Alfred Kazin 1915–1998
American critic, autobiographer, essayist, and editor.
For further information on Kazin's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 34 and 38.
Best known for his study of twentieth-century American literature, On Native Grounds (1942), Kazin was highly regarded as an influential critic for his ability to analyze a literary work in conjunction with the author's heritage and the prevailing social climate. On Native Grounds outlines the beginnings of social realism in American literature. Kazin correlates its rise with the enormous political and technological developments of the early 1900s, yet he also maintains that most writers felt estranged from their environment during this period. Kazin continued to explore the relationship between literature and society in The Inmost Leaf (1955), Contemporaries (1962), Bright Book of Life (1973), An American Procession (1984), A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature (1988), Writing Was Everything (1995), and God and the American Writer (1997). Kazin was also well regarded for his autobiographical works and memoirs. In A Walker in the City (1951), he recounts his youth in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the Great Depression. Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) chronicles his early years as a critic and includes sketches of prominent writers he met during those years. In New York Jew (1978), Kazin narrates his experiences from 1942 through the late 1970s. Kazin also edited A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment (1996), a volume of selected excerpts from his journals. Philip Roth commented on Kazin's contribution to American literature: "To understand what a colossal achievement Alfred's life was, one has only to remember that in 1942, when he was still in his 20s—and the Brooklyn-born son of uneducated Yiddish-speaking immigrants—he wrote On Native Grounds, a brilliant re-interpretation of American literature from William Dean Howells to William Faulkner, a book of literary criticism which read like a passionate communication intended for intelligent, living human beings rather than like a 1940s academic exercise or a 1930s political tract. He was America's best reader of American literature in this century." Kazin continued to write until his death on his eighty-third birthday—June 5, 1998—in New York City.
Essays - Winter 2011
The Passionate EncounterPrint
A noted midcentury critic has much to say in his journal about his fellow writers and the literary world they shared
By Alfred Kazin
December 1, 2010
In a tribute published in The New Yorker following Alfred Kazin’s death on June 5, 1998, David Remnick wrote that “unlike his friend, Richard Hofstadter, who died with a stack of manuscript pages by his hospital bed, Kazin died having completed more or less what he had set out to do. There is a lucky roundness to his career.” Remnick was correct to note Kazin’s achievement and the fullness of his career. Author of a dozen books and more than 2,000 essays and reviews, he was known as one of the country’s most influential public intellectuals of the postwar years. But Kazin had his own stack of manuscript pages by his bed when he died. Since high school he had been writing almost daily in a private journal that he had hoped to publish. He never did, though he published a memoir, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, based loosely on a few dozen undated and heavily edited entries. Why the journals or a substantial selection of entries never appeared is unclear. Other projects apparently intervened, and Kazin eventually despaired of working his way through the “pile-up of words,” 7,000 pages, amassed during 65 years of journal keeping.
The journals, which he once called his “precious lifeblood” and “the most exciting and influential form of my life,” tell us a great deal about the psychological and intellectual sources of Kazin’s work. “Everything that is fundamental in me has first found its expression here.” They also provide memorable portraits of many writers and intellectuals as well as shrewd assessments of the nation’s culture. The following entries on writers and the writing profession are excerpted from an edition of Alfred Kazin’s journals to be published in the spring by Yale University Press.
—Richard M. Cook
May 3, 1945
Interview with T. S. Eliot, at his offices (Faber & Faber). Eliot now, if I calculate correctly, must be 57; face has aged and relaxed greatly, so that one’s first impression of him physically is of a rather tired kindness as opposed to the otherworldliness & hauteur of his early pictures. He was extremely kind, gentle, spoke very slowly and hesitatingly, livened up a bit when I pushed the conversation on to literary topics (at first, because of my official business, he spoke a little about popular education and his own experiences teaching for the WEA and LCC). He looks like a very sensitive question mark—long, winding, and bent; gives the impression that his sensibility is in his long curling nose and astonishing hands. I was so afraid that he would be standoffish or just reluctant that I spoke more than I wanted to, just to keep the conversation going. He said things which just verged on “you Americans,” but I grinned when he spoke of Truman and Missouri and he grinned back. When I gave him [Benjamin] Spencer’s regards he brightened up considerably and asked me if I was a Harvard man.
