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.

Kazin eventually became the most prominent and influential working reviewer in America (Edmund Wilson gave up this role sometime during the 1930s). More than that, he was reviewing books at a time when Americans believed very much in the necessity of doing so – they were taking over the world, after all, and should know some things about Culture. (The CIA thought so, too, and funded Encounter.) America wasn’t exactly enamoured of intellectuals in the 1950s (there’s a reason Kazin’s friend Hofstadter wrote his history of anti-intellectualism then), but it was certainly enamoured of authorities, and Kazin was very much an authority.

And he was good. He was ecumenical, responsive, always open to new work. He was less politically oriented in his criticism than some of his New York contemporaries (Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, Clement Greenberg), and certainly less dogmatic – this is one of the reasons he never found Partisan Review congenial. A little surprisingly, given Kazin’s temperamental prickliness versus Howe’s gentle, social-democratic disposition, you were much better off running into Kazin in a dark alley with your first novel. He was more lyrical as a critic, more apt to get into the spirit of the book he was reviewing, and also more interested in the American as opposed to the European tradition. He was one of the first to welcome Philip Roth in 1959: ‘Several weeks ago I was awakened, while reading the New Yorker, by Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith”, a story with such extraordinary guts to it that I walked around for days exhilarated by the change in the literary weather.’ He was encouraging of Norman Mailer without puffing him up, and he was also worried for him: ‘Mailer’s performance here’ – in Advertisements for Myself – ‘reminds me of the brilliant talker who impresses the hell out of you at a cocktail party but who, when he turns his back to go home, seems vaguely lost.’ He was mystified by the popularity of Salinger and the Beats, and he was a great early explainer of what Saul Bellow was up to, and what he was up against – ‘for the fact is that we do not like our novelists to be too intelligent.’

He was a reviewer, though, more than a critic, and he never worked up a grand theory of the American novel; instead he met every book on its own ground (within reason). He over-identified, at times comically, with his generation of male Jewish writers (‘we were the first Jews to get divorced,’ he once said, ‘the first ones to have sex’ – to which his ex-wife Ann Birstein responded: ‘Talk about self-made men’), and it was through his reviews that he was able to respond to the shifts in the fates of that generation.

When the Menshevik New Leader began to support the McCarthyist crusade in the early 1950s, Kazin announced that he would no longer contribute to it. He also, more notably, declined Encounter’s invitation, one of the few New York intellectuals to do so. Still, he belonged to no party, and while he vehemently rejected the patriotic fervour of the postwar years he was careful (as Cook makes clear, a little disapprovingly) not to associate himself too closely with the radicals. The postwar decade was a decade for settling scores, and Kazin kept his distance from both sides.

There was never any refuge for him. One of the things one learns from Cook is that he felt uncomfortable wherever he ended up. He replaced Cowley as literary editor at the New Republic in 1942, but after a year allowed himself to be lured away by Fortune. He soon grew restless there, too. He taught at Smith, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard, Black Mountain College, CUNY – yet none of them became a home. His New York apartment of longest tenure was a run-down sublet, to which he clung tenaciously. He moved in and out of the city. He lectured in Europe. He married four times. He never settled down at a magazine for long, as Dwight Macdonald or Edmund Wilson eventually settled down at the New Yorker, or Howe settled down at his own magazine, Dissent, or Irving Kristol or Norman Podhoretz at theirs. He was never at home anywhere for very long. He was simply never at home.

