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ALFRED KAZIN : A WRITING LIFE

Jim Burns

 

There are a number of important surveys of the "New York Intellectuals," the group of literary and social critics, many of them with their roots in Marxism, who came to the fore in the Thirties and Forties and dominated the cultural scene for several decades. And descriptions of what they represented can vary. For the purpose of this piece Irving Howe's explanation will suffice: "My use of the phrase New York Intellectuals is simply a designation of convenience for what might awkwardly be spelled out as the intellectuals of New York who began to appear in the Thirties, most of whom were Jewish." Howe himself was one of the leading second-generation New York intellectuals, and so was Alfred Kazin, though their differences were sometimes as evident as their similarities. Howe was always close to politics, whereas Kazin, though growing up with images of socialism all around him, never allied himself with any one party or programme. In later years, when he looked back at himself as he was in the early-thirties, he said: "I wasn't much interested in anything except reading and reporting in my notebook the direct impact of everything I read." He was, in fact, much more aware of social and political developments than that suggests, but the statement does indicate where his priorities lay.

But Kazin has always been an interesting and provocative writer, one whose work contains a strong element of social criticism. His dedication to books, and to the idea that writers ought to be aware of what is happening in society in general, has never been in any doubt. In his most recent book, Writing Was Everything he discusses the lack of beliefs that extend beyond the personal, and comments:

"Emerson, Whitman, Melville, Dickinson, and Faulkner, along with Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Camus, would have said that not having enough to think about beyond our health, our sex life, our status, we are not thinking at all."

Born in 1915 in Brooklyn, Kazin was one of the generation of writers and intellectuals who attended the City College of New York in the Thirties. There are stories about how the cafeteria at CCNY had separate alcoves where groups of young Trotskyists, Communists, Socialists, and others, would gather to debate their ideas, but Kazin doesn't seem to have settled in any one of them, at least not to the extent of being identified with specific views. He has been described by Alan Wald as "an armchair left-wing socialist, attracted to Marxist intellectuals but not to Marxism as a doctrine." Like many of his contemporaries he had grown up with radical beliefs almost as a family routine. His father had been a member of the Jewish-Socialist Bund in Russia, and in America joined the Socialist party and admired Eugene Debs. And Kazin, as he grew up, attended political rallies and meetings and knew many activists. His first volume of autobiography, A Walker in the City, is coloured with references to the politics of the period. Looking back, he wonders:

"Where now is Mendy, with the venomous cowlick over his eyes, who went off from the slums of Thatford Avenue to disappear on the Ebro in defence of 'Spain,' and before he left dismissed me forever in rage and contempt— 'intellectuals are not even worth shooting'—because I doubted the omniscience of Josef Vissarionovitch Stalin? And David, my excellent if pedantical friend David, with those thick lenses before his eyes severe as, Marxist method, who dutifully suppressed his love of chemistry and poetry to go down into the wilds of darkest Georgia to advance the cause of the Negro oppressed?"

Elsewhere in A Walker in the City, he reminisces about his father's work as a house-painter, when there was work to be had, his mother working from home as a dressmaker, and his cousin and her friends, employed in the East Side sweatshops and all "passionately loyal members of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union." People with jobs were lucky and others became victims of the Depression and lost their homes. Kazin refers to "the nude shamed look furniture on the street always had those terrible first winters of the Depression, when we stood around each newly evicted family to give them comfort and the young Communists raged up and down the street calling for volunteers to put the furniture back and crying aloud with their fists lifted to the sky." It may he true that Kazin did not, in later life, show signs of strong political leanings, but anyone reading his book will not be in any doubt about how he was affected by the sufferings and injustices of the Thirties. Many years after these events he was attacked by right-wing critics such as Lionel Abel and Kenneth Lynn for an alleged anti-capitalist bias in his work. Lynn. reviewing a re-issue of Kazin's On Native Grounds (originally published in 1942 and a major survey of American literature between 1890 and 1940) said that it was full of anti-business sentiments, and Abel, a one-time Trotskyist who went conservative, claimed that Kazin's An American Procession (1984) suggested a deepening of his doubts about American society due to what he perceived as "the astonishing degradation of America in recent years." The effects of the social turbulence of the Thirties were to be felt for many years amongst the generations of New York Intellectuals, whether they retained some sort of liberal or left-wing ideas or swung to the right. Sidney Hook's autobiography, Out of Step, which appeared in 1987, spent many pages fighting the old battles of the Thirties and Forties and had some harsh things to say about Kazin's activities and opinions.

