Michael Dirda
The celebrated critic was an exuberant reader but a melancholy man.

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:

"What counts is that the critic should be really involved with a work; that we should follow the track of his curiosity into it just as long and as passionately as may be necessary. This follows from what I call being-at-home-with-a-text, from feeling in one's bones that one knows what the work is about, that one knows the tone of voice in which the writer speaks, that one is present, oneself all present, at every stage. Criticism exists, after all, because the critic has an intense and meaningful experience of a work. And if he doesn't, why pretend that he does? Why bother, if what one is doing is not intensely real to oneself?"

Certainly, at his best, Kazin could make this approach work, even sing. Here he is summarizing the animating force behind the novelist Theodore Dreiser: "Where other novelists of his time saw the evils of capitalism in terms of political or economic causation, Dreiser saw only the hand of fate. Necessity was the sovereign principle. . . . The strong went forward as their instinct compelled them to; the weak perished or bore life as best they could. Courage was one man's fortune and weakness another man's incapacity." Surely, anyone who remembers Sister Carrie or The Financier will see the justness of this analysis -- and any reader will feel the almost lyrical excitement of its prose, of one mind seeing into another's.

Whether intentionally or not, by underscoring Kazin's flaws and prejudices, Cook gradually invests this 20th-century critic with a troubled, endearing humanity. Like Saul Bellow's Augie March, the often prickly Kazin went at life "freestyle." He never felt really at home among the Partisan Review crowd, actively disliked many of its members (especially Irving Howe, with whom he was often linked), eventually quarreled with most of his friends (Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt, Elie Wiesel). Despite the honors and celebrity, Kazin's life might even be called miserable much of the time: He was repeatedly frustrated at his inability to finish major books; out of sympathy with the triumphs of modernism, Beat writing, academic criticism and inward-turning experimental fiction; guiltily disappointed in himself as a father. In what may be Kazin's best single work of criticism -- his introduction to the Viking Portable William Blake (1946) -- he celebrates the unfettered, exuberant and sensual spirit that he admired, yearned for but could never quite sustain.

At best, he discovered some of that longed-for rapture -- if only for a while -- in his love affairs, especially the very first, with a "lawless" beauty named Mary Lou Petersen. Though married, Kazin immediately realized "that everything could fall apart in the sight of a young girl with very wide cheekbones standing at an overcrowded party in Greenwich Village." That's human frailty talking -- and any of us might recognize or even sympathize with the sentiment. But Kazin acted on his impulse, and the brief affair was transformative, an awakening, and its memory haunted him for years. Love, like a great work of art, asks you to change your life. "Making love to Petersen," he later wrote in New York Jew, was "one of the true privileges of the human condition." Corny? Maybe -- but not necessarily.

While Kazin remained throughout much of his career a public advocate for 1930s-style hopefulness -- the one aspect of Edmund Wilson he didn't admire was the great man's pessimism -- he nonetheless poured out his own angst and spite and growing melancholy in his journals. While he consciously believed in human aspiration, moral passion and ideals, within the chambers of his heart he seems to have fought constantly against self-pity and the kind of loneliness we associate with the figures in the paintings of Edward Hopper -- or with Melville, Dickinson and many other 19th-century American authors. And yet writers, the critic was convinced, couldn't wholly retreat from life into the self. He believed strongly that art needed to be grounded in the real, to be an attempt to grasp the complexities of a time, place or people. As Cook writes:

"He believed what he believed: the novel works best when 'the individual and society are in constant and concrete relation with each other,' when it acknowledges its close kinship with history, and when it is not embarrassed to present life in all 'its beautiful and inexpressible materiality'."

Cook has written an engrossing, even-handed biography, neatly balancing the public intellectual against the private man. Perhaps it will even encourage at least a few readers to seek out some of Kazin's criticism. Cook's own prose is brisk and engaging, though there are a good many typos in the printed text, including misspelled names (e.g., Eliot Freemont-Smith, for Fremont-Smith. And could Alfred Kazin really have traveled to England on the SS Hart Crane? Could there have actually been an ocean liner named after a poet who killed himself by jumping from a ship? This seems surreal enough that I hope it is, in fact, correct. As we say in journalism, some things are just too good to check. *

Michael Dirda's email address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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