Cook’s biography is sympathetic without being sycophantic. He never moralises, even when Kazin has it coming: there is for example the downtown ‘studio’ (Cook does at least place it in quotation marks), which Kazin used for writing some of the time and for entertaining women not his wife the rest of the time. Cook never takes to calling Kazin Alfred or Alf or Alfie. The book is dutiful and clearly written. It is also a little bloodless. Cook keeps making geographical errors: Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn becomes ‘Eastern Boulevard’; 95th Street in Manhattan is said to be across from Morningside Park (which begins 15 blocks north); and Kazin’s apartment at 111th Street is said to be conveniently close to the George Washington Bridge, which is in fact at 186th Street and nearby only to a fanatical walker like Kazin. These are extremely minor things but they lead you to wonder whether Cook has ever been to New York. Similarly, he doesn’t seem that curious about anything that isn’t in Kazin’s journals. He makes very little use of Ann Birstein’s odd and disturbing account of their thirty-year marriage in her 2003 memoir, What I Saw at the Fair. (She says, among other things, that Kazin once broke her finger during a fight.) Perhaps Cook is just high-minded, but he does tell us of two weeks Kazin spent on Cape Cod in the summer of 1950 with Hannah Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Bluecher, and Arendt’s friend Rose Feitelson, improving the English of Origins of Totalitarianism. That book is amazingly fluent and epigrammatic for a German émigré, and one wonders how much work Kazin did. Instead we learn that Kazin had a brief affair with the ‘demanding’ Feitelson, who would cry ‘Fuck me hard!’ during their sessions. OK, but how about some manuscript work? None is forthcoming; perhaps there is no original manuscript to look at. Still, Cook just doesn’t seem that interested.

A Kazin biography would have benefited greatly from a fuller account of the relations between and changing status of postwar magazines in New York. In New York Jew, Kazin describes his time as literary editor of the New Republic as a moment when serious people knew that ‘the only real magazine was Partisan Review. They looked on the NR as a source of cash.’ Over the years this changed: Partisan waned, and nothing really took its place except, fitfully, the New Republic itself; the New Yorker went from being a sophisticated city weekly to the tribune of a vast ascendant suburbanising upper middle class; Commentary moved right and became the intellectual home of neoconservatism. And so on.

Such a social history would tell the story of a whole generation and its relationship to American culture, to American success. In Kazin’s life, from Brownsville to the New Republic, to the movie theatre in London where he first saw images of the slaughter of the Jews, to the bar near Columbia where he watched the McCarthy hearings alongside Mark Van Doren, whose books on poetry were being removed from libraries because of suspicion of his ties to the Communist Party, we see the curdling of an entire way of being. Some became professors – with what venom Kazin refers to ‘Professor Trilling’, ‘Professor Kristol’, in New York Jew; some became neoconservatives; others, like Irving Howe at Dissent, stood their ground politically, but only by insulating themselves (Kazin thought) in the pieties of social democracy. As always, Norman Podhoretz was the worst. Cook quotes one of Podhoretz’s patented ‘ex-friend’ descriptions: Kazin ‘became almost dementedly hostile . . . I thought sometimes that Alfred was “crazy” – even thought that I had driven him crazy.’ It must have been extraordinarily painful for Kazin to think that their milieu – Podhoretz was also from Brownsville, and studied with Lionel Trilling at Columbia – could have given birth to a creature so vile and so stupid. What’s worse is that he and Podhoretz had exactly the same subject –‘making it’.

Thus passed Kazin’s life. He wrote excellent reviews; gathered some into collections; wrote introductions; edited and introduced a portable Blake, Emerson and Hawthorne; fathered two children; and in three memoirs told the story of his generation’s move from the margins to the centres of American life. The first of these, A Walker in the City, published in 1951, is about Brownsville – its conditions, its conversation, above all its smells. ‘From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue,’ it begins, ‘and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.’ The book is lyrical, rhapsodic, extremely tender about the places and people of Kazin’s Brooklyn childhood – and one never quite locates his rage. Is it because the neighbourhood was losing its character because of slum clearances? Or because, trapped inside itself, it was retaining too much of that character? You feel that part of it with Kazin is his sense that no matter how far away from Brownsville he seems to get, he’s not going anywhere.

His next two memoirs describe what happened after he left Brownsville. Starting Out in the Thirties (1962) is a still mostly very sweet gallery portrait of his friends from that time (including Hofstadter), and the way in which the decade’s political turmoil played itself out in their lives. New York Jew is a longer, more disjointed, more bitter and more complicated book.

