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The ultimate self-doubter

Alfred Kazin

By Richard M. Cook

Yale University Press, 452 pages, $35

'I love to think about America," Alfred Kazin, 26, recorded in his journal in February 1942. He was finishing his canonical study of modern American literature, "On Native Grounds," written as he shuttled between his parents' Brownsville tenement in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Jewish Brooklyn (Kazin drafted sections on the kitchen table) and the cavernous Room 315 at the New York Public Library, imagined as the center of the universe. Richard M. Cook's empathic, absorbing biography of perhaps the foremost literary critic of the second half of the 20th Century faithfully chronicles the story of Kazin's journey out, beyond Brownsville, to the America of his dreams.

But Cook struggles to capture the emotional springs of Kazin's complex relation to "America as an idea" (as the young critic wrote in the last chapter of "On Native Grounds"). "I'm against the system, but crazy about the country," Kazin explained years later, reflecting at 80 about his career (he died at 83 in 1998) and his long-nourished resistance, as the faithful son of socialists, to the inequities wrought by American capitalism. The tension between his outsider status as a Jew among the gentiles (literary and academic) and his profound identification with the major figures of the American literary tradition -- their "terrible and graphic loneliness" -- created in Kazin an intensity of self-consciousness fueled by an orbiting ambition and deep reservoirs of resentment.

In the American tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, Kazin recorded his particular relation to the cultural moment. Starting out in the radical '30s, he felt "the age was with me." As he explained in 1986, "I had been keeping all my life, since boyhood, a voluminous daily journal or sketchbook, into which went everything that I felt like describing and thinking about." Over a lifetime of journal-keeping, Kazin confesses his manifold resentments, performs lacerating self-analysis, catalogs numerous love affairs and infidelities, comments on world affairs, composes "acid portraits," above all absorbs the world into the self. "Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have," he recognized in the mid-1940s.

Cook's challenge is to conjure Kazin's "unquenchable vitality" (in critic Morris Dickstein's apt description) and explain -- or attempt to theorize -- the relation between Kazin's private life and his achievement as a major critic in the tradition of Edmund Wilson, Kazin's hero. Based on my own experience and memories, "Alfred Kazin" reveals the limits of literary biography, the challenge of literary recuperation when the life has (more or less) already been narrated, set down, shaped by the subject himself, available in evocative memoirs like "A Walker in the City" (1951) and "New York Jew" (1978), or the vast archive of notebooks housed, fittingly, in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library.

Just over 30 years ago I spent an intense, unforgettable day with Alfred Kazin. In early December 1977, he had flown back to New York City from Stanford, Calif., where he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, for editorial meetings in advance of the spring publication of "New York Jew." Kazin had slipped on the ice on lower 6th Avenue and fractured his shoulder. A month later, after a series of operations to repair the damage, he was ready to be discharged from St. Vincent's Hospital. His friend Peter Shaw (my former mentor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where Kazin had taught from 1963-73) asked if I would pick up Kazin at St. Vincent's, help him retrieve his belongings from his flat on West 14th Street and drive him to the airport to return to California.

A generation later, what remains vivid about my encounter with Kazin was his complete and continuous engagement with the world. Nothing escaped his exuberant gaze, nothing eluded the pressure of his scrutiny. "I'm interested in everything!" he once told Dickstein. Like his generation of New York intellectuals, Kazin possessed what Irving Howe called a "mania for range."

When I arrived to fetch Kazin in the hospital ward, surrounded by his fellow patients in awe of his mastery (as he told me, chuckling over his sudden local fame) of the New York Times' crossword puzzle, I noted the famous notebooks on the hospital bed, the notebooks he had been keeping since the 1930s. Driving out to the airport, he interrogated everything around him. "The flow of his talk," Dickstein recalls, "was . . . full of humor, sarcasm, vivid recollection, and quick intelligence." Leaving Kazin at the curb, I felt drained by the sheer force of his personality, by his "utterly independent, endlessly speculative soul" -- as Kazin wrote about Emily Dickinson, one of the many 19th Century American writers, along with Emerson and Herman Melville, with whom he passionately identified. It was my own close encounter, face to face, with American literary history.

