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People of the Book 101: Alfred Kazin

March 7, 2014
by Marek Breiger

“There was no family saga, no great background to attach themselves to. Mine were intensely humble people, totally without yikhes — family pride and prestige . . .” --Alfred Kazin, Jews

kazinwIn Alfred Kazin’s second memoir, Starting Out in the 1930s, the young Kazin, barely 20, meets William Saroyan in Manhattan. Kazin is already a professional book reviewer, writing for The New Republic, while Saroyan, 27 in 1935, has become famous. His first collection of short stories, The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, has propelled the young Armenian-American “like a bullet straight from Fresno to New York,” Kazin writes. In two pages, he describes Saroyan so vividly that the reader will see him forever: the glow of his cigar, his pride in his accomplishment, his “defiance” of “Anglo-Saxon tradition,” his tone in “which he addressed every reader as his brother.” Saroyan, in that first book, in his story “70,000 Assyrians,” alluded to the genocide of his people, the Armenians, and Kazin was conscious, more and more every day of the meaning of Hitler and the threat to the Jewish people in Europe. Empathy was Kazin’s gift, whether writing about himself, his family and friends in a trio of memoirs: A Walker in the City, Starting Out in The Thirties, and New York Jew, or in his writing about America and literature in On Native Grounds,Contemporaries and An American Procession. Kazin’s blending of history, biography, and autobiography allowed his readers to share in his excitement for a literature that Kazin thought could redeem the world. From Faulkner to Elie Wiesel, from Hawthorne to Sholem Aleichem, Kazin’s essays located the human worth of literature: its ability to draw us emotionally out of our own isolation, and to confront the evil in the world and the isolation within ourselves. Kazin was especially important as a Jewish and American writer. Beginning with On Native Grounds, he became a major voice in the democratization of American writing. His memoirs are models for other ethnic and minority writers, and his reviews and early recognition of James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, Albert Halper, Daniel Fuchs, Henry Roth, and Meyer Levin — among many others — paved the way not only for the acceptance of Malamud and Bellow and Roth, but for James Baldwin and Ellison and a host of Latino and Asian-American and Native American writers. Richard Rodriguez and Piri Thomas, Maxine Hong Kingston and Amy Tan, all owe Alfred Kazin a debt. Tears happyWhat made Kazin extraordinary as a critic and as a thinker was an ability to connect with lives of those other Americans who were not Jewish but who shared a similar sense of being an outsider. He assumed of others what he assumed of himself. Yet he was unselfconsciously Jewish during an era when other Jews, of both the left and the right, often minimized their Jewish background. His own vulnerability, as a boy from the Brownsville slums with a bad stammer and an out-of-work father who saw families losing their apartments and being evicted and put on the streets, helped Kazin understand the vulnerabilities of a Jack London, growing up in the poverty of 1880s and 1890s Oakland; of James Agee, living and writing about the poorest of the poor in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; of Faulkner, who through his most profound creation, Dilsey, in The Sound and the Fury, humanized the racist South. Kazin’s love of the Jewish poor was not a pose. Despite the poverty of Brownsville, he felt that growing up there was a gift. As he wrote in his New Yorker memoir, “Jews” — . . . The oppressed of other races were not forgotten though we knew no other race but our own. My father revered the Jewish labor paper, the Forward. This impressed me more than anything else about him. When he exultantly read from the Forward to me, with its news of the international working class, he was not alone. He was full of pride in what he was reading aloud, positively worshiping every item. In his excitement, he read at breakneck speed, as if afraid that someone would stop him, read so fast I would laughingly beg him to slow down. The Forward Masthead carried the opening line in every Socialist Bible: “Workers of the World Unite!” . . . As I remember, sometime in the ’20s, a black man was lynched in Pennsylvania: the flaming headlined across the face of the Forward read “POGROM IN PENNSYLVANIA!” Unlike other radicals at City College, Kazin would never change his politics. During a time when many radicals chose between Trotsky and Stalin, Kazin picked neither. He was a socialist, and an anti-Stalinist socialist he remained. The debates in the alcoves had little interest for Kazin. His obsession and love was literature and he lived in literature as if in a religion. Books helped him understand the world not through formulas but through a communication of soul to heart. He was not jealous of other writers but had a desire — expressed in Starting Out in the Thirties — that “art and truth and hope could yet come together — if a real writer was their meeting place . . .” He never forgot his beginnings in the idealistic, pre-Hitler-Stalin-pact 1930s. He began as a book reviewer who tried to make every review a vivid non-fiction vignette. He had a feeling for character and an understanding