Alfred Kazin, 1962.(Walter Daran/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Rough Draft

Alfred Kazin’s journals were more than just repositories for literary reflections; they were the laboratories in which he fashioned the writer—and Jew—he aspired to be

Mark Shechner
June 10, 2011
Alfred Kazin, 1962.(Walter Daran/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Alfred Kazin was one of those unaffiliated intellectuals who dominated the American literary landscape in the 20th century, toward the end of a line that included Van Wyck Brooks, Randolph Bourne, Edmund Wilson, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, Irving Howe, Susan Sontag, and Cynthia Ozick. Chief among his books are a magisterial literary history of America, On Native Grounds (1942), a magnum opus published when Kazin was just 27, and a memoir, A Walker in the City(1951), in which Kazin demonstrated powers of observation, dialogue, and narrative rivaling those of the era’s novelists. There were two more stirring memoirs, Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) and New York Jew (1978), plus a steady flow of editions and collections.

Kazin set out to be an intellectual-at-large, the Jewish Wilson, and while he could never approach Wilson’s global reach or genius for languages—it was Wilson, ironically, who could read Hebrew—his voice had its own distinctive soulfulness and vibrato. Like Wilson, Kazin mastered critical prose in both long and short forms—the broad panorama and the slashing review—and both men exercised authority from positions at the New Republic, where Wilson was an editor from 1926-1931 and Kazin from 1942-1943. But like Wilson, Kazin could turn up anywhere: He was one of the go-to guys of literary thought. Both kept daily journals, and Kazin’s, just now published by Yale University Press, may well turn out to be his greatest work. And Wilson never wrote a memoir with anything like the thrilling emotional peaks and isolated beauties (Kazin’s phrases) of Kazin’s A Walker in the City or character portraits with the zest and bite of those in New York Jew. Wilson’s Upstate (1971) came late in his life and lacked both the youthful self-exaltation and the social drama, the up-from-the-ghetto adventure, of Kazin’s book. And both were four times married, as though divorce above all were the intellectual’s Purple Heart. In matters of domestic disorder and sorrow, the Jewish apprentice kept pace with the Yankee master, wife for wife.

Kazin’s memoirs have enjoyed a longer shelf life than his literary criticism. For one thing, they tell a classic novelist’s story: arrival. The young man from the provinces, in this case the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, comes to the big city to seek his fortune. Along the way, he rubs shoulders with the literary beau monde until the arriviste becomes the A-list invitee. In his memoirs, Kazin gave full rein to his talent for portraiture and low-down gossip. New York Jew in particular established him as the gossip-laureate of the New York intellectuals. With his endless parade of portraits and cameos—Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, T.S. Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Isaac Rosenfeld, Arthur Schlesinger—Kazin had become the Ed Sullivan of the literati. But he was an Ed Sullivan with a barracuda’s nose for blood in the water.

We now know, thanks to Alfred Kazin’s Journals, edited by Richard M. Cook and published by Yale University Press, that Kazin had been rehearsing this role privately for years, in a journal he had been tending since he was 18, and that at a certain point the journal had become his chief care. He intended to publish it and did manage to release selections from it in 1996, two years before his death, as A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment. But to edit and publish the whole was beyond him, and even Cook, who has edited this 632-page volume, concedes that the entries here represent just one-sixth of what’s housed in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. In putting the volume together, Cook writes in his introduction, his goal was “to faithfully represent the range of Kazin’s interests and the tenor and depth of his thought. As [Kazin] readily acknowledged, he was not a systematic thinker; he was, however, capable of sustained and passionate reflection, moving from image to insight, from feeling to idea, from association to discovery, surprising himself, Emerson-like, by what he never knew he knew.” Given the dense foliage of Kazin’s reflections and the brio and velocity of his style, even one-sixth of the whole will make for a month’s reading, and then some. Cook’s own labor over this material has been all-consuming; his 2007 Kazin biography took him some 25 years to complete.

