Alfred Kazin's America: Critical and Personal Writings


Over the course of sixty years, Alfred Kazin's writings confronted virtually all of our major imaginative writers, from Emerson to Emily Dickinson to James Wright and Joyce Carol Oates — including such unexpected figures as Lincoln, William James, and Thorstein Veblen. This son of Russian Jews wrote out of the tensions of the outsider and the astute, outspoken leftist — or, as he put it, "the bitter patriotism of loving what one knows." Editor Ted Solotaroff hasselected material from Kazin's three classic memoirs...

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Over the course of sixty years, Alfred Kazin's writings confronted virtually all of our major imaginative writers, from Emerson to Emily Dickinson to James Wright and Joyce Carol Oates — including such unexpected figures as Lincoln, William James, and Thorstein Veblen. This son of Russian Jews wrote out of the tensions of the outsider and the astute, outspoken leftist — or, as he put it, "the bitter patriotism of loving what one knows." Editor Ted Solotaroff hasselected material from Kazin's three classic memoirs to accompany his critical writings. Alfred Kazin's America provides an ongoing example of the spiritual freedom, individualism, and democratic contentiousness that he regarded as his heritage and endeavored to pass on.

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Editorial Reviews

Paul Berman
“Alfred Kazin’s combustible soul thought God might yet be sought in American literature.”
William F. Pritchard
“This most thoughtfully chosen collection is a fitting monument to the man and his work.”
Thomas L. Jefferes
“[Kazin is] one of a handful of acknowledged arbiters of critical judgment in American.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A book for which everyone interested in good writing in America should be grateful.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“A distinct pleasure.”
The New York Times
It is a yearning for God; or, in its adult and literary version, for a post-God God; or, in still a more advanced version, for the empty space where God used to be. And, lo, this yearning, this fascination with a hard-to-identify God, ended up plopping the elderly Kazin into the very center of the American literary tradition, where he had always wanted to be -- perhaps not in the exact spot occupied by the atheistic Wilson, but the center, even so. Solotaroff has called his book Alfred Kazin's America, but the book could just as well and just as accurately and just as lovingly be called America's Alfred Kazin. — Paul Berman
The New Yorker
The literary critic Alfred Kazin chose America as his subject, and his intellectual awakening is itself something of an American legend. As a young man during the Depression, in the “delicious isolation” of the New York Public Library, he immersed himself in Howells, Faulkner, and others, eventually producing “On Native Grounds,” a landmark study of American realism and modernism in which he displayed the infallible nose for a writer’s best work that distinguished his long career. Later, he turned his critical eye inward, producing three memoirs about his Jewish boyhood in Brownsville and his friendships with famous contemporaries. Kazin died in 1998, and Ted Solotaroff’s selection of his work is a fitting tribute: a book that will be a starting point for further reading, both of Kazin and of the native writers to whom he devoted himself.
Publishers Weekly
Intended as "a resource, rather than as a monument" this posthumous anthology traces a biographical arc through the work of one of America's finest literary critics, interspersing selections from almost all of his major critical works (On Native Grounds; God and the American Writer; etc.) with the remarkable memoirs published in his middle later years (A Walker in the City; Writing Was Everything; etc.). Few critics lend themselves to such integration, but as Solotaroff's extensive, nuanced introduction explains, Kazin (1915-1998) "wrote less as a literary critic than as a writer possessed by literature as moral testimony and lived history." The collection starts with his childhood in a provincial Brooklyn ghetto, where his work-dogged mother would leave her sewing machine only long enough to gaze briefly and lovingly out of the window at the world, and impoverished friends found transcendence in poetry and politics. Here, too, the teenaged Alfred, having already seized upon Blake and Hemingway, read the Gospel and found in the co-opted figure of "our Yeshua" a fulfillment of Jewish longing and "another writer I could instinctively trust." Then come Kazin's beginnings in the brave new and largely gentile literary world of the '30s; the months spent at the New York Public Library researching the brilliant study of American realism that made his career; the rise and decline of the literary left and the moral disillusionments following the war. The book ends with his canny but troubled assessment of letters in the early 1980s, the end of the American century. Kazin's great faculty as both a critic and a memoirist was his passionate belief in the voice on the page as a means of communicating historical experience. Here is a writer, and a reader, we can trust. (Oct.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Considered by many the dean of American letters and the successor to William Dean Howells and Edmund Wilson, Kazin (1915-98) was arguably the preeminent literary critic of his day. This representative sampler contains selections from nearly all of his critical books, from On Native Grounds (1942) to God and the American Writer (1997), as well as excerpts from his memoirs, including A Walker in the City (1951) and New York Jew (1978). Articles and reviews from periodicals like the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books are also included. The subjects covered reflect Kazin's wide-ranging interests within the American literary tradition, from American Renaissance figures like Melville and Hawthorne, to Lost Generation novelists Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to later Jewish American writers like Bellow and Malamud. Edited and introduced by noted editor and critic Solotaroff (Truth Comes in Blows), this is recommended for all literature collections.-William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Selections from the distinguished late critic’s books and articles highlight his sense of kinship with American writers from Hawthorne to Didion. Writing as a literary scholar for the general public, Kazin (1915–98) coupled his criticism with three volumes of memoirs to proclaim the personal sustenance a son of immigrants found in American literature, and to assert that it belonged to everyone. Excerpts from A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1962), and the bluntly titled New York Jew (1978) paint vivid, bracingly unsentimental portraits of Brooklyn in the 1930s; of such peers in "the literary life" as Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, and Saul Bellow; of elder statesmen like Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson (the latter one of Kazin’s best character/cultural sketches). Pieces drawn from On Native Grounds (1942) remind us of Kazin’s pioneering work in tracing the flowering of realism in American literature from William Dean Howells in the 1890s through Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson to Lost Generation icons Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Only Edith Wharton seems to evade his complete understanding, but he does better with contemporary female authors like Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates in a section also notable for sharp essays on Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy; Cheever, Salinger, and Updike; Bellow, Malamud, and Roth. WASPS, Jews, or southerners, they were all Americans first and foremost to Kazin: few critics have more penetratingly limned the "belief in the ideal freedom and power of the self, in the political and social visions of radical democracy" that informs our national literature. "Departed Friends" examines those same overriding themes in the19th-century titans, including Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, and Twain. Editor Solotaroff’s introduction sets Kazin’s life in historical context, an important service for a critic who always insisted on the intimate, intricate links between literature and society. Despite the inevitable omissions—his warmly democratic tribute to the New York Public Library being the most egregious—an enthralling introduction to the work of a man who "lived to read" and conveyed that passion to his own readers for half a century.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060512767
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 1,162,399
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Alfred Kazin was born in Brooklyn in 1915. His first book, On Native Grounds, published in 1942, revolutionized critical perceptions of American literature. It was followed by many more books of essays and criticism, including A Walker in the City and, most recently, Writing Was Everything.

