U.S. Intellectual History Blog

ON NATIVE GROUNDS as Intellectual History

on nativeThe following is a guest post by Richard H. King, Emeritus Professor in American Studies at the University of Nottingham, and author of several books, including Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970, and a forthcoming book on Hannah Arendt in America. This paper was one of four presented at a panel “Alfred Kazin: Critic and Writer (1915-1998)” at the Sixth Annual meeting of the S-USIH. Next year is the centenary of Kazin’s birth and the panel was organized to call attention to various aspects of his legacy. Besides the papers offered by Stephen J. Whitfield, Richard M. Cook and Richard H. King, Michael Kazin offered some very appropriate comments and thoughts on his father. The panel, the comment and the ensuing discussion were presided over by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen.

Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds (1942) brought the intellectual history of 1930s America to a close on a distinctive and distinguished note. Though ostensibly a literary history of modern American realism as it became modernism, it was much more than that. Famously, Kazin was only 27 years old when this his first book was published. At the time, he had completed a BA from City College and an MA at Columbia in History, where his thesis dealt with the literary criticism of Edward Gibbon. His big book, originally titled The Years of Promise: Prose in American since 1900, was the product of over four years of passionate reading and written in a prose that was full of energy and intensity, a sharp eye for details, and ready ear for the authentic. As is often the case with a book that breaks a mould or redefines a genre, On Native Grounds was not the capstone of a long career but a bid for attention from a newcomer. It was, to use the term Kazin was himself fond of, a deeply serious work. [1]

On Native Grounds by no means emerged in a vacuum. In fact, numerous works were published in the inter-war years that sought to define the canon, i.e. a standard reading list, of American thought and literature. [2] Three things are important to note about them. First, these works by D.H. Lawrence, Lewis Mumford, Vernon Parrington, Perry Miller, F. O. Matthiessen, Granville Hicks, and Van Wyck Brooks represented a rich mixture of academic and non-academic works, though the academics were coming up strong on the inside. Second, it is not clear, at least in retrospect, to what genre these works belonged—did they belong in the category of literary or intellectual history? For instance, Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought was explicitly about “American thought.” In volume One, one section is named “The Colonial Mind” and another “The American Mind,” while the section, “The Mind of the South,” was probably one of the sources the title for W. J. Cash’s classic 1941 study of the same name. Yet Parrington talked of Main Currents in reference to other literary histories. The same ambiguity can be seen in On Native Grounds. Kazin referred at one point to Parrington’s three volume work as an “intellectual history (158),” [3] while also using “mind” freely to describe one of the essential capacities by which novelists, not just thinkers and philosophers, should be judged. In fact, one of his favourite putdowns of writers, including William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, was that they were intellectually lazy. Thus in Kazin’s work, mind seems to refer to intellectual capacity, while Parrington’s use of the term encompasses something like the “spirit” (Geist) or “culture” of a larger collective entity. Third, the dates of publication suggest that the idea that American Studies was created to serve as an intellectual arsenal of the Cold War needs serious re-thinking, since the works just referred to—and others like them—were produced in the 1920s and1930s when the Cold War was hardly a glint in anyone’s eye. This is not to say that they were not later used as part of the cultural Cold War, but, as written, they were relatively more innocent. Among them, On Native Grounds appeared just as World War II was beginning and contended that American literature and culture might prove a valuable asset in the fight against fascism. This was also undoubtedly an echo of the dispute that arose in the late 1930s and early 1940s about whether literary modernism disposed over any moral resources in the fight against totalitarianism.

One quality that distinguished On Native Grounds from the normal textbook, or even some of the interpretative histories of American writing, was its urgency. Kazin clearly believed not only in criticism as interpretation but also in criticism as judgment and evaluation of a text. He had little time for the more recent idea that we should not judge literary works aesthetically or qualitatively, yet peddle our political views with reckless abandon. Of course, Kazin had several opinions on everything. Indeed one of his faults as a critic was a tendency to offer critical judgements of a writer or text without bothering to flesh out his argument. Kazin’s sense of urgency also derived from his evaluation of the nature of the modern world. Specifically, in America, there was, insisted Kazin, a persisting sense of “‘our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it “ (ix). From this it followed that modern American literature encompassed not just the good news of “modern emancipation” but something quite different—“the lean and shadowy tragic strain” that was neither Aristotle’s nor Hawthorne’s, but a “clutching violence, and from Dreiser to Faulkner, an often great depth of suffering.” Indeed, American writers seemed condemned to “discover and rediscover and chart the country…rewriting Emerson’s “The American Scholar” in every generation…”(x). Such a starting over was experienced as a burden as much as it was an opportunity.

