Tuesday, July 3, 2007

My Good Dead Friend Alfred Kazin

Truth be told, as it always is, I never met Alfred Kazin, and wherever he is now, he will not know me. He lived in New York and was one of a group known as the New York intellectuals, critics who influenced American culture almost to the end of the twentieth century. Alfred Kazin also taught at Amherst College, Harvard, Berkeley and SUNY. I feel as if I know him, that I have walked the streets of New York with him, listening to his words and opinions. I carry his wisdom forward; I try to be the proper torch-bearer.

“Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have,” Kazin wrote once. He is unique in the world of letters: he wrote criticism and essays, but was also a voracious reader. His first book, On Native Grounds, explicated and explored the difficult works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emerson. It was published when he was only 27 years old, and was the result of five years spent in the reading room of the New York Public Library. He worked on it every day for months, up to twelve hours a day.

“The automatic part of all my reading was history…The past, the past was great; anything American, old, glazed, touched with dusk at the end of the nineteenth century, still smoldering with the fires lit by the industrial revolution…” Kazin captured the spirit of American literature, even as this form was being born, arguably with Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau leading the way. He became the guardian of what was pure and good in our culture, in the life of the mind.

In addition to criticism, Kazin wrote memoirs. He used the idea of a walking man to stimulate his reflections on the points of his life. He walked the streets of his beloved city, New York, and on out to Brooklyn and the outlying areas, and he wrote about his journeys in a number of books like A Walker In The City. Much of what he wrote has the passionate intensity of Whitman’s poetry. Kazin captured the city, the bustle of it, the pounding intensity and the teeming life, from Battery Park to Harlem. His writing is lyrical and poetic, a kind of stream of consciousness that matches well with a trek through city streets and among the masses of people, immigrants mostly, hurrying to work, to school, to their lives.

Kazin brought to his studies the discipline of a Talmudic scholar. Yet, he was fiercely secular. Born in Brooklyn in 1915 to Russian parents, his father, a painter, his mother, a garment worker, Kazin was raised in an environment where politics, religion and culture collided. The denizens of his neighborhood were Orthodox Jews, Communist workers, and immigrants who came to America searching for a better life away from the Cossacks and the tsarist persecutions. He spoke Yiddish, and lived in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville. He began his writing life in journals, writing furiously about the changing world around him. This led to his forays in the public library, the most democratic of American institutions, where an immigrant child could access the great minds and literary work of all the authors who had come before. Kazin spent his time reading and reading and reading.

“I discovered as a very young man,” Kazin said in an interview, “that my way of writing was to talk to myself, as it were. In everything I’ve written since I began to write professionally, I adopted a habit of putting down my thoughts and arguments, my impressions, my experiences, to myself in diary form, in journal form.” Much of this early and late journal writing was collected in his book, A Lifetime Burning In Every Moment.” The writing in his journal is not all that different from his memoirs, but we do get to see the connections he makes between culture and literature when they are fresh. We also see his awareness of the pleasures of writing. The material is more immediate, more intimate than his published works. “I could think what I really wanted to say about William James or Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman by first writing in my journals as if I were writing about a personal experience,” Kazin said. He goes on to say that “I was very much influenced by that literature from Emerson to Emily Dickinson and William James. I think it’s the core of American literature.”

A variety of critics influenced Kazin over the years, including Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson. G.K. Chesterton, Randolph Bourne, and H.L. Mencken. These were critics who did not just criticize books, “but were concerned with the necessary continuity of progress in American life and were not afraid to attack social and political evil.”

Alfred Kazin died on his birthday, June 5, 1998. His passion for the written word inspires me as a teacher and writer. I see him in my mind’s eye, the walker, using his walking as a metaphor for life’s journey, how we all are walkers in a city, discovering our world, and reporting back what it is we have found.

Further Reading
A Lifetime Burning In Every Moment (Harper Perennial, 1996)
New York Jew (Syracuse University Press, 1978)
A Walker In The City (Harvest Book, 1979)
Writing Was Everything (Harvard University Press, 1995)
On Native Grounds (Harvest Book, 1995)
God and the American Writer (Random House, 1997)
An American Procession (Harvard University Press,1984)