Kazin has taught at Harvard, Smith, Amherst, Hunter College, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In 1996, he received the Truman Capote Literary Trust's first Lifetime Award in Literary Criticism.

Kazin lives in New York City.

Ted Solotaroff is a well-known editor and critic. His first memoir, Truth Comes in Blows, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. His second, First Loves, was recently published by Seven Stories Press.

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Table of Contents

The Kitchen 3
"Beyond!" 8
Mrs. Solovey 14
Yeshua 25
Brownsville: 1931 31
The New Republic: 1934 36
At V. F. Calverton's: 1936 40
Preface to On Native Grounds 51
The Opening Struggle for Realism 56
Two Educations: Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser 65
An Insurgent Scholar: Thorstein Veblen 81
The New Realism: Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis 90
Willa Cather's Elegy 105
All the Lost Generations: F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Pasos 114
Provincetown, 1940: Bertram Wolfe, Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv 159
Delmore Schwartz 166
Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling 170
The Fascination and Terror of Ezra Pound 181
William Faulkner: The Sound and the Fury 200
Southern Isolates: Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy 213
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: The Historian at the Center 222
President Kennedy and Other Intellectuals 229
Professional Observers: Cheever, Salinger, and Updike 245
The Earthly City of the Jews: Bellow, Malamud, and Roth 255
The Imagination of Fact: Capote and Mailer 270
The "Single Voice" of Ralph Ellison 282
Two Cassandras: Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates 289
James Wright: The Gift of Feeling 300
The Intoxicating Sense of Possibility: Thomas Jefferson at Monticello 307
Emerson: The Priest Departs, The Divine Literatus Comes 314
Thoreau and American Power 325
Hawthorne: The Ghost Sense 336
"Melville Is Dwelling Somewhere in New York" 344
Walt Whitman: I Am the Man 370
Lincoln: The Almighty Has His Own Purposes 383
Emily Dickinson: Called Back 402
Creatures of Circumstance: Mark Twain 407
William and Henry James: Our Passion Is Our Task 423
The Death of the Past: Henry Adams and T. S. Elit 432
Edmund Wilson at Wellfleet 455
Hannah Arendt: The Burden of Our Time 467
The Directness of Josephine Herbst 477
Saving My Soul at the Plaza 481
A Parade in the Rain 499
To Be a Critic 506
Appendix 523
Index 527
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First Chapter

