U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alfred Kazin: Critic and Writer (1915-1998) (S-USIH Conference Guest Post)

Editor’s Note: We continue our series of guest posts on panels from our recently concluded conference with this review of “Alfred Kazin: Critic and Writer (1915-1998),”  the panel that included Richard King’s terrific talk on Kazin which we posted earlier today.  It comes to us from Brad Baranowski, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation follows the career of John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971) from its inception to its reception. 

Next year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of Alfred Kazin’s birthday. An impressive figure in the history of twentieth-century American letters, Kazin’s legacy remains for many tied to his 1942 opus, On Native Grounds. As its subtitle suggests, the book provided “an interpretation of modern American prose literature,” covering roughly the period of the 1890s to the late 1930s. Today the work seems dated. Kazin’s selection of authors, for example, is problematic. Despite such rich literary movements as the Harlem Renaissance, On Native Grounds’s discussion of non-white writers is very limited.[1] Yet as the panel that gathered at this year’s S-USIH conference to honor Kazin detailed, the literary critic’s writings continue to provide inspiration for interpreting American intellectual life.

            Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen (University of Wisconsin-Madison) chaired the panel, which was titled simply “Alfred Kazin: Critic and Writer (1915-1998).” Stephen Whitfield (Brandeis) delivered the first paper, covering Kazin’s relationship to the Holocaust. Kazin, Whitfield reminded his audience, loved words. He studied them intensely, devoted much care when writing them, and invested them with great power throughout his life. Yet this power had its limits. Kazin ran up against this boundary in his contemplations on the Holocaust. Whitfield noted the unspoken pain that the Holocaust caused Kazin, whose own Jewish identity rendered the meaning of the camps all the more salient. Yet, while he wrote the introduction to the American edition of Anne Frank’s diary, Kazin wrote comparably little on one of the twentieth century’s worst atrocities. Whitfield surmised that Kazin believed that language could say little about the Holocaust, joining other intellectuals who commented on the event through their silence.[2]


            Silence and Kazin’s Jewish identity was also the topic of Richard M. Cook’s (University of Missouri-St. Louis) paper. Cook explored the fraught relationship between Kazin and another major mid-century Jewish-American literary critic: Lionel Trilling. Why, Cook asked, didn’t these two talk to one another? Cook probed Kazin’s scattered remarks on Trilling to reconstruct what was an uneasy, and at times hostile, relationship that simmered under the surface of both men’s writings. “Silence or suppressed feelings,” Cook reminded us, “are also part of intellectual history.” As Kazin’s biographer, Cook has spent years with the critic’s papers. This effort allowed him to piece together Kazin’s representation of Trilling. The latter’s reasonable posture and cultured air struck Kazin as inauthentic and specious. Animating this disgust was a division in class backgrounds. Kazin grew up in a working-class Jewish community and remained loyal to these roots throughout his life. Trilling’s middle-class pretensions, apparent desire to assimilate into the dominate Anglo-American culture, cool critical style—these were all stand-ins for traits that Kazin associated with those who were ashamed of their Jewish identity. Trilling, in other words, was a metonym for Kazin, providing him with fodder to make a broader critique of American cultural assimilation.

The final paper by Richard H. King (University of Nottingham) returns to ground better known to many: Kazin’s On Native Grounds. King provides a fresh take on this book, however, reading Kazin’s opus as a work of intellectual history. Unlike Vernon Parrington and other Progressive historians, modernity meant more than simple emancipation from the past for Kazin. Instead, the drive to begin American literature anew bore authors back into the currents of history. Be it F. Scott Fitzgerald or another author, literary modernists wrote to reckon with the legacy of Emerson and other seminal American authors. As On Native Grounds’s title suggests, this impulse was American in origin. Unlike Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle, Kazin’s modernists were native productions rather than foreign imports. Authors as diverse as Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck and even Thorstein Veblen (whose prose was remarkably unliterary) were loosely unified in their impulse to overturn literary icons past. Yet doing so only erected new ones and on the same footings. Overturning Emerson, after all, was the ultimate Emersonian gesture: an extension of the sage of Concord’s advice to stop worshiping old ideas and create new ones. Modernity thus had a perverse quality for Kazin: a never-ending, restless wrestling with the past as attempts to overturn canonized writers inevitably became swallowed up in their shadows.

Alfred Kazin’s son, the social historian Michael Kazin, provided the closing comments on the panel. He reminded the audience to “never underestimate the psychological distance” that the New York Intellectuals like his father had to travel to deal with the relationship of their Jewish identities to the American cultural establishment. Whitfield and Cook’s papers corroborate this claim in spades. Alfred’s writings were also reflections on his own identity and the role it should play in his literary criticism, as his hushed feud with Trilling demonstrates.

If Alfred Kazin had to travel a great distance to access his contemporary culture, maybe the journey we must traverse to access his world is equally as long. We no longer take for granted a passionate moral commitment as a trait of literary criticism, noted Michael Kazin. While for his father, commitments such as these were the lynchpin to his life and work, today’s literary critics no longer hold such engagements as prerequisite. We have gained many valuable insights into the making of American literature since On Native Grounds. Any books that attempted to cover “modern American prose literature” without greater attention to African-American writers such as Zora Neale Hurston or Alain Locke would be dismissed almost out of hand.Alfred Kazin suggests how far we have come in our interpretations of intellectual life. But as the panelists’s comments allude, he might also suggest how much farther we have to go.

[1]The only African-American writer who received any extended attention, for example, is Richard Wright. Various panelists commented on Kazin’s admiration for African-American writers such as Wright and James Baldwin. But Michael Kazin also noted the limitations of his father’s literary imagination. Once while driving through a Latino community in California, Michael asked his father why he never wrote about the role of Latino literature on American culture. Alfred responded curtly to the effect that there were no Latino authors worth studying.

[2] One thinks here of Adorno lamenting that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric.