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Alfred Kazin

Alfred Kazin: A Biography

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 464
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    Alfred Kazin
    Book Description:

    Born in 1915 to barely literate Jewish immigrants in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Alfred Kazin rose from near poverty to become a dominant figure in twentieth-century literary criticism and one of America's last great men of letters. Biographer Richard M. Cook provides a portrait of Kazin in his public roles and in his frequently unhappy private life. Drawing on the personal journals Kazin kept for over 60 years, private correspondence, and numerous conversations with Kazin, he uncovers the full story of the lonely, stuttering boy from Jewish Brownsville who became a pioneering critic and influential cultural commentator.

    Upon the appearance ofOn Native Groundsin 1942, Kazin was dubbed "the boy wonder of American criticism." Numerous publications followed, includingA Walker in the Cityand two other memoirs, books of criticism, as well as a stream of essays and reviews that ceased only with his death in 1998. Cook tells of Kazin's childhood, his troubled marriages, and his relations with such figures as Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow, Malcolm Cowley, Arthur Schlesinger, Hannah Arendt, and Daniel Bell. He illuminates Kazin's thinking on political-cultural issues and the recurring way in which his subject's personal life shaped his career as a public intellectual. Particular attention is paid to Kazin's sense of himself as a Jewish-American "loner" whose inner estrangements gave him insight into the divisions at the heart of modern culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14504-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Brownsville
    (pp. 1-20)

    Brownsville is that road which every other road in my life has had to cross,” Alfred Kazin wrote in the first pages of his memoirA Walker in the City(1951), describing his return to the family flat at 256 Sutter Avenue, where he had been born thirty-six years earlier, on June 5, 1915. He had been leaving and returning and leaving since he was old enough to walk the streets—Blake, Sutter, Dumont, Pitkin—of his neighborhood on the far eastern edge of Brooklyn, the next-to-the-last stop on the subway line, where “they locked up the subway and trolley...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Thirties: Starting Out
    (pp. 21-38)

    In early September 1931, sixteen-year-old Alfred Kazin climbed the long hill from the 137th Street IRT subway exit toward the Gothic spires of City College for his first class as an entering freshman. The ride from Brownsville had taken an hour and a quarter, and the return trip would take at least as long. The ride would have been much shorter to Brooklyn College, recently opened in buildings around Borough Hall, but Kazin had chosen “City.” It was “famous, awesome, and severe,” accepting only the top 10 or 12 percent of graduating seniors. It also had some notable alumni: Upton...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The Thirties: On Native Grounds
    (pp. 39-71)

    By 1936, Kazin was reviewing regularly in theNew York Times Book Reviewand theBookssection of theHerald Tribune. Some weeks he published two reviews in one paper and a review in the other, as well as pieces under the pseudonym David Tilden. He supplemented his freelancing with odd jobs—writing the memoirs (from dictation) for a retired British Army colonel, dramatizing episodes fromThe Pickwick Papersand stories by Edgar Allan Poe for a Brooklyn radio station, and teaching the occasional evening or summer course at City College. For the moment at least, living hand-to-mouth felt right....

  7. CHAPTER FOUR The Break (1942–1945)
    (pp. 72-106)

    One dreamlike week in 1942,” Kazin beginsNew York Jew, “I published my first book,On Native Grounds, became an editor at theNew Republicand with my wife, Natasha, moved into a little apartment on Twenty-fourth and Lex.” Riding home in the taxi from the magazine’s “glossy offices” high up in a building at Forty-ninth and Madison, he experienced a “dizzy exaltation mixed with the direst suspicion of what might happen next.” “I loved working in the center of New York and living in Manhattan…. But I missed my solitary days in the Forty-second Street Library. I was expecting...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE After the Apocalypse (1945–1950)
    (pp. 107-145)

    Kazin arrived in New York on theQueen Maryat the end of August 1945, wondering what he was coming back to. Where would he live? Would Asya agree to a fresh start? How would postwar New York (and America) feel? He quickly discovered that much had changed but that some things remained the same—Asya would not have him back. He could not find a room, boarding with his parents and friends before finding a ‬“ramshackle” flat in Brooklyn Heights. It was too soon to tell about jobs and the economy, but New York seemed to be full of...