A Walker in the City constantly highlights how culture, especially literature, shaped Kazin's life more than politics did, though the two were often hard to deal with separately. Radical politics often went hand-in-hand with Modernist writing, so that, visiting a friend, it was not unusual to see Poetry (the famous Chicago-based magazine which printed leading contemporary poets) alongside New Masses (a Communist Party cultural publication), while the same friend had a "hallowed copy of The Waste Land that he carried around with him wherever he went." And in the second volume of his memoirs, Starting Out in the Thirties, Kazin says: "Although I was a 'socialist,' like everyone else I knew, I thought of socialism as orthodox Christians might think of the Second Coming—a wholly supernatural event which one might await with perfect faith, but which had no immediate relevance to my life." A deep suspicion of ideology kept him away from tightly organised political groups, especially the Communists, who he had seen disrupt Socialist meetings, and who, in the person of some student activists he knew, he distrusted, at least prior to the Popular Front days.

Kazin's entry into literary journalism came through a meeting with John Chamberlain, a man who made "radicalism seem as American as baseball." Chamberlain was then in a pro-communist phase, had a job as a reviewer for the New York Times, and had established a reputation with a book called Farewell to Reform, a radical critique of the Progressive movement in America which ended by suggesting that revolution not reform was the right way forward. Chamberlain's views later changed, so much so that he worked for right-wing magazines in the Fifties and Sixties. But in 1934 he was sufficiently sympathetic to Kazin's views and situation to help him pick up some work as a book reviewer for the New Republic and Scribner's. It was a breakthrough, and an early one, considering that Kazin was only nineteen, and it gave him a direction. 'To my surprise—I had never thought of criticism as an occupation—I suddenly found a way of writing, a form, a path to the outside world. The New Republic was not merely a publication but a cause and the centre of many causes. I had a chance to meet writers in a society which in 1934 was still not far removed from the old Bohemia of Greenwich Village and Chelsea." And Kazin's writing wasn't done in a social vacuum. He mixed with people concerned about current events—"I had arrived at the New Republic to be, told with grim satisfaction by Otis Ferguson, the assistant literary editor, that a general strike had just broken out in San Francisco"—and he was himself aware of what was happening at home and abroad, and how a new breed of writers was breaking into print. Kazin noted that the rebels of the Twenties had mostly come from 'good' families—John Dos Passos, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, were all in that category—but, as he said in Starting Out in the 'Thirties, the radicals now "came from anywhere," and he recalled some of them: "Robert Cantwell had worked in a plywood factory in the far West, learning the craft of the novel from Henry James and imposing a highly literary symbolism on the factory system. James T Farrell had worked as a clerk in an express company and in a cigar store. Edward Dahlberg's mother had run a barbershop in Kansas City and he had been a hobo before trying his luck at College. Albert Halper had worked in a mail-order house in Chicago. Daniel Fuchs came from one Brooklyn slum, Williamsburg, and Henry Roth from another, Brownsville; Richard Wright from a tenant farm in Mississippi; John Steinbeck had worked on farms and in a sugar refinery, and had laid bricks for the new Madison Square Garden; Erskine Caldwell, though his father was a Presbyterian minister, had worked as a mill labourer, farm hand and waiter; Nelson Algren had tended a filling station in Texas and Henry Miller had worked up and down New York before driving himself wild as a personnel boss at Western Union. With ideology or without ideology, they were typical of the new writers who came up in the Thirties, and they understandably flourished their experience, their hard knocks, their life on the road, their days on the picket line and in the hiring hall."