Ever the walker in the city, Kazin employed a peripatetic style of crisscrossing a section of the map and recording his encounters, like an anthropologist describing an alien culture. The journals are rambles: anecdotal, impressionistic, breathless, sharp, gossipy, diffusely spiritual, and saturated in verbal music. Lionel Trilling, the other Jew, shows up as regularly as the postman. “Trilling, the pompously respectable professor is a character in my imagination of society, not a person to argue with—the Jew’s dream of literary England, of surpassing his servile state by culture. No one was ever so much the prisoner of culture as Trilling. No one was ever so much the victim of the genteel fantasy.” T.S. Eliot makes a courtly appearance as “the high priest of this movement in criticism, [who] reviews the ‘contemporary situation’ as something frozen in its own despair, shut-in from the past, and destroyed in the supernatural disgust with [all] that is expressed in Thunder.”

Presiding over this assembly is Wilson, the master, the icon, the elder, the polymath, the stylist, the goy as rabbi, and the fellow journal keeper against whom Kazin measured himself: “I notice in all excerpts from Wilson’s famous journal that they are set pieces of literary-historical description, formal portraits, essays in miniature. How nice it would be to keep a journal like that, to leave a treasure like that. But so often I turn to this notebook as if it were my private lie detector, my confession, my way of ascertaining authenticity—and of recovering it—of making myself whole again. Talking to myself as I do here, I nevertheless find in the expression of private uncertainties a form of release, a clarity, from which I can start up again.”

Kazin’s journal was the more intimate. He scrutinized his world at close range, as if nearsighted. He had nothing of Wilson’s world-historical latitude, or Trilling’s oracular profondeur, or Hannah Arendt’s reprocessed Hegel, or Irving Howe’s doctrinal intransigence. He recorded meetings, conversations, encounters at his house, at her house, at a restaurant, at a party. He said, I said, we said, they said. Does Edmund Wilson have ideas? Kazin doesn’t tell us. But he does have a house: “Edmund W[ilson] in his wonderful ‘old’ house on Route 6 in Wellfleet. Everything in this house passed down or acquired by someone who could recognize immediately its historical application to himself.” Why should we know this? Because “By contrast virtually everything I own I have bought for myself or have had to decide its merits in relation to an entirely new situation. The crucial factor in the life of the ‘new man’ who is the Jewish writer in this country is this lack of tradition.” Brownsville might just as well have been halfway around the world from Wilson’s primary residence in Talcottville, N.Y. Everything was personal for Kazin, and the self-conscious Jew in him was at the center of it all. “I wonder if Edmund Wilson ever gets into his journals of the literary life anything as personal, harrowing, mixed as this?” he wrote after reading entries from Wilson’s journal in The New Yorker. Kazin knew the answer. He was the counter-Wilson, a Jewish spokesman for angst and confusion.

The highlights of this volume are Kazin’s portraits: tableaux vivants of actors frozen in mid-gesture and placed on public display. In Kazin’s hard-edged prose, people become more vivid. He practiced the one-liner, the punch line, a style that had more in common with the stand-up comedians of his day than with literary critics. “Dinner party at Louis and Adele Auchincloss, Louis so bright and cheery, always primed for cordial interchange and Adele with the mysteriously bad teeth for a Vanderbilt, with that extraordinary sweetness and presentability of the very, very rich.” Elsewhere, “George Kennan, noble, solemn, aggrieved; the composer Milton Babbitt writhing like a cornered boxer; Karl Shapiro very wistful and out of it.” And again, “Bellow came on with his eyes confronting you. The sense of some overall, private confidence was enormous. But his private radar never stopped studying you—and warding off anyone who might obstruct his assured progress.” This compulsive spying dismayed some of Kazin’s targets, but it also affirmed the acuity of his impressions and the penetration of his social radar. He’d gladly sacrifice a friendship to an epiphany.

Kazin himself was the common target of his own caustic pen. The journals are an odyssey of self-discovery by a man who was never entirely certain of who he was or what social mask he should wear. He called them his private lie detectors. Yes, he was a great success, but he never grew to trust it. The man who wrote was always struggling to feel identical to the man who experienced: the feeling man. The journals are filled with the pathos of the feeling man, and Kazin acknowledged more than once that he felt anguished over “the labyrinth of my own soliloquy.” He was obsessed with his own blunders and refused to make peace with his achievements. He never became the smiling public man. “When I look back at these notes from time to time, it seems to me that their main burden is passive suffering, complaint, and yearning. I feel ashamed—not because I have suffered or revealed my suffering, but because I have not sufficiently defined my suffering, or been sufficiently generous, loving, and therefore challenging toward it. The task is to use our suffering and to use it so well that we can use it up.”