Alfred Kazin's America
Critical and Personal Writings

Chapter One

The Kitchen

In Brownsville tenements the kitchen is always the largest room and the center of the household. As a child I felt that we lived in a kitchen to which four other rooms were annexed. My mother, a "home" dressmaker, had her workshop in the kitchen. She told me once that she had begun dressmaking in Poland at thirteen; as far back as I can remember, she was always making dresses for the local women. She had an innate sense of design, a quick eye for all the subtleties in the latest fashions, even when she despised them, and great boldness. For three or four dollars she would study the fashion magazines with a customer, go with the customer to the remnants store on Belmont Avenue to pick out the material, argue the owner down -- all remnants stores, for some reason, were supposed to be shady, as if the owners dealt in stolen goods -- and then for days would patiently fit and baste and sew and fit again. Our apartment was always full of women in their housedresses sitting around the kitchen table waiting for a fitting. My little bedroom next to the kitchen was the fitting room. The sewing machine, an old nut-brown Singer with golden scrolls painted along the black arm and engraved along the two tiers of little drawers massed with needles and thread on each side of the treadle, stood next to the window and the great coal-black stove which up to my last year in college was our main source of heat. By December the two outer bed-rooms were closed off, and used to chill bottles of milk and cream, cold borscht, and jellied calves' feet.

The kitchen held our lives together. My mother worked in it all day long, we ate in it almost all meals except the Passover seder, I did my homework and first writing at the kitchen table, and in winter I often had a bed made up for me on three kitchen chairs near the stove. On the wall just over the table hung a long horizontal mirror that sloped to a ship's prow at each end and was lined in cherry wood. It took up the whole wall, and drew every object in the kitchen to itself. The walls were a fiercely stippled whitewash, so often rewhitened by my father in slack seasons that the paint looked as if it had been squeezed and cracked into the walls. A large electric bulb hung down the center of the kitchen at the end of a chain that had been hooked into the ceiling; the old gas ring and key still jutted out of the wall like antlers. In the corner next to the toilet was the sink at which we washed, and the square tub in which my mother did our clothes. Above it, tacked to the shelf on which were pleasantly ranged square, blue-bordered white sugar and spice jars, hung calendars from the Public National Bank on Pitkin Avenue and the Minsker Progressive Branch of the Workmen's Circle; receipts for the payment of insurance premiums, and household bills on a spindle; two little boxes engraved with Hebrew letters. One of these was for the poor, the other to buy back the Land of Israel. Each spring a bearded little man would suddenly appear in our kitchen, salute us with a hurried Hebrew blessing, empty the boxes (sometimes with a sidelong look of disdain if they were not full), hurriedly bless us again for remembering our less fortunate Jewish brothers and sisters, and so take his departure until the next spring, after vainly trying to persuade my mother to take still another box. We did occasionally remember to drop coins in the boxes, but this was usually only on the dreaded morning of "midterms" and final examinations, because my mother thought it would bring me luck. She was extremely superstitious, but embarrassed about it, and always laughed at herself whenever, on the morning of an examination, she counseled me to leave the house on my right foot. "I know it's silly," her smile seemed to say, "but what harm can it do? It may calm God down."

The kitchen gave a special character to our lives; my mother's character. All my memories of that kitchen are dominated by the nearness of my mother sitting all day long at her sewing machine, by the clacking of the treadle against the linoleum floor, by the patient twist of her right shoulder as she automatically pushed at the wheel with one hand or lifted the foot to free the needle where it had got stuck in a thick piece of material. The kitchen was her life. Year by year, as I began to take in her fantastic capacity for labor and her anxious zeal, I realized it was ourselves she kept stitched together. I can never remember a time when she was not working. She worked because the law of her life was work, work and anxiety; she worked because she would have found life meaningless without work. She read almost no English; she could read the Yiddish paper, but never felt she had time to. We were always talking of a time when I would teach her how to read, but somehow there was never time. When I awoke in the morning she was already at her machine, or in the great morning crowd of housewives at the grocery getting fresh rolls for breakfast. When I returned from school she was at her machine, or conferring over McCall's with some neighborhood woman who had come in pointing hopefully to an illustration -- "Mrs. Kazin! Mrs. Kazin! Make me a dress like it shows here in the picture!" When my father came home from work she had somehow mysteriously interrupted herself to make supper for us, and the dishes cleared and washed, was back at her machine ...

Alfred Kazin's America
Critical and Personal Writings
. Copyright © by Alfred Kazin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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