How much of our nostalgia for the postwar New York literary scene can be laid at the door of Alfred Kazin? It would be paradoxical if it were very much, given how grouchy he generally was about his contemporaries. And yet his portraits, which soften the lines very little, lend ballast to those that soften them more, and his standing as a critic lends literary seriousness to a group that was too often more concerned with politics. And it was Kazin who, by remaining independent, clear-sighted, a little aloof (‘a kind of hidden stranger among his New York intellectual peers’, Robert Alter very perceptively said of him, in a slightly different context), was prepared to write the story of his generation. When he had lived long enough and seen enough, when the fates of his contemporaries had played themselves out enough, it fell to Kazin to describe them very much in the terms he’d once used to describe the American writers of the turn of the century. Here is his famous description of Bellow:

Through the Chicago writer Isaac Rosenfeld – whose wife, Vasiliki, was my secretary – I met Saul Bellow, who was also just in from Chicago, and who carried around with him a sense of his destiny as a novelist that excited everyone around him. Bellow was the first writer of my generation – we had been born ten days apart – who talked of Lawrence and Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, not as books in the library but as fellow operators in the same business. As I walked him across Brooklyn Bridge and around my favourite streets in Brooklyn Heights, he looked my city over with great detachment.

It goes on, astute, affectionate and romantic: ‘He had pledged himself to a great destiny,’ Kazin concludes. ‘He was going to take on more than the rest of us were.’

We learn from Cook that Kazin and Bellow were no longer friendly when New York Jew came out in 1978, because nearly a decade earlier Kazin had reviewed Bellow’s misanthropic Mr Sammler’s Planet unfavourably. But there isn’t much rancour in the portrait. ‘As Bellow became famous,’ Kazin admits, ‘his sense of his great powers was affronted by the stupidity of others. It would be my function in life, like that of all critics, to disappoint him.’

There is a little more salt in the portrait of Lionel Trilling:

In person, there was immense and even cavernous subtlety to the man, along with much timidity, a self-protectiveness as elegant as a fencer’s; my first meetings with Trilling were just too awesome. With the deep-sunk coloured pouches under his eyes, the cigarette always in hand like an intellectual gesture, an air that combined weariness, vanity and immense caution, he was already a personage.

Kazin was bowled over, but Trilling was not his sort of thing. The only night he visited with the Trillings, Lionel confessed to a repressed desire to ‘tear off into the wild blue yonder’. Of course he would never do it. Kazin writes, a little poisonously: ‘I was beginning to understand why Freud so much occupied Trilling’s mind. What a price one paid for “culture”!’ Cook reports that this little portrait earned a stinging letter signed by 19 academics in defence of Trilling to the New York Times Book Review.

Later in the book, as the years wear on, Trilling turns into a figure whose hesitations, deliberations and fine distinctions became the substance of his intellectual career. ‘For Trilling I would always be “too Jewish”, too full of my lower-class experience. He would always defend himself from the things he left behind. This would go on and on for thirty years.’ After the war, Trilling became the touchstone, the caretaker of the ‘liberal imagination’. Kazin takes a poke at his social pretensions – ‘He seemed shocked by my suggestion that we have coffee at the Bickford’s on Broadway and 111th, outside of which I happened to meet him’ – but he also knows they were central to the workings of his mind: ‘What raised Trilling above the dull zealots, informants and false patriots of this agonising period was the critic’s gift for dramatising his mind on paper. A writer of tremulous carefulness and deliberation, he nevertheless became the master of a dialectical style that expressed his underlying argument with himself.’ Because wasn’t Trilling’s snobbery, if you want to call it that, also his tragedy – and didn’t he know it (as the generations after him were to know it)? If one thinks of Sincerity and Authenticity, his last book, and its magnificent insight into Polonius’s advice to Laertes, ‘To thine own self be true’: that it is neither earnest, as it’s sometimes misread, nor entirely hypocritical, as it’s more often misread, but desperate and pleading, because, yes, you must be true to yourself, but what is your true self? To someone like Trilling, who really had, perhaps, to put away some of the things that were valuable to him in order to remain what he was, the first Jewish professor of literature at Columbia, this was not an idle question. And it was a poignant one.