May 15, 1948
Saw [William] Shawn at the NYorker office late yesterday afternoon. Very charming and sensitive little man—how much of his charm lies in his being so unlike the expected picture of the NYorker managing editor hard to say. Had a red jacket sweater under his coat, and bustled around timidly in that high comedian’s whiny voice, full of anxiety. Yet very firm under all this, and beautifully sincere. The old business about “fitting” the style of the magazine, about heavy critics and light critics, and Wolcott Gibbs, whom they all so much admire because he writes “by not saying things.” Certainly. How can I ever get down on paper the really fantastic business of magazine writing in NY—the wearing need to fit the writer into shape, to take him into just the required space and tone. Fundamentally all this is obscene, for it rests on real hatred of the writer as individual spirit. Nothing so far from their minds as wanting the best of the writer, of serving, releasing, providing opportunity, for him.
November 8, 1951
Remarkable piece by [Lionel] Trilling in the Reporter on Dreiser, [Sherwood] Anderson, and the problem of the anti-social, the utterly isolate American writer. Remarkable because it sums up his own position, or rather his findings, vis-a-vis the British situation—and illustrates his need to legislate the situation away (in America) by reason. And confirms in me his deepseated fear of the genuine artist (Dreiser, Anderson) and his long repugnance to me, thoroughly based, I see now, on a fear of the “extremism” or whatnot he finds in me. On the lowest, the purely personal and vexed problem of his relations with me, the article helped to heal something of the continuous ache about Lionel and his nervousness with me, for it told me as clearly as can be that it is myself, inherently and initially and potentially, that troubles him, exactly as Dreiser & Anderson do, and that nothing whatever can be done about this. I seize this opportunity, I who have so often been needlessly bitter about him and how many others who seemed to reject me out of hand—I seize this irremediable opposition between us, to (from my own part, as far as I can tell) be more just to him, less petty and therefore less anguished. What is in these matters is, as it was with Carol [Kazin’s recently divorced wife]: there can be no bridge made here without falseness.
October 6, 1952
The literary profession—what a misnomer, what a horror. This very profession (of faith!) to which I entrust my life (for by that I mean my thinking) is also a mad scramble for social prestige and a job. So that at every point (but obviously most on Sunday night, before the treadmill gets me back) I oscillate between the native purity, the relative selflessness of my inner thought—and this splintery, tormented, boring, boring attempt to get things by my profession—my name on this list, my bank account full. The profession which by its incarnated incarnation the nullity of egotism, serves (how often!) only our egotism.
What a monster it is, then, this being not a writer, a thought-bearer, but a WRITER quoted on the jackets of the latest books, much sought-after by summer workshops, an object of mystery, a perpetual mode of unbelief, to the vulgar—“And do you write under your own name?” As if most us wrote for any purpose other than publicizing our own name!
No name, no writer.
October 14, 1953
Last night at Zelman Cowen’s, Isaiah Berlin, whom I’d heard so much of for years and now finally met—to my immense satisfaction. They were all “English” there last night, with a handful of Australians to mark the edge of their Englishness, and when we went home Zelman said God bless, just as they used to in England . . . during the war. A society, I thought, friends—all that pining and envy of the English for being a society came home to me suddenly, the hardness and graspingness and assertiveness of my American world suddenly eased up and warmed and blotted out. Yes, I went home enchanted, as always, with the goodness and manners of these people, with their kindness, their fine social intelligence. But going to class this morning, to talk on Thoreau, my Western Island [planned book on American writers] came home to me in a rush, said not to pine and to envy, but to take this, this created, ever-more-being created American world, this adventure into space, this idea forever being made flesh, this where we are, this reality, with all its jaggedness and rawness.
November 23, 1956
Came back yesterday from Boston & Cambridge, where we had stopped with the [Howard Mumford] Joneses, and where I [had] gone to attend my first editorial lunch at the NEQ [New England Quarterly]. The genteel tradition: the fire, the martinis before lunch, the drapes, the cigars, the pleasant o pleasant comfort. [. . .] Every phrase, like putting still another smear of butter on a piece of toast. Phrases, read[y-]made phrases by the millions, and above all, this air of saying everything around the dinner table, the constant acknowledging of someone else, of a group, of the right way to think & the right way to say it . . .
The genteel tradition—what is it but money, habit, tradition in an old & settled place: plus a certain Englishy lack of sensuousness and an Englishy love of solid comfort and the conscious polishing of still another corner of the dining table? [. . .] The genteel tradition is the Century [Association] in NY and the Colonial Society in Boston, it is the academic, the pleasant—and the womanless. . . . Is this why there are so many honorific references to women—why the woman is the absent god, the judge, of the genteel world?
September 8, 1957
Only the passionate encounter between the writer & the book makes for real criticism—for the constant sense of new discovery. It is this voyage of discovery that counts, this passionate journey of perception that counts; the freedom and speculative richness of [the] discovering mind that counts. I must have the same attitude of passionate discovery toward books that I do toward any other element in my experience.