Thanks to Cook's exhaustive research -- synthesizing scores of interviews, distilling the thousands of words from the archive of Kazin's journals -- we now have a vivid chronology of the life of a major literary figure in the 20th Century. In its most revealing sections, "Alfred Kazin" conveys, through the impassioned, exclamatory energy of its subject's own voice, the nagging self-doubt, the chronic vulnerability and resentment -- registered over a lifetime -- Kazin felt as a Jew, feeling the claims of Brownsville, seeking entrance at the closed gates of the literary and academic Establishments.

Cook seeks to explain Kazin's bristling reaction to the "mannered" Jewish critics (like Lionel Trilling) who, in Kazin's eyes, affected a style of "guarded amiability": "To be a Jew and yet not Jewish." Struck by his obsession with Jews, Kazin, in a late '40s journal entry, would wonder at "my inner estrangements." As Cook explains, "the ironies and contradictions of his being a Jew and an American" in effect shaped, indeed structured, Kazin's deepest self.

Such bitter moments of self-consciousness marked his encounters as a young man with figures like Malcolm Cowley, the patrician literary editor of The New Republic (whom Kazin eventually succeeded). Meeting Cowley left Kazin with the uncomfortable sense of " 'being watched and judged. It struck me as being a question of manners.' " Cowley " 'radiated ease and sophistication,' " and he and his friend John Cheever showed an " 'inborn social sense' " that the would-be Jewish man of letters, still green from Brownsville, felt as an implicit rebuke. Later, during World War II, when Kazin was in England on assignment to write about soldier education (before he began an itinerant career teaching at various colleges and universities in the 1950s, Kazin was a freelance journalist and frequently sought-after book reviewer for major publications), Kazin saw himself, in the judging eyes of his British hosts, as a " 'Jew and American investigator, the outsider among all these fluted voices.' "

In response, it now seems, to his own identity as outsider, Kazin was drawn to those characters from great American novels -- Ishmael in Herman Melville's " Moby Dick," Joe Christmas in William Faulkner's "Light in August" among them -- who enact a mode of cosmic dissent in response to their outsider status. Kazin identified with figures of alienation, in flight from custom and the weight of tradition. Ishmael "is an estranged and solitary man," Kazin wrote in 1956. Christmas, he wrote in 1957, "is the most solitary character in American fiction; he remains "a silhouette, a dark shadow haunting others."

Kazin also appropriated -- transferred -- a similar mode of American defiance onto Jewish-America writers, whose work he championed and whose reputations he helped establish. Norman Mailer, Kazin observed, was "the most unassimilable Jew in American society." "Was [Kazin] assimilable?" Cook asks. "Did he want to be?"

But it was Saul Bellow, "the most watchful of Jewish sons," in Kazin's words, with whom he most identified. Bellow, Kazin observed in the mid-'60s, "challenges current ideologies. . . . Only Bellow among American Jewish writers gets to the heart of the Jewish experience and its mystery."

In one of the strongest sections of the biography, Cook narrates the personal and political drama of Kazin and Bellow's falling out, a break that began with Kazin's tough review of "Mr. Sammler's Planet" (1970). Kazin felt that Bellow's hero, a Holocaust survivor displaced on the mean streets of late-1960s New York, was self-righteous, "uncharitable, [and] morally arrogant." Their once-close relationship soured further in the wake of Bellow's turn, in Kazin's view, to neo-conservatism. "More than most Jewish intellectuals," Kazin sneered, equating the social vision of Bellow's novel with an emerging movement, "Mr. Sammler is right and has to be right all the time."

What's missing, finally, in "Alfred Kazin" is a deeper sense of its subject's engagement with what Kazin once termed "my long search for the meaning of Jewishness." Looking back, Kazin recognized that his Jewish self would always remain in limbo, at the mercy of "the push toward home and the pull away again." Perhaps unconsciously, Kazin associated the core American literary drama of flight and return with his longing, as immigrant son, for the enclosed world of Brownsville. In the extraordinary lyricism of "A Walker in the City" we discover the origins of Kazin's Jewish-American self: "Our tension itself was fire, we ourselves were forever burning -- to live, to get down the foreboding in our souls, to make good."

Reading Cook's biography, I am grateful for the facts of Kazin's life, the back story of his fabled journey from Brownsville to America. On that memorable day in January, however, on the icy streets of New York, I witnessed Kazin's Jewish fire. The experience remains indelible.


Donald Weber teaches English at Mt. Holyoke College and is the author of "Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture From Cahan to 'The Goldbergs.'"

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