The anxiety of influence that marked the American writer’s identity was a very real thing. In addition, Kazin also anticipated the point Stanley Cavell would later make in The Senses of Walden (1981) that Americans did metaphysics not in their philosophy (Dewey was the enemy of metaphysics), but in their literature, where no one had received the news yet that tragedy, terror, and loneliness were merely emotive notions or category errors. They were existential conditions. Kazin can probably be accused of harbouring a consensus view of the American experience—but there is a sting to it. What unites American writers, he insisted, was a sense of alienation from the place, self and other. Loneliness is the pervasive origin, mood and destination of American writing. The book doesn’t monotonously hammer on this theme. In fact, the concluding chapter “America! America!” has a decided lift to it, a distinctly celebratory dimension. But it is a celebration in the face of, not because of, the condition of the American writer.

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the way Kazin staked out his book’s territory—literally and spirituallydifferently from his contemporaries. On Native Grounds begins with William Dean Howell’s move from Boston to New York City in 1891, a move which signalled a new departure for American prose writing. But it was not just about a shift to New York. The literary and intellectual center of gravity also shifted from the Northeast to the Midwest and even to the South. It was in the provinces where American literary realism and naturalism, in their various forms, took root and then transmogrified into American modernism after World War I. In some sense, geography was destiny or at least it was symbolically supercharged. Philip Rahv, the co-editor of Partisan Review, once asked: “Hey Alfred, What’s this about ‘our mountains, our rivers’?’” after Kazin had referred to them in a book review about the American West. In a review in the 1980s, Kenneth Lynn caught Kazin in a mistake about the topography of northern Michigan, the site of a Hemingway story Kazin had analysed. The implication might have been drawn that Kazin didn’t really know the real America. [4] (Why IS Frederick Jackson Turner missing from the book?).

Further, if we join movements in time and space, Kazin’s On Native Grounds simply bypassed the Puritans, the Framers, or the Transcendentalists and began with the 1890s. That is, he began with Parrington’s “Gilded Age,” so markedly dominated by the growth of cities, driven by industrial development, and marked by the presence of a variegated labor force of millions of “new” immigrants. His America got started differently from Van Wyck Brooks’, Perry Miller’s, or F. O. Matthiessen’s. It took in far more. Matthiessen too rashly named his topic/book “The American Renaissance, when he should have written of ‘the New England Renaissance’” Miller and Brooks were more accurate when they concentrated on specifically New England qualities rather than claiming them for the entire nation. More generally, Kazin’s claims about American literature, writing, thought—whatever you want to call it—were intricately linked to America’s entrance into modernity, not just into the New World.

But is there any sense in calling On Native Grounds an intellectual history? Quantitatively, six chapters out of sixteen, 200 out of 518 pages, deal with non-fiction literary prose (and he omits poetry altogether). As we will see in a minute, tracing the shift from realism to modernism was a way of doing the work of an intellectual and cultural historian, but, it has to be said that he failed to really clarify the meaning of the terms “modern” and “modernism.” Sometimes Kazin treated modernism as a movement committed to literary experimentation and formal innovation. But Kazin devoted surprisingly little attention to the aesthetics of American modernism, in part because of his avoidance of poetry. The modern also seemed to refer to a condition of spiritual upheaval and a reaction to the loss of tradition, a kind of new world alienation, at times nihilism. This is the aspect of modernism that had its counterpart in the violence, despair, loneliness and, above all, tragedy that seems to be endemic to American writing and to which Kazin was especially sensitive. At times, he also closely associated modernity with a political and economic challenge to capitalism. Economics—capitalism and/vs socialism—keeps coming up, not as an academic discipline or a scientific theory but as a preoccupation of the modern social scientist-and socialist. Overall, though, Kazin never really works out how these various facets of modernism comport with one another or how literary modernism relates to modernity in general.

