dying by a single flame that burned us up all at once.” It is this awareness that after the war impelled him to visit a transient camp for Jewish DPs outside Salzburg, to fly to Belsen for the twenty-fifth anniversary of its liberation, and to relate how his third wife Beth “spoiled” a smart dinner party when two Indian diplomats explained that the Holocaust had never occurred.

These sections of New York Jew are impassioned and moving. Less psychologically persuasive—to me at least—is Kazin’s attempt to relate the Holocaust to his private life and especially to his position as an outsider. The distinction between Jewish identity and personal idiosyncrasy or behavior becomes blurred. Kazin brings the Holocaust right into his West Side apartment and links it to the fear of annihilation—of the “dismemberment and torture of the Jewish family”—which, he says, underlay the fierce quarrels of his third marriage. While the Holocaust could certainly intensify and lend its imagery of horror to such a fear, one may suspect that the fear itself had its roots—for these two American-born Jews—in early familial experiences that predated the extermination camps and had no necessary connection with being Jewish. He writes as if their public fighting, which provoked a “sly laugh” from the Amherst faculty, were somehow distinctively Jewish, as if such behavior were not also to be found, with certain variations of style, in Irish Catholic taverns or at Cheever-ish cocktail parties populated by Westchester Wasps.

Like other offspring of the East European immigration, Kazin appropriates the term “Jewish” for a mode of discourse and behavior that scorns “modulation” and genteel evasions—a mode that he associates with ghetto origins, with lower-class experience. He sees himself, for example, as being “too Jewish” for that son of a Jewish tailor, Lionel Trilling, who “would always defend himself from the things he had left behind,” who “wrote as if the only problem of society was the thinking of the ‘advanced intellectuals,’ ” and who found the case of Alger Hiss easier to deal with than the extermination of the Jews.

Concurrent with the concern for Jewishness is that perennial theme in Kazin’s writing—his fascination with “old America” and especially with such reminders of an old American style as Robert Frost and Edmund Wilson. Frost, to whom Kazin turned during his unhappy stay at Amherst, was one of “those nineteenth-century men who dominated the twentieth by having grown up with that ancient ferocious self-assertion!” He contrasts the “subtlety and hardness” of Frost’s thinking with the “concessive, watchful, neutral, and subdued” quality of the professors who surrounded the old man. It is Wilson, however, who most engages Kazin’s imagination.

In a stained old Panama hat, the long white dress shirt that he wore everywhere…brown Bermuda shorts that bulged with his capacious middle, and carrying a handsome straight gold-topped cane that had long been in his family, Edmund Wilson…now walked slowly, with some difficulty, along the edge of the great ocean beach at Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Finished with his long daily stint, he was now ready to look at Nature and have a talk.

Wilson’s superb independence appeals to Kazin even when it is, in his view, clearly wrong-headed or politically naïve. He is impressed by the degree to which Wilson lived to read and write and by his ability to “make books out of virtually everything that crossed his mind.” Behind Wilson’s passion for factual and verbal correctness Kazin saw “the moral significance of ‘right words’ to Wilson’s class—the professional gentry of lawyers, preachers, educators, scientists, which from the time of New England’s clerical oligarchs had remained the sustaining class of American intellectual life.” Wilson’s own approach to literary criticism had been to a large extent a model for Kazin’s as well. It is hardly too much to see Wilson as an alternative father in Kazin’s imagination. Just after Kazin’s account of the terrible last year and pathetic death of his own aged father—the immigrant house painter who had never really mastered English, the “always peculiar” man isolated from his own family—he shifts to a final glimpse of the aging Wilson, lonely in Wellfleet. It is Kazin’s opinion that Wilson was afraid of dying and that Wilson found his own philosophical position—what Kazin calls “his obstinate nineteenth-century materialism”—no help against the threat of death. Kazin records his delight over Wilson’s question: “Was it possible that the Jews had an answer?” and tells us that the Hebrew words meaning “Be Strong, Be Strong, and Let Us Strengthen One Another!” are engraved in Hebrew lettering on Wilson’s tomb.

There is much intelligent commentary throughout New York Jew—on English manners and class divisions at the end of the war, on the whiff of power that so intoxicated intellectuals during the Kennedy era, on the student rebellion of the late Sixties—but the book, I think, will be most valued for its literary portraits, of which Edmund Wilson’s is only the most elaborate. The memoirist ultimately triumphs over the autobiographer and the social historian. Kazin can be unkind—openly in the case of Diana Trilling, who snubbed him during his one and only visit to the Trillings’ apartment, more subtly with regard to what he saw as the achievements and evasions of her husband. But his most memorable evocations are of the people whom he really knew (as opposed to the Famous Names he occasionally met), people whom (like Wilson) he could love as well as dissect, to whom he could respond with affection, exasperation, and respect.

A number of his portraits—especially those of Delmore Schwartz, Isaac Rosenfeld, Paul Goodman, and Hannah Arendt—are much like the reviews he has written of books that have deeply engaged his attention. To them he brings the powers of observation and analysis, the eye for psychologically significant detail, the semi-novelistic sense of milieu that have made him such a consistently effective reviewer and critic of fiction over the past thirty years. Whatever its deficiencies as a self-portrait, New York Jew is an unfailingly interesting book, a book that will assume a conspicuous place in the documentation of the literary life of our times.

This Issue

May 18, 1978