Kazin fit a familiar social profile, the non-Jewish Jew, a term coined by Leon Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher. Though Kazin had written in New York Jew that he “had come to believe that Jew and my family were identical” and “the Jews are my unconscious,” his Jewishness was more a register, a mood, a poetics of being rather than a belief or practice. Yet he possessed, as many Jews do, a tuning fork inside him that vibrated powerfully to Jews around him. Kazin’s early plan for this journal was to call it just Jews, but he possessed neither Irving Howe’s grasp of Yiddishkeit nor any Hebrew, and one of the uses of the journal was to align his profound feeling of Jewishness with some durable evidence of it. Declaring himself to be an “isolato” in the manner of Melville or Hawthorne, he saw how that put him ever at the margins of Judaism. “There are public Jews and private Jews,” he wrote. “But can one really worship the Jewish God privately? There is no ‘private Jew.’ That is just genteel affectation—a social mannerism—a way of living in a society you do not trust.” And yet, was there ever a more gregarious isolato than Kazin? This was no peg-legged Ahab beating out a Morse code of rage on the deck of the Pequod. He was the most sociable loner of his generation.

The durable Jewish goods he sought turned out to be his family, his own bruised ego, and the Shoah. If he was self-exiled from the observant life of the Jews and had tenuous relations with Jewishness as community, he felt profoundly about the Shoah, and the journal is filled with horrified reflections on it. They are everywhere. “In Alexander Donat’s memories of the last days of the Warsaw ghetto, the Polish Catholics on their way from Church on Easter Sundays watched the helpless Jews flinging themselves out of the windows, and they applauded.” Or this particularly horrifying entry: “Read in Podhoretz’s selection of 20 years of Commentary and broke down in reading Sol Bloom’s old piece on the Jewish dictator of Łodz and the children being taken out of the orphanages en route to the gas chambers, crying Mir viln nisht shtarbn [I don’t want to die.], 1943, the year of agony!” One of the clichés of our time is that the postwar generation of Jewish American writers did not respond to the Shoah as profoundly as they should have. Kazin was an exception; his horror was unceasing.

Time and Kazin’s own habits of work have done much to blur his reputation as a scholar and critic of literature. After completing On Native Grounds, Kazin dove headlong into a career of reviewing, journalism, and lecturing; he did little research and did not keep up with the work of fellow scholars. Writing itself was his métier, and after the success of A Walker in the City, the career of the memoirist opened its arms to him. Indeed, in 1951, Bernard Malamud had yet to publish his first novel, The Assistant, and Saul Bellow had only two novels to his credit, Dangling Man (1942) and The Victim (1947). A Walker in the City was a pioneering instance of Jewish-American writing—a harbinger of what would soon become a flood—and in the originality of its material, the freshness of the writing, and its candor it has stood the test of time better than Kazin’s critical writing.

Kazin remains relevant as a writer, a voice, a social portraitist, and an artist who composed in words. Kazin was to my mind a hero of the English language. He was a master of the vernacular as an instrument of literary expression. He brought the cadences and resources of American colloquial speech with him miraculously from Brooklyn and a household in which ideas were nonexistent and Yiddish was spoken. Perhaps because he had a terrible stammer as a youth, the written word became his primary voice and the essay his form of conversation. The English vernacular, its rhythms, its registers, its juxtapositions, and its layers, became the key to his escape from the confines of Brooklyn, and he applied himself to it with a rare ferocity until he became one of the great phrase-makers in English critical prose. How much of this phrase-making started out in his almost-daily notes to himself we now understand. Of the major critical voices, maybe only Wilson had anything like Kazin’s facility and ease. Lionel Trilling, who wrote a generic and fussy English, never did. Some Jewish novelists also took possession of American English with similar tenacity and insistence, Saul Bellow for one and Philip Roth for another, and it is telling that Roth wound up as one of Kazin’s younger friends and was at his bedside toward the end.

Alfred Kazin comes across in these journal entries as both the Brownsville Jew and the Emersonian thinker-at-large. He saw himself as the Jewish version of the mythic American individual forging his own destiny, and doing it in the only way he knew how: by words alone. This look behind the scenes at Kazin’s act of self-creation makes for remarkable and exciting reading, and Richard Cook deserves our gratitude for the labor of bringing it to us.

Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.

Mark Shechner is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.