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 a covenant between them, a contract. Each was eternally watchful of the other, each apparently needed the other. Nothing in the world around a Calvinist counted so much as his dependence on God, his knowledge of God, his standing with God. And God was as eternally occupied with man as man was with God. They were so bound to each other that to the Romantic poets and scientific rationalists who came in with the Age of Reason, God and man seemed born of each other. No wonder that the Puritans in the wilderness, lacking everything but God, were confident to the last that they knew God’s mind.
The people who were soon to distance themselves from primitive New England, to call themselves “Americans” and to expand until they were all over the continent, had to be restless optimists, boosters and boasters always on the go. The writers who stood slightly apart inherited Calvinism with their distrust of human nature.
What Kazin appears to be describing is the origin of an ongoing tension between, on the one part, a populace whose reaction to its Calvinist roots was to cultivate a certain lack of self-awareness and, on the other, its serious writers, whose role as authentic inheritors of the Calvinist tradition of moral introspection was to refuse them that luxury.
Thus “the individual’s high sense of himself so famous in the American character” developed out of a psychological need permanently at odds with a literary culture that would always be pessimistic, conscientiously self-critical, and on the lookout for the depravity inherent in human nature.
Kazin finds a passage incorporating both attitudes, written in the years before the two tendencies separated themselves, in Increase Mather’s “The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation.”
Consider…that some of us are under special advantage to understand these mysterious truths of God; that is to say, such of us as are in an exiled condition in this wilderness…. God hath led us into a wilderness, and surely it was not because the Lord hated us but because he loved us that he brought us into this Jeshimon….
Since then we have not quite been so sure. But the tension around the question has provided the best and most honest of American writing with a level of elemental moral concern that can seem naive to readers far removed from it, including many contemporary Americans. In his brief survey of early poets like Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor, Kazin detects a self-annihilating mysticism that already seems to be breaking away from nascent Yankee positivism.
Who spake all things from nothing;
And with ease,
Can speak all things to nothing, if he please.
This “‘naive’ devotion on the part of God-enraptured solitaries,” Kazin says, “in a society still colonial could not absorb what Alfred North Whitehead called ‘the century of genius’—the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century taking place in their old homeland.” The general rate of literacy of the American settlers was among the highest in the world, rivaled only by that of certain bibliolatrous parts of Britain like the Scottish Lowlands. But the necessities of physical survival led to a society whose proficiency at technical improvisation and practical craft soon outstripped its thoughtful and subversive literature in importance.
One of the most profound works of self-examination in American letters is a work not cited by Kazin, though the historian Richard Slotkin celebrates it at length as an “archetype” in his classic Regeneration Through Violence. It is the first, or at least one of the earliest, examples of a dark mythic element in American writing, the captivity narrative. Its author was a woman named Mary Rowlandson; her work was entitled The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed.
The book was first published in 1682 and underwent many printings over the years, both in the colonies and in London. In his examination of Rowlandson’s book, Slotkin draws parallels between it and other Puritan classics like Michael Wigglesworth’s fearsome theological poem Day of Doom and Jonathan Edwards’s similarly terrifying Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. The Soveraignty and Goodness of God may be fairly held to stand as the progenitor and prototype of a long line of American poetry and prose. It was America’s first international best seller. Though it is not fiction, it is a work whose structure and symbolism connect it to the moral imagination and the psychological core of the nation that produced it.
Mrs. Rowlandson, the wife of the minister at Lancaster, Massachusetts, was captured by the Narraganset Indians during King Philip’s War in 1676, along with her two children. During eleven weeks of winter captivity, her youngest, a baby, died and she became separated from her elder child. Ransomed and returned to Lancaster, Goodwife Rowlandson commenced to deal with the experience in a way which may now seem to us essentially American.
For one thing, in an age where women, if literate, were generally expected to endure in silence, she wrote about it. In passionate, plain, but stately English that rivaled her era’s most inspired preaching, she laid her agonized questions before the reader, demanding, Job-like, an explanation from her own religious understanding for the experience of her own degradation and the loss of her baby. How American it seems in retrospect, this confessional impulse, the assertion of self, the insistence on justification.
