Blue-collar writer

Alfred Kazin's working-class roots defined him, but also contributed to his sense of insecurity, social awkwardness and sympathy for the underdog.

Alfred Kazin 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alfred Kazin 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Alfred Kazin: A Biography By Richard M. Cook Yale University Press 464 pages; $35 Mention the name of Alfred Kazin and a common response is "ah, A Walker in the City," a bedrock text of American Jewish writing. It is the poetic chronicle of life in the 1920s and '30s in New York, or more accurately, Brownsville (a decidedly downscale neighborhood in Brooklyn) and Manhattan, which Kazin considered a sanctuary from a mean world, full of unschooled (though hard-working) immigrants, sorely lacking American savoir faire. However, the role of popular memoirist was not Kazin's true calling. Richard M. Cook's new book, Alfred Kazin: A Biography, demonstrates that Kazin was foremost an impassioned, influential literary critic and reviewer. At the same time, Cook reveals a man who was overwhelmed by his own biography; doomed to live his life forever in the shadow of childhood grievances, adolescent insecurities and youthful bitterness that undercut his success as an intellectual, friend, husband and father. Cook makes it plain that Kazin's background dominated his life. Like the doyen of neoconservatism, Norman Podhoretz, he grew up in Brownsville, which during the first part of the 20th century was the largest Jewish neighborhood in the United States barring the Lower East Side. An obsessive reader, plagued by a stutter and lack of social grace, Kazin was an intense child who admired his parents' unflappable work ethic, but bristled against their parochial intellect and immigrant drudgery. However, in contrast to Podhoretz and many other Jewish "neocons," Kazin always retained a fierce loyalty to his working-class roots - roots that defined him, but also contributed to his sense of insecurity, social awkwardness and sympathy for the underdog. It was also a loyalty that made him despise those who, in his view, had forsaken their blue-collar origins and joined the ranks of the establishment. While loyalty was important to Kazin, the writer found Brownsville oppressive. He craved escape. However, escape proved bittersweet. After finishing high school, he began undergraduate studies at City College, the stomping ground of many future luminaries destined to be among the legendary, and mostly Jewish, group, the New York intellectuals. But, according to Cook, City College was not a refuge for Kazin. Unlike his peers, such as the Yiddish scholar Irving Howe, he was not enthralled by City College's politically charged environment. The frenetic hallway debates did not suit him. For certain, Kazin was unwaveringly sympathetic to radical politics, but as a young student his heart already belonged to literature. It was dialogue about the American novel that left him energized, while the endless political repartee that filled the corridors of City College only brought him a sense of disenfranchisement and alienation. Finally, after graduating, new vistas opened up for Kazin. Only months after receiving his degree, his book reviews were beginning to appear with growing frequency in The New Republic, The New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune: Books. By 28, he had published an overview of American literature that had wowed critics, On Native Grounds, and was on the road to a multifaceted career writing criticism and literary memoir, teaching at a number of universities, including Harvard and Stanford, and serving as guest speaker at academic institutions throughout the US. Nevertheless, Cook demonstrates that this early success was not a harbinger of a future characterized by achievement and social conquest. If anything, Cook's biography underscores the troubling paradoxes that hindered Kazin's career and derailed his personal life. In terms of writing and teaching, Kazin traveled a bumpy path. Though granted semester-long lecturing positions at numerous institutions, his appeals for a permanent post at Columbia, Harvard and elsewhere were rebuffed. Likewise, he received several Fulbright Fellowships and various other grants, but often failed to produce the books for which they were awarded. He resented the endless struggle to secure work, place reviews and apply for funding. The lack of financial stability was disheartening. Similarly, the shuffle between various publishers, the need to constantly befriend new editors and champion his proposals for his book ideas was trying and further darkened his naturally caustic, abrasive personality. Cook also takes great care to depict a thinker who suffered for his intellectual independence and heartfelt approach to literature and reading. Whereas Kazin felt very much in synch with the intellectual zeitgeist of the 1930s and '40s, he seemed haltingly out of step with academic trends in subsequent years. By the '50s, his brand of criticism was decidedly anachronistic, hardly compatible with the heavily theoretical thinking of the New Critics who came to dominate the high-brow intellectualism of the academy. Moreover, he was not Dr. Kazin. Never having completed a doctorate, he lacked academic credentials, a fact that only exacerbated his sense of inferiority in the company of his peers, Lionel Trilling notably, tenured, self-assured successes who made Kazin acutely aware of his professional and personal shortcomings. Still, it is in his personal life that Kazin faltered most. During his life, no shortage of unflattering adjectives was used to describe him by his friends and adversaries. He was, according to copious testimony, belligerent, difficult, arrogant, self-involved, needy, combative and downright unpleasant. An inconsistent father at best, he sabotaged his first marriage with unchecked selfishness. His second wife he considered a misery because she was agonizingly unintelligent, his third because she was the opposite. And his remedy for unhappiness was serial womanizing that never seemed to alleviate his grief. Whether intentional or not, Cook paints a picture of an unlikable hero. For the reader not predisposed to admire Kazin, this is problematic. Saul Bellow's biographer, James Atlas has argued that in writing biography, the author must imbue the subject "with love." Presumably, Cook feels such sentiment about Kazin. Unfortunately, his biography does not engender similar feelings in the reader. In addition, Kazin's story is all too predictable. It echoes the lives of many of his contemporaries in the greater circle of the New York intellectuals. The intense concern with literature, radical politics, communism, anti-communism and anti anti-communism seems historically important but nevertheless passe in a world in which the "red threat" is long gone and the West is focused on the prospect of Islamization. Kazin was definitely a man of his times. He knew everybody of importance. His sharp mind, capacity for incisive wit and intellectual energy made him an important figure in terms of the American academic arena in the 20th century. But would he have made a good friend or colleague? Possibly that is an unimportant consideration in light of his contribution to the world of letters. Nonetheless, Cook hardly convinces us that this is the case.