of how a good writer conveyed emotion but was not abstract; he felt tied to the history of his time and he understood books as an expression of a particular time. Kazin was a writer who linked disparate experience: He saw commonalities in the experience of all of those suffering during the Depression, and a shared idealism as well: “I sensed I could become a writer without giving up on my people . . . Reading Silone and Malraux . . . was part of the great pattern in Spain, in Nazi concentration camps, in Fantanamara and in the Valley of the Ebro, in the Salinas Valley of California that Steinbeck was describing with love for the oppressed . . . Wherever I went now, I felt the moral contagion of a single idea . . .” According to Kazin’s biographer, Richard Cook, in Alfred Kazin, A Biography, that idea of the unity of mankind was badly shaken by the Holocaust. Kazin’s mother lost family — a sister was shot to death in front of the family house — but more than that, after World War II and the Shoah, Kazin never was to regain the hope he had as a young man in his twenties writing On Native Grounds. For Kazin, great books mirrored the world as it was. His writing was a springboard to a brilliant career, yet as Cook shows, Kazin’s life was filled with melancholy. His old age was redeemed by a last, happy marriage, but Kazin’s writing in his later years was filled with a sense of loss and not only that of family and friends. Cook does a fine job documenting Kazin’s basic feeling for those close to him and the gratitude he felt at the reconcilation with his son, Michael — but Kazin’s life went beyond the personal. Cook does try to bring us the vitality and sadness and anger of a great writer, an American, a Jew, a man who understood — who felt — the loss of the six million in a way that was without hyperbole. Kazin could see no intrinsic value in his own or others success when six million of our people had been butchered and dismembered — mainly unremembered except as a mass. “Life seemed far from terrible and extreme in this postwar era of expansion and prosperity when so many Jews ‘came into their own.’ But it was. We had just been ruled out of the human race, systematically annihilated on the latest scientific principles . . . For me, no one was serious who did not fight the condemnations of a specific group that ended in its ‘extermination.’ Nothing else was serious. Murder had become the first political principle. We had to recognize the abyss of whose edge we lived.” Kazin’s reaction to the abyss was to write first and last of his own parents — so that they would not be forgotten. He wrote of his heroic seamstress mother who kept the family afloat during the Depression, and he wrote of his house painter father: “Charley Kazin, always condescended to by successful relatives, helpless feeling shy, waiting to be accepting for a painting job by the steward of the Painters, Decorators and Paperhangers of America, to be smiled upon by his own folk in the Socialist party of America, the Workmen’s Circle, the Minisker branch (No.99) of the Workmen’s Circle. . .” (“Jews”). Yet Kazin was truly an American writer. One region or ethnicity did not cancel out another. If “On Native Grounds” is no longer required in most American Studies classrooms, that is, I think, a loss for the students. The acceptance of ethnic literature also would not have happened without a great critic like Kazin, who helped break down the Anglo-Saxon chokehold and who made way for the immigrants and their sons and daughters and grandson’s and granddaughters into the literature of the United States. Likewise, Kazin’s memoirs — starting with A Walker in The City — are essential works of Jewish-American writing, and Kazin’s elegy for his parents generation has ennobled the whole generation of our grandparents’ as much as Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, though in a quieter, more lyrical and personal way. Kazin died seventeen years ago but his writing lives. Cook’s biography, in my view, should help younger readers discover a writer who was a 20th-century Emerson, whose writing about the Brooklyn Bridge can stand alongside Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Alfred Kazin was a Jewish Whitman in his identification with the sufferers of America and his celebration of the literature of the United States. He deserves to be remembered, read, and appreciated. Reading Kazin opens a door not only to Jewish America of the tenements, but to the America of Melville and Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell, Henry Roth and Philip Roth, Hemingway and the writers and photographers of the W.P.A. Who else has written about American literature with such love and hope? Who, among Jewish writers, has seen Thoreau and Emerson and Lincoln as our ancestors? At the end of his memoir “Jews,” written in 1994 as Kazin battled cancer, he wrote of Henry James: “He proved that, whatever his withdrawals as a man, his valor as a writer was enough and overreaching. . .” Those who return to Kazin’s books will find the same true of Kazin himself. Marek Breiger has published over 100 essays, reviews, and poems and has had his work anthologized in Where Coyotes Howl and the Wind Blows Free, and the forthcoming Oakland Pen anthology, Writing is Fighting, which deals with immigrant life in California. Several of his essays have appeared here under the heading, “People of the Book 101.”