Just four years before he died, Alfred Kazin gave the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University, joining the likes of Eudora Welty, Irving Howe and Toni Morrison who had given past lectures. His words were gathered together and published in the slim volume Writing Was Everything (Harvard University Press, 1995), now very difficult to find except in used copies. But what a gem.
I have been looking for the book for years now, and I had suspicions it was in my storage unit with a couple thousand other books. So when I cleaned the unit out this summer, I was overjoyed to find my pristine copy tucked away in my box with Samuel Pepys, Samuel Johnson, and Samuel Clemens—don’t ask me why old Alfred was boxed up with the Samuels, but there he was. Immediately, right there in the dimly lit hallway, I started paging through and reading snippets.
“If there is a writer who is not filled with fear and trembling as he begins and begins and begins,” Kazin writes near the end of the book, “he has to be an amateur.” Kazin here is building to a climax and rhapsodizing eloquently about the importance of good writing in the realm of cultural criticism. He holds up the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and his words from the “burning city” where he was not sure “anyone would survive to read him, but he wrote anyway.” Milosz did the only thing he could: write. “Morally and imaginatively,” says Kazin, “he could not live without the connections writing makes, without believing in his heart that somehow, somewhere, despite the cruel wisdom of the age that nothing is less probable or perhaps less desirable, all lines do intersect.”
This is the beauty of this book: it is a genuflection to the power of criticism; it is a tribute to the lost art of cultural discussion. The book is called Writing Was Everything, but really it should be Writing and Reading Are Everything. Kazin is a man reaching back to revel in the years, deeply reflective and wise. He tells us the best critics are poets and the best practitioners were “Samuel Johnson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats in his letters, Emerson, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot.” They wrote about books to “change the direction of literature.” Criticism had cultural currency; it was important work. Look around today and such criticism is disappearing. The publications that shaped the 20th century critical mind, that published people like Kazin, have disappeared or they are mere shadows of their former selves. It is difficult to know where people like Edmund Wilson and Edgar Allan Poe (a difficult and cantankerous critic) would publish today. There are a few beacons of hope: The New York Review of Books (minus its dearly departed editor, Robert B. Silvers), The New York Times Book Review; The New Yorker; and The Atlantic. Others can be found by doing a quick Google search.
What we have now, Kazin notes in his time, is a professional class engaged in telling other people “How To Read.” And these critics are academics who are “riding herd on students who are so unused to general reading that they have little taste of their own and are glad to be told how to read, especially what to discount.” If this was the state of things in 1994, what would he say today? Students that I have encountered not only struggle to know how to read different texts, but really have no time for recreational reading. They utilize social media, television streamed to the computer, and movies. The reading they do for their classes is reading for information. They are skimming through things to glean the facts for the test. There is no depth, no shaded or nuanced understanding. Kazin believes there is a dearth of true criticism which is “the ability to state preferences, to make choices on the basis of what is said in the only way available to that particular writer to say it.”
Kazin cites George Orwell’s theory in the essay, “Why I Write,” that the writer’s “subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” Right here, right now, we are in danger of never having that emotional attitude. We are slack-jawed and drooling in the free-falling catastrophe of an under-developed intellect. We are not engaged with ideas much less with reading and writing. It is all narcissism and boredom.
We cannot even have a discussion about political correctness; those have become fighting words. Kazin saw the beginnings of the coming language apocalypse: “Only in an age so fragmented, so ignorant of the unlosable past working in us can presumably literate persons speak of Dante, Beethoven, or Tolstoy as ‘dead white European males.’ It is true that literature can no longer be regarded anywhere as the truth about human existence.” He goes on to write that “It is true…that literature is besieged by movies and hijacked by television, so commercialized that the million-dollar advances handed out to macho spy novelists makes life difficult for quieter talents.”
Kazin in his notebooks found himself wondering why printed words had such an effect on him. Why did writers write the way they did? Literature was a problem to be solved as well as entertainment for the imaginative mind. Everything begins with a question. That was how he started as a critic.
As for economics, Kazin has this to say: “A son of the immigrant working class whose parents were tortured by poverty, I hardly needed the depression to be suspicious of moneyed power, or to see that in this society money is the first measure of all things and the only measure of many—or to learn for myself that there is no way in America of being honorably poor.” Today with all the border wall nonsense and travel bans, one cannot be “honorably poor” or the “son of the immigrant working class” without being held up for undeserved shame and ridicule. It is Kazin’s fervent belief that “art invents truth better than any document can,” and therefore, literature could be the great equalizer for us as it has for generations before us. Of course, when Kazin combines a discussion of immigrants and working class, we see his roots in the communism of the early 20th century. He faced criticism in his time for his political positions, but that is what comes with a life of the mind. Critics like Kazin, Sontag, Chomsky, challenge the status quo. They dare to consider all possibilities and explanations. They dare to think.
All this from Kazin’s little book of lectures. “In his pages,” he tells us, “literature and life are necessarily intimate. The one lesson as a critic I seem to have been born with is that no storyteller can escape that intimacy.” In this age of information, we have lost that intimacy with our own lives.
I continued my reading at home, all of this is swirling around in my head as I stayed up late into the night soaking in his words. For Alfred Kazin, it was a century of ideas. They faced horrendous and bloody wars, weapons of mass destruction, unspeakable atrocities. They also saw the first human beings to leave earth and land on the moon. We cured diseases. We developed institutions dedicated to helping others. No doubt, we in the 21st century have had our trials already. We need thinkers and cultural critics to help us grow, to make us aware of life and its possibilities, and yes, to hold a mirror up and tell us this is who you are. Quite simply, we need critics like Alfred Kazin to help us see the world clearly.