Alfred Kazin: A Biography

Overview

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 ...

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Overview

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 of On Native Grounds in 1942, Kazin was dubbed “the boy wonder of American criticism.” Numerous publications followed, including A Walker in the City and 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.

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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

"[Cook] is attuned to his subject and understands the forces that made this complex and difficult man tick. . . . [Cook] is an intelligent interpreter of his political values, motivations and actions."—Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

— Martin Rubin

Sean Wilentz

"A thorough, balanced, and very thoughtful life of one of twentieth-century America's premier critics and writers."—Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

Denis Donoghue

"This is a splendid book, written with something of the verve of Kazin himself."—Denis Donoghue, author of The American Classics and Speaking of Beauty
San Francisco Chronicle - Martin Rubin

"[Cook] is attuned to his subject and understands the forces that made this complex and difficult man tick. . . . [Cook] is an intelligent interpreter of his political values, motivations and actions."—Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

William Grimes
…[an] even-tempered, judicious biography of this notoriously prickly critic…In Mr. Cook's hands Kazin emerges as an arresting hybrid, a somewhat old-fashioned man of letters, whose critical models were Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson, with the fervent heart of a first-generation proletarian Jew enraptured and infuriated by America.
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
Cook has written an engrossing, even-handed biography, neatly balancing the public intellectual against the private man. Perhaps it will even encourage at least a few readers to seek out some of Kazin's criticism. Cook's own prose is brisk and engaging…
—The Washington Post
Library Journal

Alfred Kazin was one of the 20th century's most influential critics of American literature. Here, Cook (American literature, Univ. of Missouri, St. Louis) provides a sympathetic portrait of both the critic and the man, drawing on interviews with Kazin and his family, friends, and literary contemporaries as well as on his personal journals and letters. The result is a smoothly written, extensively researched biography that also analyzes the often turbulent times in which Kazin lived. Cook considers all aspects of Kazin's life-e.g., his often chaotic relations with his wives and children and his conflicting opinions on various political and social topics. The portraits of his friends and enemies (in some cases, one and the same), including Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, and Edmund Wilson, are especially vivid. Cook's emphasis on Kazin's fears and doubts as well as his triumphs make this a well-rounded study of one writer's beneficial influence on American literary studies from the 1930s to the 1990s. Essential reading for anyone interested in New York intellectuals or in Kazin himself; recommended for all larger academic and public library collections. (Index not seen.)
—Morris Hounion

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300115055
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2008
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard M. Cook teaches American literature at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. His articles on Alfred Kazin and other figures in American literature have appeared in American Literary History, Michigan Quarterly, American Studies International, and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis.

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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments     ix
Brownsville     1
The Thirties: Starting Out     21
The Thirties: On Native Grounds     39
The Break (1942-1945)     72
After the Apocalypse (1945-1950)     107
A Walker in the City     146
Living in the Fifties (1951-1958)     168
The Writer in the World: Part 1 (1958-1963)     209
The Writer in the World: Part 2 (1963-1970)     251
New York Jew (1970-1978)     294
A New Life (1978-1984)     325
Politics     351
"The End of Things" (1984-1998)     376
Notes     413
Index     441
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