Book Reviews

Our Country, Our Critic

When so many of his Jewish intellectual contemporaries hustled over to the right, what kept Alfred Kazin on the left?

By Christopher Byrd

Tagged Alfred Kazin

Alfred Kazin’s Journals Edited by Richard M. Cook • Yale University Press • 2011 • 632 pages • $45

On the last day of summer, I left my apartment in Clinton Hill and went east, deeper into Brooklyn than I’d ever ventured. I’m accustomed to a certain degree of urban density; I felt an unfamiliar giddiness as the commercial real estate receded and a desolate expansiveness set in. Touches of refinement stood out intermittently, such as the churchlike portico that embellished the side of one of the projects.

It was balmy when I exited the Rockaway Avenue station in the Brownsville neighborhood. I was struck by the fact that everyone I saw was black. In a city as international as New York, I’m rarely in a place where everyone shares my ethnicity. It didn’t take long to reach my destination, a small brick house at 256 Sutter Avenue. There wasn’t much to see—no discernible plaque or marker to indicate that at this address the memoirist and critic Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) had grown up. But even if the neighborhood doesn’t remember him, he never forgot it: It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this neighborhood, once home to a bustling immigrant Jewish community, to the formation of Kazin’s character. Thirty-six years after he’d moved out of his parents’ third-floor flat—when he married the first of his eventual four wives in October 1938—he would confide in his journal that “Brownsville is the road which every other road in my life has had to cross.”

Haunted by memories of his early lower-class existence, Kazin meditated throughout his life on the subjects of poverty, community, social mobility, and what it means to be a minority group member in America. These concerns would embolden his literary criticism as well as his major autobiographical works: A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and New York Jew (1978). In addition to these chronicles, he also published A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment: From the Journals of Alfred Kazin (1996), whose gorgeous title is derived from “East Coker,” the second of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment

As University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Richard M. Cook pointed out in his book, Alfred Kazin: A Biography (2007), “Lifetime is not a book of ‘untouched candid shots’ of a writer’s life but a self-portrait,” with its “heavy revision of selected (and undated) journal entries.” Unsatisfied with the results of Kazin’s pruning, Cook undertook the daunting task of editing Kazin’s voluminous journals, which stretched back to the early 1930s and stopped shortly before the end of his life. The result, Alfred Kazin’s Journals, is fascinating, unzipped, and unavoidably tedious in its presentation of an exceptional mind groping to understand itself and its environment.

Readers of Kazin’s journals will see that he was familiar with baser impulses. He could be arrogant (“I love my worldliness, my snobbery, my ease”); prejudiced (“I’ve always felt instinctively that Latin America is the ass-hole of the universe”); resentful (“I can never lose the feeling that there is some great party going on to which I have not been invited”); and, as expected from a habitual womanizer, licentious (“I am an ‘Oedipal’ case, considering my lifelong fantasies of making it with married women, with displacing the husband, even humiliating him in front of me as I make love to his wife”). That said, Kazin, unlike several of his contemporaries, never severed his proletarian roots and never stopped thinking about, as he put it in 1989, “the aspiration and torment of democracy” embodied in the New York City of his youth.

Kazin was the first of two children born to immigrants from Minsk. His sister, Pearl, was born in 1922. (She also became a literary critic as well as the wife of the famed Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell.) His mother, Gita, was a dressmaker who worked incessantly to support her family. His father, Gedahlia (“Charles”), was a dolorous housepainter who, like his son, was fond of taking long, solitary walks. In the Depression years, he could seldom find work. Like many a father of his generation and background, he inculcated in Alfred a thirst for socialist reform, sometimes taking him into Manhattan to attend meetings at the Jewish Daily Forward building on East Broadway.

In the tide of the postwar years, as capitalism flourished, Kazin would reconcile himself to the vanishing prospects of the United States embracing a sweeping political transformation. In contrast with other prominent Jewish intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, he did so without relinquishing a personal idealism founded on socialist principles. Dwelling on the political atmosphere in his youth, Kazin, in two journal entries from the spring of 1991, noted:

What I can never get over, remembering Brownsville in full, was the sublime, the ever-credulous, the unbelievably universalizing idealism of those poor Jews—so long as they were Socialists…. In my youth, our hearts were touched with fire. Something in our poor old tenement Jewish life, uplifted by the ideals and energy of the Jewish labor movement and the messianism of our fathers’ primitive Bund Socialism, gave me images of value I have never lost.

As in many immigrant Jewish households, politics and education worked in concert. Both were avenues one pursued to ameliorate a hardscrabble existence. In A Walker in the City, Kazin famously captured how his parents lived vicariously through their offspring:

Anything less than absolute perfection in school always suggested to my mind that I might fall out of the daily race, be kept back in the working class forever, or—dared I think of it?—fall into the criminal class itself…. It was not for myself alone that I was expected to shine, but for [my parents]—to redeem the constant anxiety of their existence…. I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being—what they were.