Specifically, an early chapter “Some Insurgent Scholars” was devoted to scholars and academics, associated, largely, with the Progressive Movement. It is one of the book’s richest chapters. There, for instance, he subjected Thorstein Veblen’s character and his quasi-satirical, baroque literary style to close scrutiny. Kazin begins with an analysis of what he recognized was Veblen’s own self-portrait in his famous essay “The Intellectual Pre-Eminence of Jews in Modern Europe” (1919). Like the Jews, Veblen was divided between historical and cultural worlds and could perceive both without belonging totally to either. Alienated at every level, he nevertheless was more creative and penetrating in his critical judgements of the culture of capitalism than the majority population. One might even say that the only Jew who figured prominently in Kazin’s analysis of modern American writing was Thorstein Veblen. All that said, Kazin never really offered a systematic exposition of Veblen’s thought. As a result the reader is left with a very interesting view of Veblen’s significance as a figure of his tragic realism, but with little sense of how Kazin’s arguments hang together to make that point.

Everyone who writes about Veblen must ask the question: why did he write like that? For Kazin, Veblen’s style mirrored his view of the world, which was hyper-serious and deeply ironic, even satirical, at the same time. In a typically lapidary judgement, Kazin suggests that Veblen was as much a “victim” as a “master” of his subject matter and of his style (137). His baroque writerly style conflicted with the minimalist implications of his instinct of workmanship. Kazin also asked the same question, as it were, of John Dewey. What did his style, his voice, reveal about his vision? Kazin identified a certain kind of simplicity and a democratic spirit to Dewey’s style, but it has a certain “gracelessness” that makes it “curiously monotonous and naïve”. He also anticipated Reinhold Niebuhr’s later criticisms by faulting Dewey for his lack of a sense of evil (or the tragic), something which Veblen did have. “But Dewey’s mind,” wrote Kazin, “could admit evil only as a problem, a hurdle to be overcome; never as a clue to man and his experience in nature” (145-46). Though the chapter on these Progressive era scholars and thinkers gave the reader a quick and fluent overview of the pragmatism of Peirce and James, the reader gets little sense of how Dewey fit with his precursors, much less what importance pragmatism still had by the end of the 1930s. Finally, Kazin’s eloquent essay in An Inmost Leaf (1955) concluded that, for all their brilliance, the James Brothers, Henry and William, also lacked an essentially tragic vision. The self was too much at the center and there was too much simply to say and write about. Perhaps the point here is that the tradition of pragmatism generally lacks a tragic sense. Overall, intellectual historians can learn a lot from Kazin’s treatment of Veblen and Dewey about how to integrate ideas, literary style and personal voice. No matter what the genre, whether he was dealing with a novel or an economic treatise, Kazin’s focus always eventually homed in on the writer’s voice. But a systematic engagement with philosophical or theoretical matters was harder to come by.

In fact, all this follows roughly from Kazin’s explanation of his intentions at the beginning of On Native Grounds. The book, he suggested, was best considered a “moral history, which is greater than literary history, and is needed to illuminate it” (x). That is, Kazin sought to capture the essential spirit of modernity as it expressed itself in American literature and thought. Of course, evidence came from a wider range of sources than just literary texts OR just treatises in political thought, sociology or economics. He was best at capturing the general ideas and the atmospherics surrounding a thinker or a literary movement. Indeed, the companion idea to that of a “moral history” was “criticism” as such. It was criticism in an expanded sense that was Kazin’s own metier. He thought that it, rather than philosophy, the social sciences or literary theory, offered the best way into the American mind. For example, his chapter “Criticism at the Poles” was anchored in the 1930s and pitted Marxists vs. Formalists (predominantly southern New Critics) as the two poles around which current criticism revolved, alas. There Kazin offered his most important description of the place of criticism in the American intellectual tradition:

From Emerson and Thoreau to Mencken and Brooks, criticism has been the great American lay philosophy, the intellectual conscience and the intellectual carryall. It has been a study of literature inherently concerned with ideals of citizenship and often less a study of literary texts than a search for some new and imperative moral order…it had always been more a form of moral propaganda than a study in esthetic problems…criticism had usually sought—now as a midwife to talent, now as a common scold of the national manners—to unite American writers in the service of one imperative ideal or another (400-01).

Indeed, this was Kazin’s own “starting over” referred to earlier, a revoicing of Emerson’s “American Scholar” as the “American Critic.” Besides Emerson, it was Kazin’s somewhat cautious homage to Parrington whom he otherwise thought too politically programmatic in his judgement of literature and too little concerned with aesthetic matters..

