U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Michael Kazin on Alfred Kazin

The following is a guest post by Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University, co-editor of Dissent, and author of several books including his most recent: American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. 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. Also see Richard King’s paper, On Native Grounds as Intellectual History.

Thanks to everyone who’s taking part in this panel. My father was always anxious that no one would still be reading his work – or talking about it – after his death. 16 years later — just a few months before what would be his 100th birthday — he’d still be anxious—that emotion never left him. But, I think that, like Camus’s Sisyphus, despite the unyielding weight of his psychic boulder, we can also imagine him happy.

It seems fitting, for this conference, to make a few comments about Alfred Kazin’s place in American intellectual and political history. He had a great literary talent but he was also a lucky man, as were other members of that cohort which Irving Howe famously dubbed “the New York Intellectuals.” He came of age in the late 1930s and early 1940s and flourished as a writer and an intellectual for the next forty years. At the beginning of that period, the sons and daughters of Jewish working-class immigrants could, for the first time, claim American high culture as their own. This made them a cultural novelty as well as an intellectual phenomenon – and, of course, the universities and the media were open to them as never before. One should never underestimate the psychological distance they had to travel or their acute awareness of it. As my father wrote in his journal about his immigrant parents, while sitting in his country house in Roxbury, CT., not too far from where his friend Philip Roth lived:

Gita born 1889 – Charles 1887.  Goodness me writing in the spring of 1985 so far from Czarist Russia in the 19th century.  What a lot of history all of us together embody now – from [the shtetl of] Dugzitz to Roxbury – from so much mud and darkness to this transparent Sunday morning Connecticut.

My father was also fortunate that he became a literary critic at a time when literary criticism was held in high esteem: in mid-century, every serious newspaper and magazine in America had a serious review section, and critics like Trilling and Wilson and Howe and Cousins were nearly as well-known as many of the novelists they wrote about, some of whom were their close friends. For better or worse, “theory” had not yet taken the place of the fluently written literary essay. And many of those essays were written out of a deep moral passion one finds in the work of few contemporary critics.

“For all its historical background,” my father recalled years after writing On Native Grounds, “it was written out of an old-fashioned belief that literature conveys central truths about life, that it is indispensable to our expression of the human condition and our struggle for a better life.” Perhaps Terry Eagleton could write this today; Edward Said would have agreed with it too. But which widely read American-born critics? Terry Castle? William Deresiewicz?

And, of course, there was a reciprocal relationship between the prominence of the critics and the books they were writing about. In the mid-20th century, literary novels had a significance in American culture which they have lost in our age of the omnipresent screen. Is there a single literary American novelist today who has the recognition and the readership of McCarthy, Mailer, Faulkner, Baldwin, Bellow, and the early Roth? Back then, people used to joke about their ambition to “write the great American novel. ” I haven’t heard anyone say that, whether seriously or in jest, for quite some time now.

This prominence of my father’s chosen trade helps explain why, at the age of 27, On Native Grounds could become, for some influential readers, a literary landmark, a high-culture touchstone. Reviewers more than praised the book; they paid tribute. Trilling called it “not only a history but a moral history.” Howard Mumford Jones considered it the best study ever written about the nation’s literature. In Britain, Harold Laski went completely over the top – he declared that Alfred Kazin was “among the six best critical minds America has had since Emerson.”

My father was lucky in another way. During the years he was most in demand, his political views were also in fashion. After shedding his youthful affection for socialism, my father was a liberal Democrat who loved America as fiercely, if more critically, as any exceptionalist on the Right today.

His Americanism was nicely summed up – and satirized — by Philip Rahv in that question which Richard King quoted—“Hey Alfred, What’s this about ‘our mountains, our rivers’?’ He expressed the same sentiment when he insisted that he was not a critic as much as a literary historian. This, in part, is what drew him together with Richard Hofstadter as they worked on their first books in the reading room of the NY Public Library. “Talking to you about American history,” my father wrote in a 1991 letter, “reminds me of why Hofstadter was so important to me—there wasn’t an item in our glorious and inglorious past we didn’t savor like the most wonderful food.”

The zenith of my father’s political influence – and of other NY literary intellectuals – was during John Kennedy’s political campaign and then his presidency. Unlike some of his friends, my father was famously unsmitten by Kennedy, who remains the beau ideal of liberal Americans – and of many of other Americans as well. But JFK and his wife Jackie thought him important enough to invite to a private lunch in the White House – an occasion that, to my knowledge, no other literary critic has repeated in the subsequent half century.

Richard Cook wrote a fine summary of that lunch at the White House and then the article my father wrote afterward about JFK as a “man who is always making and remaking himself.” The article enraged Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who had arranged that meal with the leader of the Free World. Actually, my father was kinder to JFK than to FDR – in part because he believed Kennedy was an intellectual capable of writing serious books. But it would probably not dismay him to learn that, as we know now, JFK was more an aggressive editor than author of the books which bore his name, including the one which won a Pulitzer Prize.

My father had fierce liberal political opinions but, like most Americans from working-class backgrounds, little faith or affection for politicians. The most consistent theme in my father’s politics was an abiding cynicism about powerful men of state. He had a visceral, at times ironic, at times quite angry view of the political world. His suspicions far outweighed his admirations. And he didn’t have much hope for alternatives, at least none that were serious contenders for influence and power. During the heyday of the New Left in the late 60s, he occasionally expressed the wild desire that the anarchist currents in the movement would win out over the fondness for Communist regimes in the Third World. He also urged me to read books by Paul Avrich, Dorothy Gallagher, and others which chronicled the ferocious, losing battles of anarchists against their Stalinist rivals.