December 15, 1958
Jim [James T.] Farrell may not always write well, but he is right to think that his own story gives him literary sanction. In America, it does—for in a society that is based on the future that discredits all links to the past, the “minority” individual (who is such because of that national tradition which is not identifiable with the abstract American identity) has, in his mere person, immense symbolic value—this is why I recognize the possibility in my own autobiographical impulse. Only in writing about “myself” do I, in this country, connect myself with the country.
March 8, 1959
I never liked Bernie [Malamud] so much as yesterday, never respected the artist self, in all his humility and unspoken sureness, so much as yesterday. There are times when he has not only the style of a master (as in the first part of the current PR [Partisan Review] story, The Maid’s Shoes, though the story itself doesn’t altogether succeed), but when, as yesterday, he has the true wisdom of the writer in the face of life and its manifold complexities. Yet his hold on life, the true B’klyn experience, is still so delicate that he sometimes seems to tremble in the wind. He said extraordinary things: talking about his mother’s early death and his brother’s “condition,” he remarked that anguish had set in so early in his life that it left room for growth. What I like most about Bernie’s stories, I suppose, is that the actual conditions of life are realized imaginatively, that the actual color & tone of the seemingly colorless, inbred-with-eternity quality is actually rendered.
January 16, 1960
At the American Scholar dinner in the evening—[Jacques] Barzun, terribly stiff and carefully well-mannered. Brown double-breasted suit like a Frenchman’s. Very efficient mind, I guess, but carefulness of manner threw me off. Another handsome and white-haired actor like Lionel Trilling. Never realized how much of an outsider Barzun must feel—from his manner, like a diplomat’s. Oh, so careful.
December 22, 1962
Finished Hannah’s [Arendt] study of the Eichmann trial [in manuscript] and walked out into the streets dark with winter twilight. I walked and walked, shivering to get the wintry pure air into my lungs—to get the stink of so much evil, so much death, death—by the intellectual will, out of my system. At 23rd & Sixth, looking south, I saw a bloody colored cloud over the rooftops. “The banality of evil”—the banality of it all, the fearful ordinariness and inconspicuousness and in a horrid sense the insignificance of so much killing—as of the fearful selfishness and “respectability” of so many Jews behind it.
Hannah in her imperious yecke way is one of the just. I come back to this. This is the lightning in her to which I always respond. She has the fundamental sense of value. She still believes in the right. Oddly enough, she still believes in the Ten Commandments. Her moral outlook is her magnetic point. She holds out, alone, for basic values. And the evil to be counteracted is “banal.” It is under our feet.
July 25, 1963
The beggarly Jewish radicals of the 30’s are now the ruling cultural pundits of American society—I who stood so long outside the door wondering if I would ever get through it, am now one of the standard-bearers of American literary opinion—a judge to young men.
December 6, 1963
Basically, the Commentary party is a collection of Jewish intellectuals who have made it. And all the prickly sticky aggressive and hurtful tones and gestures that the lower-class Jew has in times past made me think that “life” is, are curiously emphasized by the thin and not very secure veneer of culture that attemptedly hides some of the more obviously unpleasant traits. I want! I want! I want—and now! . . . A judgment on myself, a judgment . . . Because it is so damnably hard to live with, in others as in oneself, this irritability above all things else . . . and impatience, and drive for quick, easy solutions of every problem. Every obstacle must be leaped now.
December 10, 1963
Perry Miller died of a stroke yesterday in his study at Leverett House. The last time I saw him, outside the CBS building on 52nd street after an Invitation to Learning program, he looked flushed as usual, more distracted than usual, and vaguely embarrassed and unresponding when I argued with him about his unfavorable opinion of [Edmund Wilson’s] Patriotic Gore. Most times I saw him, he was flushed, wild, emotional, angry. And he was as jealous and competitive as anything could have been. Just to discuss anything with him on the air was to rub him the wrong way half the time. Yet I can’t think of anybody in the “field” who was half as much a scholar, and who was simply so useful. He fascinated me because he was such a mixture of scholarly detail and choler. His temperament had nothing to do with his mind . . . or if it did, his temperament didn’t enter into his books at all, except in a certain voraciousness of scholarly method. . . . A career man in the best sense. How much he wanted to make a successful career of everything!—the “soldier” in the OSS, the scholar, the husband. . . . Those two tortured people at home, he and Betty, she with the piggy little eyes that [were] always red with weeping, he with the falsely robust “big laugh” and big voice. They looked together as if they had been pushing each other. She had got squeezed into a tiny little nut, and he had swelled into a kind of convention drunk. Perry could have been a character in a Sinclair Lewis novel. And yet he was the most scholarly and in some ways useful scholar of American literature whom we had.