Starting Out in the Thirties is one of the most vivid memoirs of the period, at least from the point of view of a sensitive young man slowly establishing himself as a writer and responding to events and personalities. It is full of references to writers such as those mentioned above and others like Nathanael West and Clifford Odets. Kazin grew more sympathetic to the Communist Party for a time, when it seemed to be taking the lead in organising resistance to Fascism. He recalls meetings at which Andre Malraux and the British novelist and International Brigades volunteer Ralph Bates appealed for aid for the Spanish Republic. He was, he says, "tired of virtue, and now wanted to see some action. In the midst of the violent labour unrest in France, the great sit-down strikes in American factories, the beginnings of the CIO, everything at home and abroad seemed to call for the same revolutionary energy." But he was not wholly committed to communism as an ideology, nor as a way of life, as so many young writers and intellectuals seemed to be. The Moscow Trials, with their obvious show element, shocked him, and in any case his over-riding concern was for cultural matters, something likely to set him apart from those who thought that politics ought to take priority. As he worked on the book that was to be published as On Native Grounds he wanted to reach back to "our real literary brethren in the Utopian and Socialist bohemians of 1912," and he felt "radicalism as a spiritual passion." Writing literary criticism was a way of dealing with social matters, and he quotes Van Wyck Brooks on the relationship between literary and social criticism. Literary criticism "is always impelled sooner or later to become social criticism ... because the future of our literature and art depends upon the wholesale reconstruction of a social life all the elements of which are as if united in a sort of conspiracy against the growth and freedom of the spirit." It was a summing up which, in many ways, described Kazin's own approach to writing.

New York during the war years, was "a world city full of freedom, openness, hope," Rejected for military service, Kazin continued to write, though broadening his work to take in reportage about the war effort at home and, later, abroad, and he also acted as a consultant to the Office of War Information. The massive governmental structure co-opted many intellectuals into working for the State in one role or another, albeit in the fight against Fascism, and led to significant changes in the general status of radical intellectuals in the post-war years. But Kazin was still essentially free-lancing in the early-Forties. On Native Grounds had brought him some success in the intellectual community, though the five years it had taken to write it had been a time of part-time teaching , and occasional book-reviewing. What it significantly did was demonstrate how Kazin, a Jew from a poor background, had a close identification with American literature, something not necessarily true of slightly older New York Intellectuals, who often looked to Europe as much as America. American culture was Kazin's main focus, and Norman Podhoretz tellingly summarised the difference: "When (Philip) Rahv, of the first generation, wrote about American literature—and he did so with originality and depth in several seminal essays—it was with the eye of the learned outsider. When the twenty-five year old Kazin, of the second generation, turned his amazingly precocious attention on the same subject in On Native Grounds, it was with the aggressive conviction that this literature was his.

Kazin's activities, after the publication of On Native Grounds are recorded in New York Jew, his third autobiographical book. Amongst other things, he visited Hollywood, where he met one-time members of the Group Theatre, the famed radical New York theatrical unit, who had turned to working in films and were now sunning themselves by their swimming pools while still going through the motions of support for the Communist Party. Kazin's views of their compromises are harsh, the Hollywood affluence with its status symbols and cultural poverty clearly at odds with his own ideas of what is worthwhile in life. But he did also point out that many of the people concerned suffered for their early commitments when Hollywood began to purge its left-wingers in the late-Forties and early-Fifties.

He had a similarly doubtful view of a brief experience teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. It had been founded in 1933 by John Andrew Rice, a dissident classics professor, as an alternative to the established higher education establishments. It's probably best known now for the period from the late-1940s to its closure in 1957, when Charles Olson dominated it and writers like Robert Creeley and Fielding Dawson were on campus, but in the late-1930s and the war years it had on its staff a number of "gifted refugees," amongst them the "Bauhaus painter and master teacher Josef Albers, the Czech conductor Heinrich Jalowtez, the German psychiatrist Erwin Strauss, the musicologist Edward Lowinsky." Kazin's view of the student body was less enthusiastic, and he described some of them as "waifs, psychic and intellectual orphans, children of agitated professional families in agitated New York, Cambridge, and Chicago," and he also noted that there was a constant stream of visitors: "artists from New York like Robert Motherwell, conscientious objectors on their way to and from the mental hospitals they served in as orderlies, vagrant idealists a decade before hippiedom who flopped on the college steps and wanted to live with us Thoreau's life of the spirit." There is, perhaps, in Kazin's comments on the "psychic and intellectual orphans" and the "vagrant idealists" something of the puritanism of the autodidact, the man who had few advantages and had to obtain his education the hard way in public libraries and by systematic reading.

