Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, February 24, 2008


A Biography

By Richard M. Cook

Yale Univ. 452 pp. $35

For more than 50 years Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) was one of the best known critics in America. In 1934, at the age of 19, he started reviewing for the New Republic (under the literary editorship of Malcolm Cowley). In 1942, at only 27, Kazin published a masterly study of American literature, On Native Grounds. During the 1940s and '50s he contributed to Partisan Review, Commentary and the Reporter, as well as a host of other magazines. Just as important, throughout these years he steadily debated politics and literature with Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Sidney Hook, Lionel Abel, Newton Arvin, Cleanth Brooks, R.P. Blackmur, Leslie Fiedler, Mark Van Doren, Harold Rosenberg, Allen Tate, Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling. By the early 1960s he was, arguably, after Edmund Wilson, the country's leading man of letters.

And yet. Look at the names in that paragraph. How many do you recognize? If you are under 50, perhaps a couple. How many have you actually read? Probably just one: Edmund Wilson. It is a sad truth that almost any poet or novelist has a shot at immortality, but a critic lives only as long as he keeps writing, keeps in the thick of the action. A decade after his (or her) death, a loyal publisher may bring out a "selected essays" that will prompt a few reminiscences and reconsiderations. After another decade, nothing.

Kazin, however, is luckier than most. While he scratched out a living by writing book reviews, teaching at various colleges and universities, and snagging grants (four Guggenheims, numerous other fellowships and regular visits to the artist's retreat Yaddo), he also produced three wonderful works of autobiography, classics of the modern American experience:

A Walker in the City (1951) describes his childhood and education in New York's impoverished Brownsville neighborhood; it remains one of the great documents of Jewish-American immigrant life.

Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) recalls the ideological and literary battles of a decade racked by the Depression, the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and the darkening shadow of Stalinism. Yet grim as they were, the 1930s were also as exhilarating as the 1960s, full of intellectual intensity and passion: Socialism would surely change the world.

New York Jew (1978) strikes a more elegiac tone, as Kazin offers pen portraits of many of the leading figures of the postwar cultural scene. But now the young rebels and hotshots have grown old, become the mainstays of the establishment, even turned to the right.

While Richard M. Cook's excellent biography of Kazin does describe the genesis, character and reception of such books as On Native Grounds (1942), Bright Book of Life (1973) and An American Procession (1984), it also reveals a lonely, envious, restless man, riven by deep feeling and severe contradiction. Alfred Kazin was, by turns, an opportunistic hustler who could win visiting professorships to prestigious colleges and then proceed to alienate his new colleagues with his condescension or contempt; a husband who cheated on three successive wives; a socially awkward Brownsville boy who instinctively bristled at the patrician smoothness of the despised Lionel Trilling; and a "private reader" who felt out of step as much with the New Criticism of the 1940s as with the literary theory of the 1970s. Nonetheless, he could also be a superb guide to American and English literature.

In general, Kazin's critical style might be described as impressionistic. He tended to avoid "close argument" and "precise analysis," writes Cook, in preference to the "evocation of the 'feel' of the book." In an essay called "To Be a Critic," Kazin defended his subjective approach:

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