His Generation

Keith Gessen

  • Alfred Kazin: A Biography by Richard Cook
    Yale, 452 pp, £25.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 11505 5

Alfred Kazin published his first and best book of literary criticism, On Native Grounds, in 1942, when he was 27 years old. It told, in highly wrought, dramatic prose, the story of American literature from what Kazin called ‘the opening struggle for realism’ in the 1890s to 1940. It was written over the course of four years but reads as if it had been done in white heat over six weeks; each written page represents the compression of a thousand pages read. The moral pressure is extraordinary: with just a few happy exceptions, the story of each writer is told as a miniature tragedy, a squandered opportunity, a failure. ‘What was it he had missed?’ Kazin asks of William Dean Howells, whose modest novels fought the battle for realism as best they could. ‘Howells had missed something, and he knew it as well as the generations after him were to know it . . . He had spoken in all the accents of greatness without ever being great himself.’ On Howells’s successor in the genteel tradition: ‘Edith Wharton’s great subject should have been the biography of her own class, for her education and training had given her alone in her literary generation the best access to it. But the very significance of that education was her inability to transcend and use it.’ Dreiser escaped his limitations, used them in fact as his weapons, but Kazin’s not going to do a happy dance: ‘As one thinks of his career, with its painful preparation for literature and its removal from any literary tradition, it seems remarkable not that he has been recognised slowly and dimly, but that he has been recognised at all.’ It’s a 500-page book and written almost entirely at this pitch of judgment.

Even its composition was heroic: a young man from the poor Jewish Brownsville section of Brooklyn, just graduated from City College, teaching courses at night and reviewing books as they came along to help pay the bills, going to the enormous reading room, Room 315, at the Fifth Avenue flagship of the New York Public Library, open late because it was a cheap way to keep the jobless off the streets, Kazin took the subway to Manhattan and declared American literature to be his native ground. It was a particular moment in Jewish-American life, as the children of refugees from the turn-of-the-century Eastern European pogroms began to produce books. In the library Kazin sometimes sat across from his friend the historian Richard Hofstadter, who was also writing his first book, and their simultaneous composition was also a form of becoming. The battle Kazin had all his writers fight in On Native Grounds was a battle against an uncaring America, a vast industrial civilisation. He no more needed to be told about the organic connection between literature and society than in 1930s Jewish trade-union Brooklyn he needed to be told to be a socialist; but as with his youthful, inherited radicalism, Kazin went his own way. The writer emerged from his society, yes, but only so as to do battle against it. Of course, once you put the question like that there was no way for the writer to win. Outsiders (like Dreiser, like Fitzgerald) coming to the city to impose their vision on it, or insiders (Wharton, also Fitzgerald) trapped in the forms of a dying culture, struggling to liberate themselves, all of them momentarily succeeding before being crushed by the very city they have come to describe, or by the very success they have garnered for describing it: that was Kazin’s story, too. The son of a seamstress and a laundryman, neither of whom would ever feel comfortable with English, he was telling the world, in his own words, about Jack London, Dos Passos, Hemingway, Steinbeck. He was announcing – as his exact contemporary Saul Bellow would announce a decade later in The Adventures of Augie March – a new addition to the canon of American sensibility.

But the cost would be high. Kazin’s memoir of this time, Starting Out in the Thirties, which begins with the primal scene of a young Kazin bounding up to the New York Times building to confront a famous literary critic (and also to ask him for work), ends with a short epilogue, headed, as all the chapters are headed, with a year. The epilogue skips ahead to 1945. Kazin was in London, doing some quasi-journalistic work on the British war effort. The war, Kazin wrote, ‘was the first payment on the more accomplished society in which we are now living. It was a sacrifice to progress.’ Old Europe had to be destroyed to make way for the American century; and the central prominence of American Jewry in the postwar era was partly the result of the destruction of Jewry in its traditional home. In a cinema in Piccadilly Circus Kazin saw the first newsreel images of Bergen-Belsen, into which the British army had stumbled in the spring of 1945. He would replay the scene of the terribly emaciated figures staring into the camera over and over in his mind. ‘It was unbearable,’ he wrote. ‘People coughed in embarrassment, and in embarrassment many laughed.’

Kazin continued to write literary criticism, but he would never again write about literature the way he’d done before the war. The ground had shifted. What he began to do instead was write the moral history of his own generation of writers – and this was something that would take time. In fact, a lifetime.

Meanwhile, he reviewed books.

Richard Cook’s very thorough biography of Kazin is a tale told in book reviews. In some sense it’s a warning against writing too many of them: we learn from Cook of Kazin’s perennial frustration at his inability to complete longer works while eking out a living reviewing anything that moved for the New Republic, New York Herald Tribune, New York Times Book Review, then Commentary, the New Yorker, the American Scholar, and on and on. The book review turns out to be the family business: Kazin’s sister Pearl also became a notable reviewer. There is a very funny description, in Starting Out, of sitting on the ‘mourner’s bench’ at the New Republic offices on West 21st Street, with the other freelancers, all of them lean and hungry – it was the Depression – waiting for Malcolm Cowley, the literary editor, to come along and hand out some books for review. Perhaps Kazin’s inability to turn down an assignment was a legacy of this Depression-era experience: economic life was precarious, and you never knew if they’d ask again.

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