Like a number of his other Jewish intellectual contemporaries—such as Bell and Irving Howe—Kazin grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home. One of the decisive crucibles of his early years was learning to negotiate the cultural divide between home life and grade school. His teachers emphasized “Americanization”—the instilling of “correct” speech and mores deemed appropriate for respectable life. Compounding his anxieties, Kazin suffered from a severe stammer (which he eventually shed after he began publishing). One needn’t indulge in too much armchair psychology to see how the pressures of school and close-quartered tenement life, coupled with his parents’ social maladroitness, steered Kazin toward introversion and the “tyrannical fluency” that he would eventually come by in his writing.

Books provided a measure of solace. From an early age, Kazin took to reading like an invalid to a promising new treatment. He and his sister obtained multiple library cards to circumvent restrictions on the number of books they could check out. His assiduous reading habits boosted his confidence in his ability to mete out critical judgments. At 19, in a near-legendary display of literary bravado, he walked into The New York Times and confronted John Chamberlain, the paper’s daily literary columnist, about an article he’d written on a book purporting to give insight into the problems of America’s youth. Taking exception to what he perceived as Chamberlain’s abstract, avuncular tone, Kazin—then a student at City College—lectured the Yale graduate on what was really going on. Dazzled by his impetuousness, Chamberlain acceded to Kazin’s impromptu request to help him find summer employment. He dashed out a note for him to take down to the offices of The New Republic. It worked. In September 1934, Kazin’s first book review appeared, in an issue that featured the first installment of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station.

Writing would be the vehicle that would propel Kazin out of his familiar milieu. Yet long after he’d rocketed into the upper echelons of the cultured class, he still felt the imprint of his ghetto youth, which he wasn’t above flaunting. In March 1984, he wrote in his journal: “I am no gentleman, nor do I wish to become one. A gentleman, however, has this advantage over a savage like me in that he never makes a mistake in public…. ”

In 1938, when he was just 23, Kazin set about working on the book that would make him famous. The germ for it came from a suggestion he received from the brother of one of his instructors at Columbia, where he’d enrolled the previous year to obtain a master’s degree in history. Carl Van Doren, an adviser to the publishing house of Reynal and Hitchcock, had been following Kazin’s book reviews and encouraged him to write a book on contemporary literary history. The result of four-and-a half years of unremitting labor, On Native Grounds was a stunning monument of cultural assimilation. In a journal entry from August 1976, Kazin observed, “Writing On Native Grounds felt to me—to us—to be a political act. The country was on the move—we were on the move. We were learning America.

On Native Grounds endeavored to tell the moral history of how American literature, from the late nineteenth century on, had responded to fluctuations in the country’s democracy. Kazin began his narrative with a chapter entitled “The Opening Struggle for Realism,” in which he makes a number of assertions that, as valid as they may be, underscored Oscar Wilde’s maxim that “the highest criticism” is “the record of one’s own soul.” To illustrate: “[R]ealism in [American fiction] grew out of the bewilderment, and thrived on the simple grimness, of a generation suddenly brought face to face with the pervasive materialism of industrial capitalism.” “Who is there to deny that for fifty years the ethos of American literature at its best has been resignation, attack, escape, but so rarely acceptance… a tradition of enmity to the established order… a profound alienation from it?” “Nowhere have writers learned with such difficulty and in such violent spasms.”

The publication of the book in 1942 could scarcely have come at a more fortuitous time. World War II had reignited patriotic feelings across the country. Not only were Americans interested in learning about themselves, but Europeans were as well. And Kazin, cresting on the success of his book, would become an ambassador of American literature abroad, giving lectures and attending conferences.

Postwar prosperity paid dividends to the rising class of Jewish intellectuals that had leveraged itself out of the working class by dint of intellectual firepower. Magazines such as Time, Fortune, and The New Yorker were on the lookout for young talent; restrictions on hiring Jewish faculty at America’s top-tier universities had slackened. Responding to this new, commodious environment, Kazin wrote in his journal in January 1948 that he was:

Struck more and more by the extent to which the technical ease and power of American life support without their seeming fully to realize it as a living fact in their own lives a good many intellectuals…. In proportion, as these people are made free by their environment they become unable and unwilling to study it fully. But then, only a society which is struggling against some pressures from below is capable of basic revolutionary and social thought, and this pressure does not exist in America today. Protest is turned inward: the individual is all the more conscious of himself, of his frailty, his “happiness” and fate: as he is given the opportunity to be so self-absorbed.

He, too, availed himself of the opportunities that flowed his way, taking teaching positions at Harvard, Smith, Amherst, and a number of other institutions. But he oscillated between feeling like an outsider and an insider. He was unsettled by the strident nationalism that took hold of America in the wake of World War II, when anti-Communist fervor was on the upswing.