She had been guilty of pride, Mary Rowlandson concludes in her book, prideful in her confidence of rectitude. Thus God, in his appalling mercy, caused her faith to be tried, her baby to die, her Englishness, frock, bonnet, and all, to be stripped away until she was a starveling in a blanket, the lowest of creatures.
She had always despised the Indians, pagans, children of hell, who lived for their appetites. So unlike, she had always believed, herself, an Englishwoman, and better than mere English, reformed-English Puritan, raised to the word of God.
But God, by striking her down, had made her understand that nothing about her was superior to the Indians she despised. Only God’s ineffable, incomprehensible grace made any difference.
Then I went to another Wigwam where there were two of the English Children…. [An Indian woman] cut me off a piece [of meat] and gave one of the English Children a piece also. Being very hungry I had quickly eaten up mine, but the child could not bite it, it was so tough and sinewy, but lay sucking, gnawing, chewing and slabbering of it in the mouth and hand, then I took it of the Child and eat it myself, and it was savoury to my taste. Then I may say as Job, chapter vi., 7. The things that my soul refused to touch are as my sorrowful meat.
It was a dreadful moment, taking food from the mouths of other women’s children. She had always secretly wanted to have God test her faith. Being tested, she finds herself a beast, in absolute dependence. “I have seen,” she wrote, “the extreme vanity of the world.”
The informing spirit of Mary Rowlandson’s journal, its antiheroic, self-questioning and self-despising embrace of the mystery of survival, its affirmation of a dark brotherhood of suffering and dependence on a perversely, cruelly merciful Providence, would be the prototype for innumerable works of American literature. Nearly three hundred years later Flannery O’Connor would reprise it to electrifying effect in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Even on the screen, in John Ford’s The Searchers—in which John Wayne thinks his niece must have been defiled by the Comanches who kidnapped her—the captivity narrative, still trailing the last strands of its Calvinist mystery and contradictions, would endure, an ongoing American epic.
Though he leaves out Rowlandson, Kazin discusses other colonial roots of American letters, and he locates them, quite properly, in the soil of New England. In this brooding, speculative “New England,” the faith was transformed by its marginal, pilgrim believers, somewhat in the way that Persianized Shia became the repository of innovative, mystical, and sometimes heterodox elements in Islam. American colonial Puritans, literate and forever in search of “justification,” were, like Goodwife Rowlandson, great practitioners of the personal narrative, and a case can be made for this tendency as one source, a uniquely native one, of the American novel.
Thomas Jefferson, something of a man of letters in his own right, was an Enlightenment rationalist and an anticlerical, given to referring to the clergy, who as a class despised him, as “the priests.” It was he, the chief patriarch of the nation, who foresaw Unitarianism as the appropriate religion for the new country he had helped to create, and anticipated the denomination’s playing that role. In the light of Jefferson’s expectations and the actual results of our religious history, it is interesting to consider the contrast Kazin presents between Hawthorne and Emerson, two heirs of Puritanism, who labored all their lives in its shadow.
Emerson, one might think, was the national philosopher after Jefferson’s heart. An ordained Unitarian minister who renounced his pulpit, his doctrines are often summarized under the rubric “self-reliance,” a term since fossilized into the high-flown rhetoric of our inspirational self-definition, one of the things we like to think of ourselves as embodying.
“[Man] learns that his being is without bound,” Kazin quotes from the philosopher’s address to the students of the Harvard Divinity School in July 1838, “that to the good, to the perfect, he is born, low as he now lies in evil and weakness.”
In that declaration, delivered after Emerson had already left the ministry, Calvinism forces its way through the far side of night, leaving behind the terrors and pessimism of narrow pre-destination and realizing its positive potential. The Puritan heritage has born fruit in the message of that “refulgent summer” and produced a transcendent insight.
Kazin finds a particularly ambiguous quote from John Jay Chapman, a critic who he says “deeply admired” Emerson: “If a soul be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson.”
