Thursday, April 3, 2008

Alfred Kazin

Alfred Kazin: A Biography
By Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press, $35.00 cloth
ISBN 978-0-300-11505-5

Richard M. Cook’s biography of Kazin, America’s foremost literary and cultural critic, spends equal time with the great man’s writing, his thoughts about literature and American culture as well as his sex life and sordid battles with various wives and girlfriends. Cook’s prose is serviceable, only occasionally falling into the kind of clunky academic writing that Kazin so carefully avoided in his own work.

Cook takes on a difficult subject. Alfred Kazin had so many facets to his life: the book critic, the memoirist, the historian, the cultural critic, the teacher, the speaker, the journalist. Therefore, the biography could have been streamlined a bit, eliminating some of Kazin’s sexual peccadilloes and marriage battles. But they are a part of the man’s life, and these days, readers seem to want the proverbial “warts and all” in a biography. However, Kazin is more interesting as a twentieth century thinker and critic of American literature than as a lover, and Cook might have improved the book if he had focused only on Kazin’s writing and work exclusively.

Alfred Kazin was the quintessential New York intellectual, born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1915 to parents mired in working class poverty without time or inclination to read. In fact, as Cook reveals, they were barely literate. This left Kazin on his own to devise ways of secure reading material. His main source was the New York public library system. Both he and his sister managed “to secure illegal library cards, enabling them to take more than the allowable number of books from the Stone Avenue Library, which, [Kazin] said, they visited every other day for a new supply.”

School was a struggle for young Kazin, a stutterer and introvert who would rather keep his face “stuck in a book.” In fact he dreaded Monday every Sunday night, a feeling to which most school-aged children can relate.

Cook keeps as a backdrop Kazin’s interest and exploration of socialist and communist groups—although his first meetings involved only his parents. Kazin kept a foot in these worlds as did most Jewish intellectuals of his era. As a child, Kazin read during the meetings, learning the art of “being with people and yet not being with them,” he wrote in his published journal.

“I read walking in the street, to and from the Children’s Library on Stone Avenue, on the fire escape and the roof, at every meal when they would let me; read even when I dressed in the morning, propping my book up against the drawers on the bureau as I pulled on my long black stockings.”

The early days of Kazin’s career, his inclination and talent for reading, are clearly presented in the book. Cook shows us his development, from the seminal On Native Grounds, a groundbreaking and intensive study of American literature, through his early memoirs of growing up in, and walking through his beloved city.

Of particular interest are Kazin’s daily work habits while writing his first book of criticism in the fall of 1938. “He did most of his work in the great reading room (Room 315) of the New York Public Library,” Cook writes. Kazin spent four and a half years there researching and writing the book. “His accounts of his days in Room 315 have become legendary among those interested in the history of the library,” Cook assures us. His friend, Richard Hofstadter often joined Kazin in the library, working on his own dissertation. “After a morning of work, the two friends would break for lunch at a nearby automat, sometimes squeezing in a game of ping-pong at a Times Square pool hall before returning to the golden tables” in the library reading room.

Cook presents a picture of Kazin’s work during the years of the Second World War. He worked for the magazine the New Republic, as well as other publications. Kazin was not altogether comfortable at the magazine, even though one of his heroes, Edmund Wilson held the position before him. Kazin liked writing much more than editing.

During this period, Kazin’s interests shifted a bit from American literature to William Blake. He would go on to write extensively about Blake’s work. He also studied Proust and his work. The meat of Kazin’s criticism remained American literature, specifically nineteenth century authors.

He wrote about culture and the American scene. He was also one of the few American Jews to write about the fate of European Jewry during the war. His essays, however, “provoked limited response,” according to Cook.

Kazin’s life as a teacher is thoroughly documented here as well. He was hired by a number of prestigious universities, but was a difficult teacher for the most part. He was often exasperated with his students, sometimes resorting to throwing a book at them, literally—“using the canon as a cannon.” He also tended to approach his teaching as a critic in the classroom, rather than as a teacher. “Teaching must be a real discovery—not a critic’s notebook,” Kazin wrote.

“His teaching format was traditional, lecture discussion,” Cook recounts. “He was a kind of evangelist for Melville and Blake.” His students often left class “intoxicated” by him and his passion for the texts.

Cook gives equal attention to Kazin as husband, lover and father, and this is where the biography loses some of its momentum. In a way, I thought these sections demeaned Kazin. Do we really need to know that Kazin called his third wife, Ann Birstein, by the slang term for a vagina? Do we need to know the specific demands of Kazin’s lovers in bed, and how much he enjoyed these demands? Cook could have, and should have left these details out.

Cook’s prose is not always the smoothest. “If some mysterious and decisive things happened in 1977-1978, they were not unprepared for,” he writes at one point. And “It had been a year of change and a culmination of earlier changes that would bring more changes.” Certainly, Cook’s purpose in writing is to convey information, yet I have read biographies that are written poetically. This is not one of them. I found it ironic that Cook is profiling a man who titled one of his books, Writing Was Everything, and this biographer’s own writing is so often stilted and awkward.

In the end, Cook does a serviceable job of conveying a complex life. Alfred Kazin died on his birthday, June 5, 1998 at the age of 83. His journals, entitled A Lifetime Burning In Every Moment, were published in 1996. In Kazin’s case, the title is not an example of hyperbole. Richard M. Cook takes on a difficult and multifaceted subject in this biography, and though the results would not make for great art, we do catch more than a glimpse of the man behind some of the greatest writing about literature and the life of the mind in twentieth century America.

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