Kazin also did the work of the cultural historian when he challenged the conventional wisdom that located the seed bed of American modernism in the experience of World War I and then the 1920s. Rather it had begun much earlier with Santayana on the Genteel Tradition, Brooks and others on the varieties of “brows,” and was then continued by H. L. Mencken’s attacks on philistinism in the teens and 1920s. Indeed, the bracing satire of Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson’s explorations of the underside of small-town life, not to mention the elegiac satire of Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow, were as crucial in the shift from realism to modernism as all the boilerplate about flappers, sexual freedom, and the Jazz Age. Kazin granted H. L. Mencken’s enlivening presence but then went on to note his severe limitations. It was not his fault, but people wrongly “confused Mencken with Voltaire.” There was, Kazin wrote, “a want of generosity in his mind” and even more sharply: “he managed to insult everyone but his readers” (200-01). (At roughly the same time that everyone was piling on Puritanism, the academics at Harvard were rehabilitating the historical Puritans, who bore little resemblance to the 1920s cartoon versions made popular by the sage of Baltimore.) In fact, Kazin’s genealogy of modernism also stood somewhat at odds with the one suggested by his hero, Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle (1931). Wilson located the origins of modernism in French symbolism, a tradition that included Paul Valery, Marcel Proust and Arthur Rimbaud, joined by the two great Irish writers, William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, and Americans Gertrude Stein and TS Eliot. This was international modernism at its most rarified. But, Kazin’s American modernist spirit was more at home on native grounds. It at least had emerged from the challenges from and to realism and naturalism as they in turn had been the responses to “the transformation of our society in the great seminal years after the Civil War”(viii).

While the chapter “Into the Thirties: All the Lost Generations” is one of the highlights of On Native Grounds, Kazin judged the individual achievements of the better known 1920s writers surprisingly harshly, undoubtedly reacting against the popular image of the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald’s was a “superior boy’s world” (329). Hemingway got high marks for seeking to write about “the real thing,”(331) without adornment or artifice. Yet he was at heart a “passionate romanticist,” who “brought a major art to a minor vision of life” (334,332). Only John Dos Passos met, even exceeded, Kazin’s expectations by combining literary experimentation with a vision of a new “mechanical” but “tragic world.” USA, claimed Dos Passos, was “the first great naturalistic novel that is primarily a triumph of style” (355).

The post-1920s chapter of Kazin’s story makes clear, at least by implication, that if the 1920s had belonged to the Mid-West, the 1930s featured southern writers such as poet-critics Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom from the Vanderbilt Agrarians, and, not only Erskine Caldwell and Richard Wright, but also Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. The latter took the realist-naturalist tradition and turned it inside out into the (modernist) grotesque, dripping blood and rhetoric. By the end of the Depression decade, Kazin would modulate and moderate his high estimate of “Dos,” while recanting the harsh treatment he meted out to Faulkner in On Native Grounds. In the 1930s chapter, Faulkner got the equivalent of a critical spanking, with Kazin’s report card full of verdicts like “boyish…humorous” but “lazy.” His work was marked by “slyness” and the “grotesque.“ “As a thinker” he is “dull and sullen.” Kazin recognized Faulkner’s great “inventiveness” (456), but his vision, most seriously, showed a “lack of a center” and a “manifest absence of purpose” (453-57).

By the 1950s Kazin was writing about quite another Faulkner, a moralist and modernist of a tragic cast. Yet Kazin’s moralistic condemnation of the Faulkner of the 1930s was not entirely without merit. What the critic actually “got” was the genuinely dangerous and nihilistic side of Faulkner, which had been swallowed up in the celebration of his Nobel Prize and his burgeoning reputation as American’s greatest novelist of the twentieth century. Finally, one of the central texts in Kazin’s dithyrambic chapter “America! America” was James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a documentary to end all documentaries written by a southerner from Tennessee, Agee, while Evans was born in Missouri but had become a New Yorker by choice. Most critics and historians failed to catch up with Kazin until the 1960s when Agee and Evans were re-discovered and celebrated. Besides Lionel Trilling, Paul Goodman, and Dwight Macdonald, most of the New York intellectuals had let the achievement of Agee and Evans go unnoticed when the book appeared in the early 1940s.

Undoubtedly stimulated by Dos Passos’ “camera eye” segments in USA, Kazin surprisingly placed the camera at the heart of national re-discovery in the 1930s. Not just novels and criticism but history and biography, along with the WPA Guidebooks to states and cities, and above all black and white photography altered the “sensorium” of America. While most of On Native Grounds is concerned with the voice of the American writer, whether fictional or non-fictional, Kazin suddenly shifted his attention to the transformation of the literal and symbolic vision of the country in the concluding chapter. Even then, Kazin could not see this as an unalloyed positive development. For if the camera enhanced receptivity, it also created a kind of passivity, as Americans waited to be bombarded with new images, that made up the kaleidoscope of the continent and the country.