  9. CHAPTER SIX A Walker in the City
    (pp. 146-167)

    Writing can be a frighteningly uncertain activity. How does a writer like Kazin find his way into a book he thinks he wants to write? How does he know when he has found his true subject, his right voice, the proper approach? The uncertainties are more daunting if he is attempting something new, drawing on untested talents with few obvious models or precedents. By the fall of 1949, Kazin had been working on his New York book for three years and was feeling as lost and desperate as ever. After a second summer working in the tool shed at Solebury,...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Living in the Fifties (1951–1958)
    (pp. 168-208)

    When he handed over the manuscript ofA Walker in the Cityto Denver Lindley in mid-April 1951, Alfred Kazin sensed a new life in the offing. “What lovely days, with my Walker finished at last and Europe ahead—with Ann.” Not everything was joyous, however. The divorce from Carol had left a bitterness that would color and distort his memories of his “stupid” “loveless life” with her. He had also lost the chance for “normal” daily relations with his son. Thinking about future absences from Michael, he felt “a tight band of ice” forming around him and “a kind...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT The Writer in the World: Part 1 (1958–1963)
    (pp. 209-250)

    In mid-January 1958, Kazin moved into an apartment in Northampton next door to Daniel Aaron. He had a semester’s work to do at Amherst, and he was not happy to be back. Nor was he pleased with the news from New York. Oscar Cargill, the head of the New York University English Department, had led Kazin to believe he might be hired permanently. This, he discovered in late December, was not to be. Kazin told Josephine Herbst that Cargill had “gotten so emotional about me after my great success there that he had written an article denouncing me for some...

  12. CHAPTER NINE The Writer in the World: Part 2 (1963–1970)
    (pp. 251-293)

    Starting Out in the Thirtieswas a deeply gratifying book for the fifty-year-old Kazin—the more so because it came as a surprise, an extra book he had not intended, and with it an opportunity for yet another installment of his autobiography. The reviews were good—very good, in fact, discounting the usual deprecating remarks from the “snotty” Brits. Responses from friends were also heartening. Edmund Wilson told him how much he had learned from it—though, naturally, he quibbled with factual points. Josephine Herbst, who knew the radical New York milieu of the thirties better than virtually anyone, liked...

  13. CHAPTER TEN New York Jew (1970–1978)
    (pp. 294-324)

    The grim, even despairing, mood that hangs over much ofBright Book of Lifeundoubtedly owed a great deal to Kazin’s feelings of helplessness and outrage before the specter of the never-ending Vietnam conflict. But there may have been more personal reasons for the book’s darkening mood. Kazin was losing some of his closest friends. On December 28, 1969, Josephine Herbst had died of cancer in New York Hospital. He had been with her the day before and knew the end was near, her “hot, dying hands, just like the hands of BB [Berel Birstein] and GK [Gita Kazin] ten...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN A New Life (1978–1984)
    (pp. 325-350)

    I feel like Ulysses transported in his sleep,” Alfred Kazin wrote in his notebook in May 1978. “Something mysterious happened this year; something decisive beyond words, clearing up my life, putting familiar things in unfamiliar places and making the unfamiliar more and moreintimate.” He had reason to feel something had happened. It had been a year of change and a culmination of earlier changes that would bring more changes. Of course, people in their sixties (Kazin would be sixty-two in June) do not make wholly new lives for themselves. And for someone forever reliving, rethinking, rewriting the past, a...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE Politics
    (pp. 351-375)

    Although the reviews ofAn American Processiondid not make Kazin happy, they were for the most part well mannered, discriminating, and considerate of his long career in American letters—with two notable exceptions, Kenneth Lynn’s inCommentaryand Lionel Abel’s in theNew Criterion. Both Lynn and Abel, who had praised Kazin’s earlier work—“beyond praise, as fine as anything in American criticism” (Abel)—not only denouncedAn American Procession, they dismissed Kazin as an indifferent critic and an overrated writer. He should not have been surprised. A year earlier, theNew Criterionhad published a lengthy attack on...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN “The End of Things” (1984–1998)
    (pp. 376-412)

    Kazin’s foray into politics in the early 1980s brought a measure of satisfaction. He was no longer watching from the sidelines. He was taking his outrage public. Yet, in the end, he did not find political confrontation very gratifying, partly because he felt that the political situation in the country was hopeless, partly because politics failed to address deeper sources of worry and grievance. Kazin’s political writing typically conveyed feelings of exasperation, even despair, that extended beyond politics to the deteriorating streets of New York, to the direction of academic literary study, and, increasingly, to the narrowing conditions of his...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 413-440)
  18. Index
    (pp. 441-452)