May 29, 1964
[Ralph] Ellison came down [to Stony Brook] for lunch, the Department-about-to-hire-you lunch, and talked very soundly and very impressively about the translation of American experience into authentic works of the imagination on the part of lower-class men, Negroes, minorities, etc. This is something that never happens anywhere but in America, and it is this creative salt, not “ideology,” that is the real substance of the book on the thirties [Starting Out in the Thirties]—the experience of “lower-class” men is certainly different. [. . .] Ralph is terribly impressive. With his beautiful light-Indian-Negro color, the Oklahoma accent, the scar just alongside of the right eye, and above all, his sense of American experience as something naturally flowing into and boiling up creatively in a literary mind of his kind of sensitivity, I find that I learn from him more of what I owe myself than I do from many writer-friends.
August 16, 1964
Edmund Wilson at MacDowell Medal ceremony—The portly seventy man-of-letters, (who belongs to letters). Big belly, white shirt, dark tie, dark suit, always formally dressed, always talking in formal sentences and on formal topics. Straight Roman nose, sensitive, but thin and controlled mouth. Red blotches of arteriosclerosis in his cheeks. So formal in his manner that any joke or crack on the part of another literally breaks him up—i.e., dissolves his formality. While on his side, behind the formality, the self-possessed but elephantine manner of the rubicund body, he plans mischief.
April 2, 1965
[Harold] Bloom. When he removes his glasses, you see an extraordinarily handsome face, straight nose, almost classical profile. When he puts his glasses on again and shuffles up his vest so that his shirt is all over the place and he stands there firing cannonades of lecture at you while he keeps scratching his hair, you lose sight of the very clear-minded and arrogantly possessed young scholar. Fascinatingly gifted and fascinatingly complex man; listening to him last night on Yeats and the Romantic Tradition, I realized that his interest is in literary history, and that he is a brilliant representative of an academicism, which, as always, I am so out of that I can only suffer the exclusiveness, while I am on the academic spot, and not change it. [. . .] I don’t look at literature as Bloom does, but I certainly am as much of a putter-downer as he is! This furious business of being one step ahead of the opposition and preparing a mine field for him to walk through! This furious drive to rise in the literary-critical profession by stealthily suggesting deficiencies, distortions and debilities on the part of the contra-position with whom you are discussing! The science of English literary history, and what we are to think of this or that pattern in it. Bloom’s thesis last night: There is a clear line between the Romantics, Yeats, Stevens, Lawrence.
October 2, 1967
Carson [McCullers] was pure sensibility, pure nerve along which all the suffering of the South and the Smith family passed. She was all feeling, an anvil on which life rained down blows. She was all effect, never will—subject—drive. Tremulous elfin self-pitying charm. Always great problems of identity. Internality of the American Dostoevskian sort without the slightest political sense of the world. The Southern isolato—the Southern longing to give “love,” to effect an instant embrace.— How well I remember coming down in the train with her from Yaddo during the war. She drank sherry constantly from paper cups, & when the soldiers noticed her filling her cup from the bottle & got familiar and rambunctious, she expressed some pretty intense resistance to my pleas that she stop.
Love—loneliness—orphanage—the silent cry of the forties. The lure of the abnormal. The boy-girl Reeves Mc[Cullers]—David D [iamond]—Newton Arvin—Truman Capote. Do you remember how she pranced around in the garden at Yaddo imitating a lunatic in front of those visitors who wondered what the place was?
November 19, 1967
Here it is Sunday morning, gray and leaden, and suddenly Cal [Robert] Lowell is on the phone, talking about St. Paul and St. Louis and Cato the younger, moving in and out of history with what a perspective! Marvelous unprovincialism of the gifted man. Cal’s new poems, especially the one about Caracas—“city without a center”—and about Leone the tough presidente, and the blood as hard as rock—show what a little radical experience can do for a poet! Great to have him reading these poems on the phone just now. What a privilege.
June 17, 1971
[Joan] Didion and [John Gregory] Dunne, the pair. Of course he came along to lunch, tho I had invited her. We ate at Scandia on the Strip, and then drove back through the Malibu Canyon. In Sept 70 the Malibu hills were on fire, and the surfers in the ocean kept surfing. The hills and the ocean. At dinner, Didion in a long skirt & full of body language. She often cradles herself in her own arms, in the well known woman’s self-protection against the cold. Her face runs the gamut from poor old Sookie to the temptress with long blonde-red locks. She can look at you & past you without the slightest hint of a concession. The unspoken is a most important part of her presence in the world. The unspoken ripple with bald John Dunne was often there. She once almost took a knife to someone—probably Noel Parmentel, always the relation in the N.Y. story.
