God and the American Writer
During the 1997 Harbourfront Literary Festival in Toronto, Alfred Kazin delivered a talk in a theater at a sumptuous lakeside shopping center on the role of religion in American letters. The lecture was drawn substantially from his introduction to the volume under review.
As Mr. Kazin was concluding his remarks on American writers and their uneasy relations with the numinous, a listener in the row behind me, whom I knew to be Canadian, remarked with bitter humor to his companion: “Why do they have this thing about themselves and God?”
At that point the Holy Spirit descended upon me and I was moved to reply. But it was Toronto and the festival-goer and I had not been introduced and I uttered not a word in spite of my holy excitement. My eye had fallen on him earlier though. The previous evening he had asked a question of a reader that had entailed his use of the phrase “American consumerist culture.”
I might, in the grip of Divine Inspiration, have pointed out to him that the throngs in the mall outside—the fall-fashionable ladies and gents, the handsome families and shoplifting teenagers, seemed to need no wicked example borne across the lake to encourage their apparent avidity for Ojibway-inspired pole lamps, frozen lattÌ©, or glass grayling mobiles—all of which they seemed to be snapping up with a wholesomely Canadian inclination toward worldly possessions.
Toronto is such a problem to those of us from God’s Country. It’s clean. Everything works. Crime is discouraged, the subway routes are comprehensible. It’s impossible not to wonder: Where did we go wrong? So I held my peace in the theater, instead of bearing witness as the power of Almighty God inclined, instead of demanding an explanation of the man’s question.
Could he not know, after all, that the Lord had led Americans, alone among the world’s peoples, out of bondage to proud, sinful, popishly anointed kings, from the vain mummery of prelates and the usurpation of posturing noblemen arrayed in office, drawling and strutting as though their pedigrees transcended the limits of their dark conception inter faeces et urinam? These fawners, parading with baubles, heathen honors, and jeweled crosses to adorn their little lives between the stink of the nappy and the stench of the shroud? That to humble them, we, uniquely, had been raised up, appointed a City on a Hill, a light unto the nations?
Probably not. He had come of age during the Vietnam War. All the rest would probably have been news to him. He might even, in invincible ignorance of the Word, have rejected it.
Alfred Kazin begins God and the American Writer by stating:
In the beginning at New England our writers were Calvinists, absolutely sure of God and all His purposes. He created man to glorify Him forever. But never sure of his obedience, distrustful of his innate disposition to sin, God kept man forever under His eye. Each claimed to know the other because there was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.