- - Friday, September 9, 2011

Edited by Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press, $45 632 pages, illustrated

The literary critic Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) has always struck me as a very problematic figure, a worshipper at the altar of literature who was nevertheless rather rough and coarse in his sensibility, an intellectual bruiser as much as a fervent advocate. His groundbreaking study of American literature, “On Native Grounds” (1942), not only was a highly informed work but made American literature be taken more seriously inside the academy and beyond.

Yet there was something pedestrian about his mind, and one wonders how much of the book’s impact had to do with its coming out on the crest of what increasingly was coming to be seen as the American Century. The time surely had come for American literature to be given its due, and Kazin was the right man at the right time.

Although he lived more than half a century after making that big splash, he never again produced anything approaching its heft, although there are some who would argue for the volumes of autobiography he wrote chronicling his rise from the humble Brownsville section of Brooklyn into more exalted locales and circles. He held various academic posts, but mainly he was an observer of, and a participant in, the literary and cultural conflicts that so engaged postwar America. This selection from his journals, chosen and edited by his biographer, Richard M. Cook, provides some valuable glimpses into the man behind the intellectual warrior, revealing a deeply emotional and sensitive person. Sensitive, even hypersensitive, mostly to and about himself, unfortunately.

It is hard to read some of the passages here without feeling sympathy for the genuine angst expressed in them. But this inevitably is vitiated when one encounters repeated lashing out at anyone who crosses or displeases him. Then there is his gratuitous nastiness toward people who seem only to have been kind and pleasant and welcoming toward him. Some of this inevitably has to do with his background, which left him uncomfortable in refined circles like New York’s elite Century Club, where he seems to have spent a lot of time in his later years.

But the rather obvious chip on his shoulder also is due to a feeling of intellectual inferiority; hence the ferocity of his attacks. Meeting the young professor Harold Bloom in the mid-1960s, Kazin has the grace to write that Mr. Bloom “leaves me feeling like I know nothing and have read nothing of the English Romantics [about] whom I prate so much.” In darker moments, I think this sense of his intellectual and literary inadequacy festered and rankled, with unfortunate results.

Mr. Cook tells us that when Kazin was a student at New York’s City College in the 1930s, he stayed away from the fervent ideological battles that consumed so many of his contemporaries:

“He detested the ‘fanatical’ political atmosphere, staying away from the ‘odorously male’ alcoves, and chose to study by himself in the Great Hall, where he would listen to the organist playing Bach.”

Unfortunately, in his later years, with one foot in academe and the other in the public intellectuals’ arena, it was, I suppose, inevitable that he should lose that aloofness from ideological divides. The journal positively reeks with his prejudiced hostility to those who depart from the default left/liberal stance he came to espouse. It is sickening to read his dismissals of a historian like Lucy Dawidowicz, with whom he shared such strong feelings about the Holocaust, because he felt she had gone over to the right. And sad when he cannot respond to a heartfelt overture from Norman Podhoretz.

If there was one centrality to Kazin, it was his identity as a Jew. Not only did he title a volume of autobiography “New York Jew,” but Mr. Cook tells us his tentative title for his journals was simply “Jews.” Consider this entry from May 15 1948: “Eretz Israel is the ‘State of Israel.’ I have always been against the idea of a Jewish state and now that it is here, I find myself as moved by it and as eager to defend it as if I had been a Zionist. Unable to read any of the newspaper articles without bursting into tears.” It shows genuine emotion poking through ideological rigidity. Would that there had been more of that in the public pronouncements of this too often savage if always passionate intellectual warrior.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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