If he had any romantic attachment to political figures, it was to older radicals who had lost all their illusions about the possibilities of earthshaking change but kept yearning for it anyway. In Starting Out in the Thirties, there is a wonderful glimpse of a “horribly experienced Polish veteran of the revolutionary wars” who was a regular guest at V.F. Calverton’s house in Greenwich Village in the mid-Thirties. This unnamed comrade was “a kindly but despairing expert on all Socialists and socialisms, Utopian, scientific, social democratic, libertarian, and dogmatic, a man with a heavy bald front and a face shaped like a stone by every obstacle in his path.” For him, “Revolution was a tragic cycle: the powerless, seeking to determine their own fate at last, gave new power over themselves to ruthless intellectuals…He was a living memorial to the futile heroism of the revolutionary movement. For him, socialism had become its past.” (42-3)

Despite his own disillusions, my father could not stop writing about politicians and political activists – at times, with a passion nearly as great as that he brought to literary subjects. Here’s part of what he wrote in 1959 in a piece about the second volume of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s history of the New Deal:

The White House is more likely to hear of things than it is to initiate or even to understand them, and here Roosevelt’s famous ‘pragmatism,’ his lack of ideas, has turned out to be far more sterile and even dangerous than Schlesinger suggests.

He went on to compare FDR unfavorably to Wilson, his political mentor:

When one recognizes the intellectual poverty and spiritual thinness with which [Roosevelt] defended democracy during the war [World War II] – has there ever been so notable an American leader whose public papers are so insignificant as political literature? – and remembers how Wilson, by contrast, always had historical reasons for what he did and recognized the historical tragedy of what he was forced to do, one sees the tragedy of a diminishing democratic leadership that Schlesinger, who sees FDR always in winning human terms, does not bother with.

Now, as a historian, I could object to this judgment in a variety of ways – starting with the idea that Wilson was “forced” to lead the country into World War I. But he was the last president to write his own speeches, and many of them are still quite stunning to read. My father shared the ironic disdain for FDR so eloquently expressed by Hofstadter in The American Political Tradition. He also, I suspect, thought more of Wilson because he was a real intellectual and a gifted writer, whereas FDR, in Hofstadter’s deathless phrase, was just “a patrician as opportunist.”

As Richard King points out, “No matter what the genre, whether he is dealing with a novel or an economic treatise, Kazin was interested in the voice of the writer. A systematic engagement with philosophical or theoretical matters was hard to come by.”

But what really enraged my father – and could produce some excellent writing – were political zealots with destructive, anti-liberal ideas. This included Communists and pro-Communists, of course. But by the 1980s, it particularly included neo-conservatives as well as religious fundamentalists – whether the likes of Jerry Falwell or the ultra-Orthodox who were, in his view, imperiling the survival of a secular Israeli society.

The last time I recall him talking about politics with a real sense of outrage, which bordered on a mission, was in the early 1980s, after Reagan was elected. In March, 1981, he wrote to me, “I was planning to go down to my grave as a virtuous anti-Communist but your California man is driving me back to some very old feelings…Oh well, who ever said politics is the art of the possible?” Two years later, his attack in The New York Review on the neoconservatives, “Saving My Soul at the Plaza” was driven by that irate mission. As in nearly everything else he wrote about politics, he offered no alternative to the people and ideas he detested but simply telling the truth.

For Alfred Kazin, then, the narrative of politics was a tale, or rather a series of tales, destined to end in tragedy – a noun he used as frequently as any. But that tragedy could inspire writing more profound than any story of great victories won by great men who were never as great as they and their followers thought them to be. Some of the writers he admired most and wrote about most often – Thoreau, Dreiser, Melville, Henry Adams, Bellow – shared this tragic sensibility too – and, of course, not just about politics.

And, in the end, it is this sensibility, rather than any particular idea of his, which makes his work endure, if anything does. Alfred Kazin, as many of his intellectual contemporaries from immigrant, working-class families, was dogged by insecurity, by a limnality that tormented them but also drove them to produce some of their best writing.

In a 1984 journal entry, my father wrote:

…of course I am not “normal” or “conventional,” nor do I wish to be… I am one of the marginal men, the pariah men, the near (or far) crazies… I still seek what I sought only on my delirious summer walks in middle Brooklyn- that which has to be sought perhaps because it is uncapturable…

Yet one could not decline to embark on this search, even knowing it would end in frustration and, perhaps, in tragedy.

My father expressed this sensibility, this credo, in the conclusion to his introduction to a 1951 edition of Moby Dick. It can also serve as a meditation of sorts on the writing of history itself:

all goes down with the Pequod—all man’s hopes of profit, of adjustment to orthodoxy (Starbuck), even of the wisdom that is in madness (Pip)—man, though forever alien to the world, an Ishmael, is somehow in tune with it, with its torrential rhythms, by dint of his art by the directness with which his words grasp the world by the splendour of his perceptions, by the lantern which he holds up ‘like a candle in the midst of the almighty forlornness’. Man is not merely a waif in the world, he is an ear listening to the sea that almost drowns him; an imagination, a mind, that hears the sea in the shell, and darts behind all appearance to the beginning of things, and runs riot with the frightful force of the sea itself. There, in man’s incredible and unresting mind, is the fantastic gift with which we enter into what is not our own, what is even against us—and for this, so amazingly, we can speak.