- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003


Edited and with an introduction by Ted Solotaroff.

HarperCollins, $29.95, 542 pages


Alfred Kazin, who died in 1998 on his eighty-third birthday, was one of the so-called New York Intellectuals — Lionel Trilling, Philip Rahv, Dwight MacDonald, Mary McCarthy and Irving Howe were others — who seem remote indeed from literary discourse as currently practiced in America. Certainly as practiced in the academy, where Kazin taught from time to time but always with the sense of really being somewhere else.

In “To Be a Critic,” the essay Ted Solotaroff has chosen to conclude this selection of his writings, Kazin makes a list of 20th century critics in English who have been of use to him. It is a list of literary figures—T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Randall Jarrell, Edmund Wilson are some of them—who show, as Kazin thinks poets especially show, “the most intense personal consciousness of art.” He adds pointedly that his list “would not include academics whose sense of their own authority has never instructed or even provoked me.” One gathers that a list of the not-to-be-included would be heavy with current professors of literature, and the combative tone is worth noting.

“I had the good fortune to fall in love with a then unfashionable subject, American literature,” writes Kazin at the beginning of the same essay. Mr. Solotaroff, himself an experienced lively critic, memoirist and editor, decided the best way to celebrate Kazin’s achievement was to bring together many of his essays on American writers and to include generous extracts from his autobiographical volumes along with the critical pieces.

This makes good sense, since Kazin truly felt in intimate possession of American literature. Mr. Solotaroff quotes an amusing anecdote in which Kazin, reviewing a book about the American West, had spoken of “our” mountains and rivers, eliciting from a sardonic Philip Rahv the query, “What’s this about our mountains, our rivers?” Rahv was teasing Kazin for assuming that a Jew from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn had the right to take over the American landscape with such aplomb. But Kazin’s strong identification with what he saw as the radically democratic tone of the American writers he cherished, spilled over into a similarly possessive air toward this country’s rivers and mountains.

Mr. Solotaroff begins the anthology appropriately with selections from Kazin’s first memoir, “A Walker in the City,” a book that offers a memorable portrait of the kitchen — “the largest room and center of the household” — in the Brownsville tenement where he grew up. At the kitchen’s center in every sense was his mother, a dressmaker who had begun her trade in Poland at age 13, now “lashed to her machine” as she “stamped the treadle hard against the floor, hard, hard, and silently, grimly at war.”

It was this intense activity, Kazin declares, that “beat out the first rhythm of the world for me.” His career as a young reader and writer is cast in similarly heroic terms: Nothing filled him with such pleasure as did reading, and there were never enough books, he says, to fill up this need “nor words enough to describe the transformations taking place in me as I read.” He began his career as a reviewer in the mid-1930s, primarily with The New Republic; then in 1938, Carl Van Doren, literary editor of The Nation, suggested he write a book about American writers from the past few decades. Thus was born “On Native Grounds,” his first book and most valuable achievement.

This “interpretation of modern American prose literature,” published the year he became all of age 27, is an astonishing feat in its confident sweep from the 1890s, through Dreiser and Edith Wharton, down to Hemingway, Steinbeck and the “herculean innocence” of Thomas Wolfe. Kazin seemed to have read everything—not just American literature but the critical books about it—during the years he spent at “the golden tables in room 315” of the New York Public Library (Mr. Solotaroff locates him rather in room 304, the main reading room).

For Kazin the greatest fact about modern American writing was — in a formulation that hasn’t been bettered — “our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it.”

The chapters and parts of chapters reprinted here — pages on Veblen, Sinclair Lewis, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather — reveal a book that has not dated. In its intelligent generosity to his subjects, “On Native Grounds” is exemplary, and even when Kazin is less convinced of the writer’s greatness—his pages on Faulkner, which Solotaroff doesn’t include, contain adverse remarks about the famous “style” — the effort at critical description and placing of an enormous talent (not recognized as such by many in 1942) was salutary.

It is too bad that the American focus of this anthology made it impossible to include Kazin’s long and brilliant introduction to the Viking “Portable William Blake,” published just after the war, my own introduction to Blake and still freshly provocative. “On Native Grounds” and the Blake essay will stand, along with the first two volumes of memoirs (the third, “New York Jew,” is marred by anger and self-justification) as the peak of the writer’s work. His later books are markedly less successful.

“An American Procession” (1984), which attempts to interpret major American figures from 1830 to 1930, is often windy and diffuse. Mr. Solotaroff speaks gently of it as his “least coherent book,” but things would become more incoherent in “God and the American Writer,” published the year before he died. Parts of earlier books and essays get recycled, the same formulations are quoted too often, and the famous anecdotes — told yet again — wear out their welcome.

Kazin had been suspicious of if not hostile to New Criticism from the beginning, and although he was convinced of the centrality of the speaking voice to literature, he seldom tried to look at how that voice was created through the pace and idiom and tone of sentences—perhaps this was too “academic” for him. It’s also the case that on the whole he didn’t write about poets and when he did, as in pieces on Dickinson, Whitman and James Wright from the present volume, the results were not memorable.

“I like Emily Dickinson’s dashes,” he confides to us, and exclaims over how the “naked feeling” of Wright’s poetry “goes straight to my heart and mind.” Here a willed insistence, as it does too often in Kazin’s later criticism, tries to do the work of comparison and analysis, the tools of the critic as T.S. Eliot saw them. Yet in a late essay I was glad to see included here, “The Fascination and Terror of Ezra Pound,” Kazin managed first to give a responsive account of that poet’s fascination for us before he goes on to reject, not surprisingly, much of “The Cantos.”

“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,” Kazin writes in “To Be a Critic,” hailing the importance of “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.”

This kind of all-or-nothing commitment to literature, especially to American literature, was Kazin’s from the beginning to the end of his career and it distinguishes him—in its virtue and sometime excess of that virtue—from his critical contemporaries. This most thoughtfully chosen collection is a fitting monument to the man and his work.

William F. Pritchard is the author most recently of “Updike: America’s Man of Letters.”

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