Obituary: Alfred Kazin

Richard Francis
Sunday 28 June 1998 23:02

ALFRED KAZIN seems a figure from another cultural world, which is no discredit to him but rather our loss. The development of English Studies in the post-war period, with the formalism of the New Criticism and then the rise of literary theory, has driven a wedge between writers and academics. Kazin, however, though he produced mainly literary criticism, regarded himself simply as a writer.

"After the war," he once wrote, "I was honoured by many professorships here and abroad" - he was never one to hide his light under a bushel - "but I am not a `doctor' of anything, and never wanted to be an academic luminary."

He may not have been an academic, but he was certainly luminous enough, and devoted a long career to shedding light on American literature. He sometimes described himself as a literary journalist, though that term no longer has the weight he gave it. Certainly he had a journalistic capacity to produce vivid thumb-nail sketches of the numerous literary men and women he got to know during the course of his life, people like F.O. Matthiessen "wired to go off like a bomb", Randall Jarrell "all shining in his box of poetry", Robert Frost, "this ponderous, bulking, swollen man - swollen as much with fame as with age", and Edmund Wilson, "Why did I always feel that I had to shout in order to reach him?"

But this was also part and parcel of his other great interest, which was writing autobiography. When he was a child in Brownsville, a depressed suburb of Brooklyn, Kazin began a lifelong habit of putting street scenes down in his notebook - "my commonplace book, journal, personal prayer book, the root of my almost 60 years' toil at the writer's trade". What he was, more than anything, was a man of letters, and the slight quaintness of that phrase is by no means inappropriate, despite his concern with defining modern America. As he said of writing his first and most famous book, On Native Grounds (1942), "The new literature (of the modernist generation) was being created by the old century."

Kazin was the child of Jewish immigrants, each of whom had made it to America alone. His mother, Gita, came from Russian Poland, and his father, Charles, from Minsk, in White Russia. His mother never learnt to speak English, while his father, a housepainter by trade and a socialist by conviction, would have difficulty all his life in conducting a sustained conversion in that language, though, an aloof and rather lonely man, he often didn't try (in a characteristically telling phrase, Kazin described him as someone "who needed to feel himself near an exit").

Alfred himself was, he claimed, a child of Jewish history, but like so many others of his generation - Bellow, for example, whom he much admired - he found that to be a tantalising legacy. He begins his first autobiographical volume, A Walker in the City (1951), with an account of his rage to escape the impoverished and claustrophobic Jewish community in which he had been brought up, but immediately goes on to evoke it in rich and nostalgic detail, his prose rhythms echoing his beloved F. Scott Fitzgerald's evocation of Nick Carraway's lost childhood in The Great Gatsby.

As in Fitzgerald the paradox is that the lost world which is being recalled was already lost even while it was (apparently) being originally experienced. Describing his confirmation lessons at 13, Kazin explains: "In the old country the Melamed might possibly have encouraged me to understand the text," but here "it was as if some contract in secret cipher had been drawn up . . . which that Amerikaner idiot, as the Melamed called me, could sign with an x." But, just as his Jewish past was inaccessible historically, so his American present seemed out of reach geographically from those Brownsville tenements; it was beyond. "Beyond was anything old and American."

In 1934, after just a year's study at the City College of New York, Kazin began reviewing for the New Republic. It was a precocious appointment (he was 20) which he achieved through the agency of John Chamberlain, a socialist who was writing a daily review for the New York Times. The youthful Kazin called on Chamberlain, ostensibly to challenge his tendency to write from an ideologically inflexible point of view, but also hoping to impress, an effective juxtaposition of high principle and low strategy in the Ben Franklin style.

Kazin himself remained a socialist for years, but never a doctrinaire one, and never a Marxist. He had an innate distrust of abstract thought and praised Malcolm Cowley for his praise of Malraux's preoccupation with Communists rather than with Communism itself; as with recessive mirror images, Kazin is defining his own position by means of his praise in turn.

Similarly in his more literary judgements: coming across Walt Whitman for the first time in his adolescence Kazin immediately realised "I had found another writer I could instinctively trust". That "instinctively" is important: "First the image, then the sense". Nevertheless, wary of extremism, he was also suspicious of commentators who went too far in personalising their reading, and was repelled by Mary McCarthy's ability to home in upon the human weakness she could sense at the heart of books.

In 1942, in the same week that he became literary editor of the New Republic, he published On Native Grounds. The resonant title alone gives a sense of the book's ambition, with its echo of William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain, or D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Kazin's charting of the rise of America realism from the late 19th century to the 1930s doesn't have the scope of those seminal works, but along with F.O. Matthiessen's The American Renaissance it belongs with a second generation of studies that attempt, by exploring part of the American tradition, to define the characteristic qualities and preoccupations of the whole.

Of course early fame brings its own problems: later in life Kazin regretted that this success eclipsed his subsequent contributions. Certainly he produced some fine works, including Bright Book of Life (1973), a book about the development of the novel for Hemingway to Mailer, and the wider- ranging American Procession (1984), which goes all the way from 1830 to 1929.

As recently as last October he published God and the American Writer. Just as importantly his volumes of autobiography, A Walker in the City, Starting out in the Thirties (1965), New York Jew (1978) and A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment (1996), provide a fascinating account of his life, his environment, and the literary scene which he inhabited.

During the post-war period he was associated with many varied and distinguished universities, including his Alma Mater, the City University of New York. Having come to Britain in the last days of the war on educational duties, he made many subsequent lecture tours in Europe. As he grew older he repudiated socialism as such but remained a "intellectual radical", and became deeply demoralised by the way the American middle classes tended to regard the Vietnam war "as an interruption between drinks and dinner on the six o'clock news". Nevertheless he remained true throughout to his original position: "the `primary' virtues in literature may come back only when men are bound up in the invisible moral life of humanity". He admired D.H. Lawrence's remark that the novelist is superior to the saint and the poet because he explores the whole range of human concerns. "To be a novelist!" Alfred Kazin once exclaimed, "To take on anything and everything!" Perhaps one can glimpse a novelist manque here, but the range and humanity Kazin celebrates also characterised his own best work as a critic and autobiographer.

Richard Francis

Alfred Kazin, writer and literary critic: born New York 5 June 1915; Distinguished Professor of English, State University of New York 1963- 73, City University, New York 1973-78, 1979-85; married 1947 Caroline Bookman (one son; marriage dissolved), 1952 Ann Birstein (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1983 Judith Dunford; died New York 4 June 1998.

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