Brian Moore & his wife to dinner. Brian’s accessibility & charm made an interesting contrast to Didion’s many silences.
April 26, 1972
Met Isaac Bashevis Singer in the Braniff waiting room at Laguardia. [. . .] He makes an impression on all around him even when they are not exactly sure who or what he is. His bags (which he insisted on carrying at all times) were crammed with mss. in large manila envelopes. He writes on loose pages torn out of school exercise books, and said, among other wonderful things, that the Jews hypnotize the outsiders & then get hated when they themselves desert “their” cause (i.e., first Christianity & then Marxism). He brightened up (without the help of any strong meat or drink whatsoever) at dinner, became positively pixieish at times. The essential solitude of the man, a kind of genial indifference to the world while happily tasting its money, prizes, etc. (his only recreation is travel) was very noticeable. It no longer matters where he is; he does not believe in anything outside his creative mind & fancies. When I referred to the scene in My Father’s Court where his father, the Rabbi simply closed the window on a woman who could be heard being raped who was screaming, he said with a boyish smile of self-recognition, “That’s me!”—Does not care to read very much. Says his incessant writing for the Forward is his “laboratory.”
May 11, 1985
Peter Manso’s Mailer, a biography as told by loads of NY literati relatives ex wives, u.s.w. This is the cocktail party I never went to, would have disapproved of if I had gone to—but nevertheless is a running account not merely of Mailer’s life, his affair with America, BUT THE collective autobiography of all the speakers—
Has left me feeling more and more the loner, moralist, aloof spectator. Oh my gosh, what Diana Trilling thought of Lillian Hellman’s getting Norman to cancel the blurb he had written about Diana’s book of pieces! What is interesting is of course and mainly the attraction of Mailer for all these people, the way they (especially the non novelists and literary critics and even unsuccessful novelists like Chandler Brossard) were pulled to Mailer by his success, his “fearlessness,” his (especially) ability to be a “radical” while proving in every Zeit that its Geist was his Geist and that he was the most American, the most ruthlessly characteristic American of all!
Because Mailer was in it all, the big expansive over prosperous Americano post war period of brag bluster and overweening confidence—and the rest of us were not. . . .
Mailer the ur type of a certain period—without the extraordinary lift to American ego, no Mailer . . . as this period will sink into history, also no Mailer. The chorus interpreted this period through him, but he incorporated it, he did not represent it. It is the incorporation that makes the public personality, [Elie] Wiesel and the Holocaust, Mailer and domestic expansiveness. Everything to become public and “legendary” for its own time requires a story. In Mailer the period in all its temptations became the story.
June 1, 1985
AN EVENING WITH THE LOST GENERATION . . . Karl Shapiro Alfred Kazin Saul Bellow Bernard Malamud, etc. . . . Now in their 70s, still smoking, hale and hearty sex lives. . . . Of course some of us wear white on white shirts like Jewish dentists or brokers or nuclear engineers . . . and some of us have had as many wives as Henry VIII as many mistresses as Dracula or Jack Kennedy. Resolutely thin, carrying on as usual, determined not to sink like our fathers, but o my! how our social opinions reflect our top lofty incomes, and what excuses we do find (we who once had no trouble execrating everyone in power) for those in power.
Who would have dreamed it? that life should have offered us so much—in shovelfuls. We are such [as] dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with . . . prizes. . . . Our president belongs to our club—the man taken everywhere as an illiterate dope is the most cunning turncoat of us all.
October 26, 1989, dated November 26, 1989
The only thing to say about Mary McCarthy’s passing is that it somehow marks (more than the death of Trilling, Rahv, etc. etc. ) the passing of a turbulent critical style related to past utopian dreams and immeasurable bitterness therefrom. After Mary, everyone else will seem bland. The last link (one of them) with an American idea of “socialism.” But Mary and I, we had 19th century childhoods, necessary to so much 20th century assertion. Like the Romantic Generation that went nuts for the French Revolution, and then was driven nuts by the Revolution itself, so we in respect to the Russian Revolution. American Socialism—meaningless term—radicalism no longer quite exists because of its lack of any international idea.
Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) was the author of On Native Grounds, The Inmost Leaf, Bright Book of Life, and the memoir A Walker in the City, among many other books.