Kazin also visited England, arriving in Liverpool, where what he saw put him in mind of Melville's comment a century before: "Poverty, poverty, poverty, in almost endless vistas; and want and woe staggered in arms along those miserable streets." England, he thought, had never recovered from its industrial revolution: "Along the docks everything was as dark and grimy as in the first days. Iron bridges overhead between the solid tiers of warehouses, high stone walls, cobbled passageways along which ran beautiful children red-cheeked in the cold. Would they become these men with working-class caps and scarves and yellow teeth who worked in that maze of shadows?" Talking about the impact of the war on English society, and the way in which the middle and upper-classes had been forced to mix with their fellow-countrymen, Kazin says:

"Nowhere else in the Western world would the revelation of what one's own people looked like have come as such a shock. But some English still did not regard other English as people at all."

And he adds:

"England was a social battleground that stayed a social battleground. The English liked class differences. They thrived on the social drama." He perceives that the working-class "could be more hide-bound and exclusive than royalty. Their customs and traditions—even the rows of houses back to back— seemed dearer to some than any possible ending of the class struggle. Their separate speech, their pubs, their low feeding habits, their ancient bitter humour were sacred to themselves."

Writing, always writing, working as an editor on various magazines, teaching, Kazin observed the rise of anti-communism as an intellectual trend in the late-1940s and early-1950s.

"The atmosphere was heavy with souped-up patriotism, and radiating from the many disillusioned and fretful ex-radicals like a new weapon, it was also intensely religious. All evil was now to be attached to Communism, no doubt because some former Communists felt their old attachment so intensely."

Loyalty hearings spread across America, in government offices, schools, factories. People confessed to their past affiliations and named names or they lost their jobs. Sometimes they confessed and named names, and still lost their jobs. Others took advantage of the situation:

"In New York many left-wing intellectuals, having just discovered that America stood for freedom and that Russian despotism was probably incurable, emerged from their proud longstanding 'alienation' to lead the new ideological crusade."

In New York Jew, Kazin bitterly records how some of the worst aspects of literary life, the personal animosities, could he turned to advantage by disguising them as righteous political struggles:

"Delmore Schwartz turned his many literary hatreds into political hatreds. Robert Lowell at Yaddo was to bring charges that the director, a devoted friend to many writers over the years, was a link to Soviet agents."

It was a bad time and Kazin recalls that "the demand for orthodoxy" suffocated him, though he accepted that, whatever its failures and problems, America offered more than Russia, and that he had never been one of those who went overboard for communism in the Thirties. His social criticism, like his literary criticism, had always been directed from an independent radical position.

That position made it difficult for him to settle into what he refers to as "the smug professional domesticity of the fifties" when he took on academic work and tried living in a small college town. He needed the more exciting intellectual challenge of New York, even though he was, over the years, to teach in a variety of universities across America. The Fifties and Sixties brought him relative prosperity and even a degree of fame. He was invited to meet President Kennedy, an encounter he described in a cool essay, The President and Other Intellectuals," which didn't please either Kennedy or Kissinger. And one senses a slight unease with the success and its material rewards. "We were all looking very well after ourselves," he says, but the larger picture was unsettling. The Sixties were years of "sexual riot that praised itself as radical politics," and people denied history: "the past did not exist unless you had lived it yourself. There was no historical memory if you chose not to have one." He had noted in an essay published in 1959 how contemporary novels so often focused on "the self and its detractors," and he quoted Tocqueville's observation that, "in modern times the average man is absorbed in a very puny object, himself, to the point of satiety," the result being in literature that "we get novels in which society is merely a backdrop to the aloneness of the hero,"

All these concerns, whether expressed in essays, short book reviews, or his three volumes of autobiography, point to Kazin as someone who, whatever his own social circumstances, is impelled to comment on the world he lives in and to make literary criticism into social criticism. It has always been a two-way process, of course, with the social criticism commenting on literary qualities. In a brief 1957 review of Nelson Algren's A Walk on the Wild Side he compared it unfavourably to an earlier Algren novel:

"It can be said, I think, that the characters in that harrowing and grimly honest book, The Man with the Golden Arm, were also freaks of a kind, and that this was the secret of Mr. Algren's attraction to them. But although that book was equally sentimental and editorial in style, it was about something real; the life and death of a man. And it was written out of such a genuine belief in determinism that any reader could feel life mercilessly crowding down on Frankie Machine. The book made sense, it hurt like a blow, because Mr. Algren saw his lost and damned characters as victims of a system. He showed us how all parts of this system, from the politicians crowding the police at election time down to the smallest crooks, worked on and against each other to make up the iron meanness of Chicago. This new book shows, all too clearly, that Mr. Algren's usual material no longer points an accusing finger at anything or anybody. It is just 'picturesque'.

It's a brilliant exposition of Kazin using his criticism to talk about books and society in equal measure, and with the comment flowing in both directions.

In his most recent book, the short but memorable Writing Was Everything, Alfred Kazin offers a brief summary of his life, builds it around the books he has read, the writers and intellectuals he has known, and the ideas he has applied his mind to, and ends it with a moving tribute to the power of the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, which he contrasts to "our 'alienated' poetry, full of introspective anxiety and artifice." And he says of Milosz:

"Poetry to him is profoundly a recall, not a mere presentation of lived experience. It resembles what he calls 'the cries of Job,' not our endless defences and explorations of the ego."

Milosz, Kazin believes, is the kind of writer who knows

"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 kind of writer goes against the grain of those who now deride E.M.Forster's, 'Only connect!' as old-fashioned, too simple, too wistful.

These ideologies ignore the imponderables of existence that are still with us after all the works of science, technology, analytical philosophy, psychology, deconstruction, or linguistics, after all the political, racial, and sexual debate so hot in the academy. For the ideologues, there is no world except the one right in front of their eyes. And in this world nothing lasts; books are as perishable as magazines, advertisements, movies, or television; and the academy is so preoccupied with status that it can proclaim literature to be only a branch of criticism, just another 'discourse.'"

Those words, with their belief in the value of literature and their contempt for those who would abuse it, sum up Kazin's lifelong approach to writing, Neither a novelist, nor a poet, he has nonetheless created literature by writing about it in his criticism and his autobiographical works in a way that dignifies both the subject-matter and his treatment of it. Finally, let me quote Kazin, again from Writing Was Everything, on what real criticism ought to do. It doesn't tell anyone how or what to read, he says, and in the following words one can hear the old autodidact at work:

"For many years now, academics high and low have pre-empted serious criticism, have been 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. This will get them closer and closer to the work of art. What nonsense. What gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art. Only a plurality of choices can open up the new thinking in a work of literature that excites and liberates us."

It is the purpose of good criticism to draw our attention to that "plurality of choices," not to choose for us, and Alfred Kazin's work can rightly be said to be good criticism. And good literature.

 

NOTES

 

Kazin's three volumes of autobiography are: A Walker in the City (Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1951); Starting Out in the Thirties (Seeker & Warburg, London, 1966); New York Jew (Seeker & Warburg, London, 1978). Writing Was Everything was published by Harvard University Press, 1995, Amongst his other books are: The Inmost Leaf: Essays on American and European Writers (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1979); Contemporaries: Essays on Modem Life and Literature (Secker & Warburg, London, 1963); An American Procession (Secker & Warburg, London, 1985); A Writer's America: Landscape in Literature (Thames & Hudson, London, 1988). On Native Grounds was originally published by Reynal & Hitchcock, New York, 1942, though there have been later reprints.

Lionel Abel's, famous attack, "A Critic Without a Country: Alfred Kazin's Grand Procession," can be found in his Important Nonsense (Prometheus Books, Buffalo, 1987), and Sidney Hook's comments on Kazin are in Out of Step: An Unquiet Life in the 20th Century (Harper & Row, New York, 1981). Of the various histories of the New York Intellectuals, Alexander Bloom's Prodigal Sons (Oxford University Press, New York, 1986) and Alan Wald's The New York Intellectuals (The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1987) are particularly informative about Kazin.