One day “self-reliance” would be vulgarized as the power of positive thinking and debased into the “can-do” spirit. But Emerson’s positivism would also equip the country with a certain resourcefulness and progressiveness that—many steps forward, more than a few back—would always offer hope. Its moral authority, rooted in Calvinist speculation, would never disappear. Still, the subtler aspects of this doctrine were rooted in Emerson’s personality and intellect and, Kazin writes, could not endure deprived of them.
At the other end of Concord, “the far end of our village,” lived another heir of the Puritans, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Emerson had no time for fiction (leading the way there, as in so many other things); Hawthorne had little time for Emerson, whom he seems to have regarded as vaguely ridiculous. If one had transcended religious belief with pantheistic faith, the other was a plain unbeliever. But Hawthorne was one of those unbelieving American writers who never cease to writhe under the internalized scrutiny of the Calvinist or Jewish or Jansenist God, who are condemned to endure the estrangement and loss and guilt of faithlessness all their days but whose religious inheritance is never more than an unsated thirst. It was the making of him as a writer, Kazin observes, and of course his slow undoing as a man.
In two chapters, “Christians and Their Slaves” and “Lincoln: The Almighty Has His Own Purposes,” Kazin examines the role of American Protestantism in the abolitionist movement and that movement’s consummation in the Civil War. His analysis is the familiar one and anti-revisionist: that the prevailing direction of the neo-Calvinist tradition brought about the end of slavery through a consciously religious crusade. With the erudition and instinct for the relevant quote he always brings to bear, Kazin offers the words of the chief justice of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in delivering the verdict that ended slavery in that state in 1783, just after the success of the Revolution.
…A different idea has taken place with the people of America, more favorable to the natural rights of mankind, and to that natural, innate, desire of Liberty, with which Heaven (without regard to color, complexion, or shape of noses) has inspired all the human race.
The diction is that of the Enlightment but, as time passed, the religious aspect assumed a larger and larger role. It became, as Kazin points out, a commonplace for supporters of John Brown to invoke the traditions of militant Puritanism in the Kansas border wars and to speak of Brown as another Cromwell. Preachers like Henry Ward Beecher and the clerical abolitionists dwelt not only on the un-Christian cruelties of slavery but on the paganizing, spiritual corruption with which the institution infected the slave owners and their families.
In 1852, Reverend Beecher’s daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe would publish Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book whose pervasive religiosity served to inflame the South, then on its own way to becoming the Bible Belt. This preemption of Protestant moralizing by the Yankees was particularly infuriating in Dixie, where the Cavalier skepticism of the Tidewater gentry was giving way to an Ulster-derived militant Calvinism with its own millenarian enthusiasm.
It is hard to cite a novel in the nineteenth century so unashamedly Christological and so politically explosive as Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On meeting her, Lincoln, whose mildly hyperbolic irony was always a vehicle of truth, famously declared, “This is the little lady who brought about the great big war.” And she herself in later life would declare, with a singular presumptuous modesty, of the book: “I did not write it. God wrote it. I merely did His dictation.”
There is no question that Lincoln, with his sure sense of sound and his gift for the lambent phrase, was an American writer of great gifts. Kazin calls his second inaugural address a work of “literary genius.” What he was not, however, was temperamentally religious, and the passage he made from canny, ambitious, and politically moderate railroad lawyer to world-historical figure is, in Kazin’s rather traditional but convincing interpretation, an inspiring one. The more Lincoln came to understand what was at stake in the war for the Union, particularly when his generals nearly led him and the country to the defeat that international powers gleefully anticipated, the more he seemed to sense the moral forces engaged in the struggle.
Toward the end, when he realized that his war for the status quo was in fact a revolution, when, after Gettysburg, the vision of nothing less than “a new birth of freedom” impelled him, he seems, Kazin writes, to have come to believe that the source of universal human rights was somehow transcendent; they were not based on an arrangement of law and precedent but were somehow actually endowed by a creator, and henceforth available to all humanity. History made him live out the ideals he had absorbed in his boyhood. More than anyone, he needed a God to help him and though he was driven to the language of faith, he never appears to have truly experienced one.
A rationalist and a bit of a scoffer, he ironically became, unwittingly, the founder of the American civil religion as well as its first saint and martyr. It was a creed fashioned out of language. We invoke him continually not because he was a successful politician and war leader but because he was a great writer.
