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Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City” charts an intellectual awakening, block by block

In the 1920s, the Brooklyn Bridge was writer Alfred Kazin’s link between his upbringing in Brownsville, a poor Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and his future as a star of Manhattan’s literary world. (Liza Weisstuch for The Washington Post)
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The third in an occasional series on the books that spurred our love of travel.

There’s a passage in “A Walker in the City” where Alfred Kazin stands in the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up and gazes at Manhattan, about seven miles away. The distance is short, but the void between the two is vast.

“We were of the city, but somehow not in it,” he writes in his memoir about coming of age there during the 1920s. “Whenever I went off on my favorite walk to Highland Park in the ‘American’ district to the north, on the border of Queens, and climbed the hill to the old reservoir from which I could look straight across to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, I saw New York as a foreign city. There, brilliant and unreal, the city had its life, as Brownsville was ours. That the two were joined in me I never knew then.”

Kazin, a literary critic who is remembered as a preeminent New York intellectual of the last century, was raised in Brownsville (or “Brunzvil,” as fellow tenement dwellers called it) by his Yiddish-speaking parents, uneducated immigrants from Czarist Russia. He would go on to graduate from the City College of New York and become an esteemed writer and critic — a prolific reviewer for magazines such as the New Republic and author of several seminal works of literary criticism. Philip Roth would later call him “America’s best reader of American literature in this century.”

“A Walker in the City” is an impressionistic account of revisiting the neighborhood as a middle-aged man and tenderly remembering the people, places, smells and sounds that shaped him. The book chronicles his burgeoning obsession with books and the giants of the world of letters — Faulkner, Melville, Emerson. Growing up poor in what he terms “New York’s rawest, remotest, cheapest ghetto,” he embodied the kind of corny truisms about reading you might find embroidered on throw pillows or painted on nautical-style wood signs. Reading was his sole escape hatch and break from loneliness. “Sometimes I was not sure which character I was on my walks, there were so many in my head at once,” he writes.

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Kazin’s younger self is a latter-day flâneur — observing the familiar neighborhood with the impartiality of an outsider as he walked its streets. The French term is commonly translated as “idler” or “stroller” and has its roots in a character in 19th-century literature. According to a 2004 article in the American Historical Review, the flâneur “was a figure of the modern artist-poet, a figure keenly aware of the bustle of modern life, an amateur detective and investigator of the city, but also a sign of the alienation of the city and of capitalism.”

Today, the walking memoir — in which the main character chronicles his amblings, making mundane observations and grandiose discoveries along the way — is a significant subgenre, with Kazin’s book as its keystone work. Notable examples include Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” in which she notes that when walking, a writer “is not a miner, not a diver, not a seeker after buried treasure …[she] floats us smoothly down a stream.” More recently, novelist Edmund White, a godfather of queer literature, delivered his ruminations in his 2016 book “The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris.”

The limitations of young Kazin’s environment are matched only by his hunger for experience, and he finds layers and layers to explore — materially and intellectually, deliberately and accidentally — as he wanders the same ground over and over and over, itemizing his exhaustive observations. When taken as a whole, we get a high-definition, human-scale view of what is often generically described as an “immigrant community.” This is a cultural critic in training: Just a few observations can tell a whole story. (Seltzer is “the poor Jew’s dinner wine, a mild luxury infinitely prized above the water out of the faucets.” There’s “a dry rattle of loose newspaper sheets around the cracked stretched skins of the ‘chiney’ oranges.” The synagogue had “a permanently stale smell of snuff, of vinegar, of beaten and scarred wood in the pews.”)  

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Though he beautifully recounts these up-close details, they don’t dispel the fact that he felt a sense of distance throughout his youth — that sense is the memoir’s connective tissue. There’s the distance from his Jewish heritage and ritual. “Though there was little in the ritual that was ever explained to me, and even less in the atmosphere of the synagogue that in my heart I really liked, I assumed that my feelings were of no importance; I belonged there,” he recalls. There’s the distance he feels from his lonely, homesick-for-the-old-world mother. There’s the distance inspired by those views of Manhattan, an expanse bridged only when his father, a house painter, returns home from work each day, his overalls scented with turpentine and shellac, a folded copy of the New York World in his coat pocket. “And then everything that beckoned to me from that other hemisphere of my brain beyond the East River would start up from the smell of fresh newsprint and the sight of the globe on the front page,” Kazin writes. “I felt that my father brought the outside straight into our house with each day’s copy of the World.”

Kazin went to London during World War II on an assignment from the Office of War Information. Once he gained distance from home, he felt closer to it, he writes. “The last time I saw our kitchen this clearly was one afternoon in London at the end of the war, when I waited out the rain in the entrance to a music store. A radio was playing into the street, and standing there I heard a broadcast of the first Sabbath service from Belsen Concentration Camp. When the liberated Jewish prisoners recited the Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One, I felt myself carried back to the Friday evenings at home, when with the Sabbath at sundown a healing quietness would come over Brownsville.”

While “A Walker in the City” isn’t a travel book, per se, it’s a chronicle of a journey across vast distances and a testament to the benefits of collecting observations along the way. The book has remained lodged in my mind all these years because of the lesson it imparts: You can’t understand where you are until you understand where you’ve been. It also resonates because so many of the elements Kazin recounts are familiar from my own upbringing — the Jewish prayers and rituals, the Bible stories he alludes to, the foods of my Eastern European immigrant grandparents, which he portrays in vivid sensory detail: “The acid smell of half-sour pickles and herring floating in their briny barrels.”

A year into the pandemic, I’ve become a flâneur by necessity, spending countless hours wandering New York City, devouring details. On the numerous local excursions I’ve made since last March, I’ve taken in architectural details — in buildings, in bridges, in subways — and spotted historical plaques on streets I’ve walked countless times. I’ve spent hours moving in and around in my apartment. (Early on, I wore a Fitbit for a week while staying within a four-block radius of home. Based on that distance, I calculated that I could have walked from my apartment in Queens to the White House by now.)

The last 12 months have made us all intimately familiar with our homes and the many, many details that define them. It’s fair to say that the pandemic has inspired — if not forced — us to consider what home means to us. For anyone who loves to travel, home is a place to leave and come back to, a place that gives us grounding so we can recalibrate and focus. But as Kazin shows us, the more you zoom in on the details, the further away everything else feels, and longing ensues. It’s a longing I think we all know well by now.

The first sentence of the book reads “Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away” — he arrives and the neighborhood’s scents and sights overwhelm him. While he perceives the area more tenderly when he goes back as an adult, it’s little wonder that he said in a late-career interview, “My idea of heaven is to settle down in a jet with a book, a notebook and a martini.”

Weisstuch is a writer based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @livingtheproof.

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