Kazin’s most important intellectual friendship in the 1930s was with Hofstadter, but that decade ended for Kazin in a movie theatre in Piccadilly Circus. In the postwar years, his most significant intellectual friendship was with Hannah Arendt. No one receives a more grateful, sympathetic portrait in New York Jew than she does:

Hitler’s war was the central fact in the dark shadowy Morningside Drive apartment where she and her feisty husband, Heinrich Bluecher, now lived, taking in a boarder to make ends meet. Hannah never stopped thinking. What she thought about was uprooting in every sense: starting with the uprooting of whole people that had washed up on the West Side, this specialist in St Augustine had turned her life into a voracious political inquiry. How did it happen? How had it all happened? How had this modern age happened? The boarder could be heard walking down the hall to the toilet. She rocked that dark flat with the flushing of the toilet; walked back to her room. Hannah paused ever so slightly in her explication of the police state. She had been brought up in a genteel upper-middle-class Jewish family in Königsberg. She had studied with Bultmann! Dibelius! Heidegger! Husserl! Jaspers! She had written her doctoral thesis at Heidelberg on Augustine’s concept of love! With a little smile, she resumed her analysis of the police state.

It would be Kazin who stood up for Arendt at the famous public debate organised by Kazin’s social-democratic doppelgänger Irving Howe in the wake of Arendt’s book on the Eichmann trial.

I began to read New York Jew ten years ago and, having got through the portraits of Bellow, Edmund Wilson and Delmore Schwartz, stopped because I thought Kazin was writing too much, and with too much feeling given the late date, about the Holocaust. Coming back to it after Cook’s book, which for all that it never lifts its head from Kazin’s journals gives a fine sense of the chronology of his career, I see much better how the Holocaust could come to occupy the centre of the thinking of a major American critic who had come of age – not just come of age, who had finally broken through to real success – at the precise moment when the Jews were being murdered in Europe. What talk could there be of ‘making it’ after that? What talk could there be of anything?

Kazin’s obsession – it’s not too much to call it that – allowed him to be alive not only to the meaning of what had happened, but to the paradoxes of its commemoration. It went from being an expression of anguish to a crude political weapon; it was never enough even as it was already becoming too much. Kazin and Ann Birstein had written an introduction to the Diary of Anne Frank, and as a critic Kazin had praised Elie Wiesel’s Night. But over the years he cooled towards Wiesel. He and Bellow and Wiesel were all flown to Bergen-Belsen, and then to Israel, in 1970, by a Jewish philanthropist. Wiesel gave a speech:

Everything Wiesel said was pitched high, stabbed you and was meant to stab you with the impossibility of finding words for Jewish martyrdom . . . But it was also rhetorical, hysterical, a writer’s performance without irony. And looking at Bellow bored by the flood of words, I . . . felt the residual cruelty of the Holocaust. The Jews could not state their case without seeming to overstate it. The world was getting tired of our complaint.

It was a thankless life, to be so tirelessly critical. (And, as Cook makes clear, Kazin was not a man who ceased his critique when he crossed the threshold of his apartment. He once said that being married to Birstein was like being married to Saul Bellow; she might have replied that being married to Alfred Kazin was like being married to Alfred Kazin.) In Cook’s hands, with his reliance on the journals, Kazin comes to sound even more bitter than seems right (it’s natural to exaggerate things in one’s journal). But on the whole Cook has re-created the disjointed, jumpy, endlessly questing nature of his subject. More than halfway through, he introduces the character of Kazin’s son Michael – born in 1948, he went to Harvard, became a radical leader, dropped out, eventually returned and went on to a career in academia as a left-wing historian of American labour and politics. This portrait seems at first an imposition, some kind of recompense to the son for his co-operation with the biographer. But then, towards the end, you begin to understand why it’s there. Kazin had been through so many wives; had written for so many different magazines; had taught and lived in so many places, had outlived so many of his old friends (he died in 1998, at the age of 83, having published five full-length reviews in the New Republic and the New York Review of Books in the last six months of his life), that his son comes to seem the only continuous thread running through the second half of his life. ‘My proudest memory of my father,’ Alfred Kazin had written of his own father, an uncommunicative man of whom otherwise he was somewhat ashamed,

is that when I was a boy and stood with him on Sunday mornings as he waited in the crowd of house painters on Pitkin Avenue to be tapped for a new job, he would shyly but with unmistakable delight introduce me around as his Kaddish. ‘Meet my Kaddish.’ Meet the son and heir who will see me to the grave and say the last prayer over me.

Michael Kazin said Kaddish for his father in the form of an essay, ‘Father and Son’, which was published in the Fall 1998 issue of Dissent.