Kazin offers Whitman in his familiar role as force of nature, American self-confidence and nature worship itself.
Like so many of his countrymen in the nineteenth century, Whitman was drenched in religion; he positively swam in it, without having to believe in much of it. There was no personal God. He was not a Christian.
But Whitman had a number of transforming experiences in his career. One of the most significant, which Kazin does not mention, was his service as a nurse in Virginia and Washington during what proved to be the final days of primitive medicine. Specimen Days is the work of a darker Whitman than the poet of whom we often think. His remark in it, “The story of the real war will never be told,” has a curiously modern ring and reminds us that, almost alone among the figures in Kazin’s book, Whitman, by virtue of the terrible things he had seen after Chancellorsville and elsewhere, qualified as a war veteran, and in that regard had lost his innocence in a way that many of his contemporaries never did.
Kazin goes a long way toward making Herman Melville, our perplexing national prophet, comprehensible by his sense of Melville’s sad life. Melville is a writer whose personal history usually distracts from examination of his work, which can be runic and curiously circular. How many students have puzzled over “Bartleby”? The clerk’s resistance to the process of incorporation, his apparently mindless refusal to be usefully industrialized, is puzzling until we see it as a prophecy of the America to come after the Civil War. Moby-Dick, his great work, is notable for its protagonist’s rage at God and fate. Its origins are, of course, in Melville’s “astonished reading of Shakespeare,” as Kazin puts it, but also philosophically, in Milton. But Milton’s Satan achieves his grandeur almost against the poet’s pious will; Ahab is a self-conscious Prometheus, determined to strike “through the mask,” to “strike the sun if it wronged me.” One might think that a novel in which the hero sets out to kill God might cause something of a scandal in so godly a country as the United States. Americans, too busy or following Emerson, barely noticed.
Interestingly there is another aspect of Moby-Dick, what might be called its prophetic side, that Kazin does not discuss. If the whale is God and Fate, mindless and cruel, so it also is nature innocent and pure in its whiteness—evil in American eyes for its refusal to submit to the “can-do” spirit, to be tamed, commercialized, transformed into corsets and oil. Thus Ahab becomes a particularly American Prometheus and the whale a literary relative of Bartleby, the unaccommodating.
Of Emily Dickinson, plainly his darling and to his mind “the most penetrating intellect” among American writers, Kazin gives this summary:
Religion was habitually at the center of her intelligence, but God was alone in her thought, another “character” in her universe, popping up from time to time because she had no name but “God” for so much power over her life, so many promises, so much remoteness.
Hawthorne, Emerson, and Stowe had at least this in common: each had a belief consistent with itself. Melville drove himself near crazy, “not able either to believe or disbelieve.” After them, God, though not yet “dead,” was to be taken or to be left just as you please. The question of His reality was no longer a burning one. For Dickinson the question did not come up, since God and the absence of God, the mercy of God and the horror of God haunted her thought just as death did. Her starting point was always mortality and her protest against it. She never got over the impermanence of everything she saw, the fragility of human relationships, the flight of the seasons, the taste of death in winter. But God, if only as a name, a tradition, a hope, a symbol, a word so recurrent that we no longer ask where it came from, was her association with immortality. He had been around so long that doubting His existence or justifying it had the same resonance in words. The language of her poetry, wavelike and whirling, made it easier to deal with our life in His shadow than religion did. He had so many faces (and often no face at all) from poem to poem:
Of Course—I prayed—
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird—had stamped her foot—
And cried “Give Me”—
Ihad not had but for Yourself.
His essay on her and her poetry, which stands in many senses midway between Mary Rowlandson and ourselves, is the best thing in Kazin’s book. From it he takes the typically Dickinsonian tag that is the epigraph for his prelude.
We thank thee, Father, for these strange minds that enamor us against thee.