It is also important to note what and who is not in On Native Grounds. Both Henry Adams and Henry James (and his brother William) are mentioned but none of the three plays a major role in On Native Grounds, though their productive decades fall clearly within Kazin’s 1890-1940 boundaries. In particular, Henry James and Mark Twain are oft-referred to and cited, but never subjected to the critical treatment that others get. Perhaps he saw them as a bit too old and not crucially shaped by the Gilded Age in quite the way the writers he was most interested in were. Aside from Ludwig Lewisohn and Nathan Asch, the increasingly important role played by Jews and other ethnic minorities in defining, as well as remembering, the American experience in the inter-war years gets short shrift. Especially Henry Roth and Nathaniel West are absent, though Kazin later made up for their omission. Kazin only referred to what was known as the “The Negro Renaissance” in a few throwaway comments about Carl Van Vechten and Harlem in his chapter “The Exquisites,” a chapter omitted from the 1955 re-issue of On Native Grounds. The chapter focused on James Branch Cabell, George J. Nathan, Joseph Hergesheimer Theirs was a literature of aesthetic decadence and (probably) what was, at the time, questionable sexuality. Richard Wright received only a couple of paragraphs in the “Revival of Naturalism” chapter and Kazin spent as much or more space on Faulkner than any other figure in book, yet never once mentioned race in connection with his vision. Only later in the 1950s did he engage with the work of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, while in the 1980s and into the 1990s he radically revised his evaluation of Richard Wright upward. Here it should be said that Kazin’s view of the moral importance of the Civil War in the nation’s imaginative and intellectual history was streets ahead of Edmund Wilson’s huffing and puffing about battling sea-slugs that opened Patriotic Gore. Nor is there much at all on popular culture in On Native Grounds. All these omissions would be rectified by later works such as Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front (1997) and Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Dark (2009) that traverse the same territory as Kazin does.

Finally, there are, of course, other examples of Kazin doing the work of the intellectual historian in On Native Grounds. His range is incredibly wide and the number of figures he takes up very impressive. He takes on Beard on the Constitution as well as Sandburg on Lincoln, analyses the New Humanists and the New Critics, links Lewis Mumford and Randolph Bourne, and discusses V.F.Calverton and Joseph Freeman. (And he manages to mention Gone with the Wind only once!). It is a measure of its richness that On Native Grounds contains anticipations of Morton White’s Revolt against Formalism and John P. Diggins’ idea of the “lyrical left.” Kazin’s makes some neat connections across time and genre when he compares Veblen and Dos Passos. Neither, he wrote, could “get his mouth round the essential yes” (352). His throwaway observation (atypically awkwardly expressed) that Veblen’s “mordant insights even more than Marx’s revolutionary critique give a base in social philosophy to USA…”(345) also strikes a spark that illuminates both social analysis and literary text, once again linking Veblen and Dos Passos. Devoted to the socialist idea at the time, Kazin was certainly no Marxist or anti-American as neo-conservative critics such as Lynn and Hilton Kramer have tried to paint him. But, his five pages explaining the compelling appeal of Marxism in the 1930s are eloquent, penetrating and moving. They are every bit the match for Edmund Wilson on that score in To the Finland Station (410-14).

Other passages and points could be found to further drive home the point that Kazin took “man thinking” seriously, but it was not man and woman thinking “systematically” that really caught his attention. It was rather voices and visions, things which were more and less than ideas and theories, that compelled him to write one the masterpieces of American prose writing.

[1] Biographical details have been supplied by Richard M. Cook’s excellent Alfred Kazin: A Biography (New Have, CN: Yale University Press, 2007).

[2] See, for examples, D H Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923); Lewis Mumford’s The Golden Day (1926); Vernon Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927-1930); Perry Miller’s The New England Mind (1939); F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), not to mention Van Wyck Brooks’ interwar volte-face that led him to celebrate the American tradition in the Flowering of New England, 1815-1865 (1936) and New England: Indian Summer, 1865-1914 (1940).

[3] Page references to On Native Grounds (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/ Harvest, 1970) will appear in the text.

[4] Ted Solortaroff (ed.), Alfred Kazin’s America (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), xv; Kenneth S. Lynn,”Act One,” The New Criterion [review of Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds] (May 1983)

Richard H. King / October 11, 2014 (revised version)