Kazin paid close attention to his peers who’d discarded their Depression-era leftist sympathies. He watched as former fellow travelers, like the philosopher Sidney Hook, committed themselves to a brand of militant anti-Communism. In Starting Out in the Thirties, he opined that former radicals tended to change their allegiances, but not their temperaments:

Critical intelligence, the old-fashioned kind based on solid moral conceptions, on history as the record of man’s progress, was what dominated these ex-radicals;…. In the years to come… they would flirt with the most nationalistic and aggressively “realistic” positions. None of these excursions changed them; they would always remain radical intellectuals, dedicated to the better world that only intellectuals had imagined to be possible in practice. After the war, when concrete political issues exploded again, the radical tradition was to become more dynamic than it looked in 1940, in the depths of our defeat. But what would never come back… was the faith in a wholly new society that had been implicit in the revolutionary ideal.

As the Cold War dragged on, Kazin grew increasingly dismayed by New York intellectuals who swung further and further to the right. His disgust reached its peak with the flowering of the neoconservative movement and the election of Ronald Reagan. Having once been on friendly terms with some of the so-called refugees from the left—chiefly Kristol and Norman Podhoretz—Kazin believed that he was well equipped to expound on the neoconservative imagination. He wrote to Daniel Bell, “Only a few of us know that some horribly reactionary national policies were actually born, long, long ago, in the violent debates between radicals dominating the City College Alcoves.”

Kazin went on the offensive in pieces like “Saving My Soul at the Plaza,” published in The New York Review of Books in 1983. The occasion for the article was a two-day symposium, “Our Country and Our Culture,” held at the Plaza Hotel in February 1983. Attendees were treated to discussions on topics like anti-Americanism in contemporary American literature and the destructive lack of patriotism in the liberal media. Kazin used his knowledge of the personal backgrounds of the central figures at the conference to show how far the editors of publications like Commentary, The Public Interest, and The New Criterion had traveled from their leftist political origins to embrace, and be embraced, by conservative institutions and corporations.

At the conference, Podhoretz remarked, “We are the dominant faction within the world of ideas—the most influential—the most powerful…. By now the liberal culture has to appease us…. People like us made Reagan’s victory, which had been considered unthinkable.” Marveling at what a little power can do, Kazin wrote:

I thought back to that less militant time when Podhoretz, though still a “liberal” and a fervent opponent of the war in Asia… said to me about his accession to the editorship of Commentary: “I never knew power could be so pleasant.” But mostly I wondered what had led this ambitious man to such delusion about his importance, to so much paranoia about the “liberal enemy,” to so much heartlessness in a world where the evidence of wretchedness on the streets of New York north and west of the Plaza would once have been enough to jar someone who had grown up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

Alas, time would prove Podhoretz right. From the perspective of the present, one need only observe our continual rightward lurches to recognize the repeated concessions liberals have made while conservatives have yielded little ground in return.

In July 1991, Kazin was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he’d manage to keep at bay until he died, on his 83rd birthday, on June 5, 1998. In what could well be taken as a summary of his literary ethos, he wrote in his journal in September 1991: “I always thought of literature as the prime form of education…. It was not so much the great books, or the supposed masterpieces, but what went on between writer and reader as a form of transmission that somehow had in it the possibility of human regeneration, of action toward some resolution of the eternal problems of life.”

In my 35 years, I’ve read many literary critics. But none until Kazin has led me to put down a book and go explore a generally shunned area. For that I’m abundantly grateful. During my time in Brownsville, I tried to picture what it was like during Kazin’s youth, when a spirit of confidence and civic optimism circulated in his community. As I walked past a phalanx of police officers, I wondered if the neighborhood in its current incarnation could give birth to another writer of Kazin’s stature anytime soon. After I returned home, I recalled this passage from New York Jew in which Kazin moved beyond lamenting the fate of the residents who succeeded the Jews by issuing a rallying cry and a challenge that is as pertinent now as it was more than three decades ago:

My parents still lived in the same Brownsville tenement…. They were as poor and isolated from America-at-large as the day they had met. They lived where they had always lived, and more and more they lived without hope. But now they were surrounded by poor blacks more than by poor Jews…. Brownsville was a foreign country now, a forbidden country to prospering Jews who had once lived there. It was a poison spot on the New York map even to the hundreds and thousands of blacks from the South wearily making it into the ghetto vacated by Jews. Walking back into the country of my birth, I felt separated from everything except my youth. The new mass-housing projects in Brownsville were like mass fortresses dropped in from Mars…. A sentimental Jewish librarian in the Brownsville Public Library, working with disoriented, frightened, and angry blacks “relocated” by the city into the tenements the Jews had fled, was outraged by the lack of will and fight among the new migrants being dumped into Brownsville. They should have been more “working-class,” more militant. They soon were—against her.

Read more about Alfred Kazin

Christopher Byrd lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian and The Washington Post.

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