His conclusion about Dickinson brings together the elements of desperation and acceptance he finds in her:
At times she was unhinged. One of her greatest poems describes herself at the close as “wrecked, solitary, here.” But finally accepting her life (if she ever did accept it) as the round of life she had always lived—it left her free to write, positively impelled her to write—she was able to make some supreme poems out of the return of the seasons, the fall of night, the spring of birds, “the angle of a landscape,” the leaves that “like women interchange”:
There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints
Kazin emphasizes the affection in which William James was held by everyone who knew him. James seems to have been the kind of necessary figure who does not necessarily appear on demand. When James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, the intellectual and scientific community in this country was turning with some violence against religious tradition. On the other hand, American tub-thumping evangelism was spreading quickly, particularly in the wake of the millenarianism imported by the English preacher John Nelson Darby (whose doctrines occasionally startle the unsuspecting American public in the mouths of various Republican conservatives and live in the preachments of Pat Robertson). The eloquent tolerance, generosity, and understanding in James’s Varieties argued the irreplaceability of the religious impulse and provided a compass to many lost in bitterness and controversy. It was James who defined the “once-born” and “twice-born” religious typology, “the idea,” as Kazin puts it, “of giving ourselves the second chance in life of which conversion is the paradigm.” Besides being America’s greatest work of nonfiction, Varieties is a useful prism through which the religiously indifferent may understand the strivings of the people with whom they have to share the country, people for whom religion is very life. James, Kazin writes, “wins us as a fellow soul, not as a believer. Which is ironic, since the most impressive case histories he presents are those for whom faith came to be as real as the personal hell from which they were delivered.”
“In the frenzied years of sudden opportunity after the Civil War, a self-declared and self-promoting type emerged from the West calling himself the real and only true ‘American.”‘
Thus Kazin introduces Mark Twain, with the writer in the role of obstreperous galoot. Kazin does not like Twain or most of his work very much; perhaps for this reason his essay on the comic Foxy Grandpa of the Gilded Age is one of the most interesting and original in his book.
To Kazin, Twain at the outset of his career embodied the lost illusions of the post-bellum nation, the opportunism, the compromise, the hypocrisy. Twain despised not only organized religion but religious faith itself, although he was careful, in an increasingly conformist era, never to quite let the depths of his loathing show, to keep it light. His one religious impulse was to employ (in vain) a faith healer when his beloved daughter was dying. It was a tragic confirmation of Chesterton’s dictum that the man who believes nothing ends by believing anything, and the embittered Twain never forgave himself for the lapse.
In his chapter on Twain Kazin demonstrates continually how much he seemed of his period and his newly, arrogantly on-the-make nation. Two things, familiar to us now, distinguish him in Kazin’s portrait: his avidity for money and his compulsion to clean up the messy American life he’d left behind.
…He [Twain] was created by the New World when it was still really new, and as “Mark Twain” (a name he patented), genius, greed, and all, he returned the compliment by turning America into an emblem of itself.
His life and its compromises drove him to a bitterness he did his best to repress in public; he held back much of his truly iconoclastic work for posthumous publication. The satire published in his lifetime was directed at acceptable targets, though he sometimes took on, indirectly, the Calvinist God he had learned to hate in his youth.
Twain, Kazin tells us, “was consumed by the dream of big (but big) money.” And his The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was a sanitizing, an idealization—even an exorcising of his boyhood on the Mississippi. His masterpiece, the world knows, was Huckleberry Finn and Kazin concurs, although the book’s conclusion is slightly spoiled for him (and for many others, too) when Tom Sawyer appears toward the end. Twain, Kazin says, was always Tom, the sharpie who gets away with it, never Huck, the outlaw adventurer he imagined, who somehow outstrips in wisdom his creator.
Also brilliant is Kazin’s perceptive study of T.S. Eliot. The scion of a New England Unitarian family, Eliot turned utterly from the spiritual adventurousness and Yankee independence that was his birthright, aspiring to a level of serene High Englishness that was already disappearing in its native sceptered isle. Eliot’s God, in Kazin’s view, was a Being the poet sought to rescue from His Own slightly vulgar universality, best contemplated between the Gothic imposts of the Church of England. The Incarnation, Kazin suggests, was emphasized by Eliot because it was un-Unitarian, useful as a dogmatic shibboleth and an instrument of exclusion. Otherwise a humanized Christ seemed to him to represent an excess of condescension on the part of the deity.
In Eliot’s Anglicanism, Kazin finds exotic social posturing, an escape to an imaginary hierarchical anti-historical Europe. Religion can be for some writers an inescapable shadow, for others a stage prop, and it can be either without any conscious insincerity on the part of the writer. Eliot’s, Kazin makes clear, was a prop and spiritually soiled by “vile” anti-Semitism which was no mere aristocratic lapse but something expressed by startling outbursts of what can only be called hatred. Yet, Kazin’s esteem is plain. He quotes perhaps more liberally from Eliot than from any of his other subjects:
Poetry was everything to him, for poetry alone could display the “bits and pieces” that he saw the modern world reflecting in himself, the “many voices” in the disordered modern world he was to echo in the interstices of consciousness. Poetry organized the fragments of being and triumphed over them through its supremacy as sound.
This, finally, is high praise for a poet, the incantatory murmur of whose best lines is plainly irresistible to a great modernist critic, though Kazin is not indulgent of Eliot where he finds moral lapses infecting the verse.
Four Quartets is for me the great elegy that Eliot wrote in order to forgive himself at last. So much is forgiven, or can happily be overlooked. What has so long been divided in himself is now united—as in the Incarnation of God in man. In “The Dry Salvages” Eliot wrote in rapture of the Incarnation, “Here the impossible union/Of spheres of existence is actual.”
All this follows from the ambiguity Eliot set out to resolve. And so he did, in the most beautiful music:
All manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
Robert Frost, Kazin says, was of a “…species where people were harder, more fundamental, and not afraid to suffer.” He was a tough old bird: “…’Courage’ was his highest personal ideal” and “‘strength’ was his test of a man and his opinions.” These are qualities not too often uttered these days on the self-realization circuit, but they were very central to Frost’s work. Reading him, we know he believed it required much strength and courage to simply go on living and how often he doubted his own.
Frost, Kazin tells us, “in later life was to toss the idea of God up and down like a ball—it was always something to play with.” Some of his quasi-metaphysical endings seem to dabble in a piety “all too agreeable to future audiences still hoping for a moral.”
Here Kazin cites the last lines of “The Tuft of Flowers” in which “Frost feels in the mysterious mower ‘a spirit kindred to my own;/So that henceforth I worked no more alone.” Yet at its core, Kazin concludes, Frost’s work can be seen as embodying a Calvinism laboring “under some snow-white/ Minerva’s snow-white marble eyes… Without the gift of sight.”
On Faulkner, in the book’s last essay, Kazin writes:
Because I think of religion as the most intimate expression of the human heart, as the most secret of personal confessions, where we admit to ourselves alone our fears and our losses, our sense of holy dread and our awe before the unflagging power of a universe that regards us indeed of ‘no account,’ I find it hard to think of Faulkner confiding in a personal God.
But Faulkner’s South is so God-ridden, his characters are so prone to look above and within for the Presence who seems more often to curse than bless their lives, that it is hard to consider his writing without reference to religion. Kazin seems to me right about Faulkner’s own distance from a personal God and right as well about the way religious figures and symbols keep turning up in his work. A race of winners consigned to defeat, the Southern men in Faulkner are as maddened as Job, as sacrificial as Christ. Jason Compson’s rantings against the Almighty, and the character of Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, and Joe Christmas in Light in August, suggest a darkly transcendent dimension, perhaps a God whose dwelling is no more than a higher Hell than the one they inhabit, a Memphis brothel as Paradise to the shadowed land they inhabit. Invoked, the deity appears as “the Player,” “the blind dice man.” It’s a short theomorphic jump to heroin as God, the Connection.
Kazin has taken the God-infused, post-Calvinist literature of America as his own. He has served and attended it through fads, renunciations, and redefinitions on the part of many others, never wavering in his irreplaceable common sense, his love for the subject, his insight. He has written much to identify himself as a Jew, the child of immigrants, raided to a new country. His long career proclaims an affinity among the People of the Book that made the Puritan tradition in America congenial to many like him, a tradition they could claim as birthright simply by recognizing it. Exponent is too cold a word for the relationship of Kazin and American letters. Apostle is more like it.
March 26, 1998