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Alfred Kazin's Journalsby Alfred Kazin
At the time of his death in 1998, Alfred Kazin was considered one of the most influential intellectuals of postwar America. What is less well known is that Kazin had been contributing almost daily to an extensive private journal, which arguably contaSee more details below
At the time of his death in 1998, Alfred Kazin was considered one of the most influential intellectuals of postwar America. What is less well known is that Kazin had been contributing almost daily to an extensive private journal, which arguably conta
The New York Times
"Kazin’s [journals], just now published by Yale University Press, may well turn out to be his greatest work."—Mark Shechner, Tablet Magazine
“With the publication of Alfred Kazin’s Journals, this Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants is poised to join the literary giants who inspired him. . . . Kazin comes vibrantly alive in the journals.”—Chris Waddington, New Orleans Times-Picayune
"This is a remarkable book, easily one of the great diaries and moral documents of the past American century."—Dwight Garner, New York Times
“A profound and exciting book, more so even than the best of the dozen works of criticism and autobiography that [Kazin] published during his lifetime.”—Edward Mendelson, New York Review of Books
“A monumental offering from one of the greatest and most challenging—and often underrated—literary minds of the 20th century . . . As essential as it is, perhaps, overdue.”—Jeff Simon, Buffalo News
“Richly unmediated expressiveness . . . a remarkable demonstration of how good writing struggles to emerge from the inner chaos with which we all live and that only a writer as talented as Alfred Kazin can bring to its knees.”—Vivian Gornick, Boston Review
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Alfred Kazin's Journals
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Estate of Alfred Kazin, and Richard M. Cook
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Chapter OneStarting Out 19331942
THE EARLIEST SURVIVING JOURNAL ENTRIES were written in May 1933, when Kazin was a sophomore at City College. His years at City were not happy ones. Irving Howe, Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, and other notable alumni would look back fondly on City College in the thirties as a "wonderful place" (Howe), where one made friends through political association while sharpening one's polemical skills through vigorous political debate in the college's famous alcoves. Kazin did not participate. He detested the "fanatical" political atmosphere, stayed away from the "odorously male" alcoves, and chose to study by himself in the Great Hall, where he could listen to the organist playing Bach. It was a lonely time, and for companionship he often turned to his journal much as he had in his high school years.
The entries of this period are what one might expect from a bright, bookish sophomore excited, overexcited, by his reading, by music, by large (not always coherent) ideas about religion, art, and politics. Kazin says little in these early entries about the daily events and people in his life. The journal entry was primarily an opportunity to reflect on books, politics, and such expansive topics as "the true poetry of human life" and the artist "as the happiest and most accursed of men." It was also a chance to test and extend his fluencyand to experiment with grammar. Kazin often seems as interested in riding a flood of words as in making a coherent argument or clarifying a point of view. "I write words not within the planes of cognition or even common fancy, but of a terrible and pulsating musical sense" (November 18, 1933). He understood the risks of fluency. "I want to express everything and am therefore fated neither to express or understand anything" (September 20, 1933). But they were risks he was willing to take, hoping to tap into expressive (musical) reserves"the fragmentary mutterings of a myriad of harmonies" (November 18, 1933)that he believed were essential to his growth as a writer.
He was less willing to sacrifice clarity when politics was the subject. A young Socialist from Jewish Brownsville, Kazin was familiar with recent European history and the course of European Socialism. Reviewing the events leading up to the naming of Hitler as the German chancellor on January 30, 1933, he saw the collapse of the Second International at the beginning of World War I as a sign of things to come. An organization of socialist and labor parties founded in 1889,the Second International had disintegrated when the members abandoned their antiwar pledges and sided with the war aims of their respective countries. That failure and the subsequent failure of the German Social Democratic Party to consolidate and extend its power in the 1920s led Kazin to question Socialism's relevance to twentieth-century realities and to look to the "gusto and force" of the Communists (August 5, 1934). However, unlike other young radicals (including his friend Richard Hofstadter) he never joined the Communist Party nor made public statements in support of Communisma decision, or nondecision, for which he would have no reason to apologize. "The only reason I escape[d] some of the absolutes" in the thirties, he wrote in a November 25, 1967, letter to Matthew Josephson "was that I couldn't get over the discovery of myself as a writer. It was grace."
No journal entries exist between June 5, 1935, and December 3, 1938busy years when Kazin wrote book reviews for the New Republic, the New York Times, and the New York Herald Tribune; earned an M.A. in history at Columbia (19371938); taught courses at the New School and City College; and began work on On Native Grounds. In October 1938 he married Natasha Dohn, a research biologist working for her doctorate. Shortly thereafter, he and Natasha ("Asya") decided that each should keep a "daily record" of their lives. He did not write often in his journal while working on On Native Grounds (19381942), but he did find time for the occasional entryon the war, on the state of modern criticism, on music, on Henry Adams (a subject of ongoing debate with his new friend Hofstadter), and, most memorably, on what writing his history of American literature and culture meant to him.
May 14, 1933
A Sketch Book Alfred Jonathan Kazin
And the true poetry of human life rarely appears in our souls, meager, frost-begotten tissues of a warped life that they are! is the true vestiges of a placid and beautiful externality. Life jags us beyond ourselves, distorts our powers of understanding into a passive, suffering receptivity to the great blindnesses that seep into us and flow out, the light [illegible] noise of illusion. There is a type of poetry that is unitythe poetry of the intellectual mindhaving visaged the whole of the objects of his understanding, he fuses them into the white heat of his soul, illuminates the note with this passion and feels in that the simple wholeness of passion that was Walt Whitman's simple anti-intellectualism when "he heard the learned astronomers," that is hysteria, the hysteria of the untutored, bare soul, in conflict with the flashy, hard crabbedness of pure conceptualization as in mathematics that is the world, piteous, exalted cry of the Lawrences of the world. [...] I have a horror of simple anti-intellectuals as I have of the eunuch scholastics. Life calls us to nothing more than passionate and rigorously logical (truthful) introspection. There is no externality but the outpourings of the selfno life spirit but the natural poetry of the human soul. The continuity of man's spirit is a grandiloquence and literal apotheosis possible of consummation solely under the light of man's own self. The self is a unity, an integrated body of apperceptive responses to a reality that is really but an individual creation. [...]
May 29, 1933
[...] The world of today is at the crossroadsThe whole scheme of aimless capitalism and the last dregs of traditionalist nationalism are being seen more clearly in their death-struggle. [...] The war gave our times a finality, but it was a finality left incomplete, for the vital dynamic that produced the bloodbath was left with hard, protruding edges and the very forces of idealism and strength of intellectual purpose that had seemed bulwarks against the patriot-murderers (read the Second International). But the artists sufferedand suffered so complete and so humiliating a disillusion that the objects of their artistic processes became blurred and indistinctThe forces of human life lost any sequence or coherence believed possible for them and, left as they were with only their receptive artistic senses, they turned it upon themselves and lost the beautiful, the enduring woods for the trees. [...]
It is idle to wish ourselves different from what we areidle and tragic. We must fit the bone into the designated socket, and live with a naturalness, a freedom, an all-enduring, all composing veracity that will remain the last and most satisfying expressions of our life upon earth. That is why I love the moderns so muchJoyce and Lawrence, Maugham and Robinson, the political and social thought of Einstein, the revolutionary work of Freud. "Honesty, Honesty," as Carlyle said on his death-bedthe honesty to face life completely and frankly, and to accept it all as a totality of wonder, knowing the responses we give to each to be the best in the end. [...]
July 24, 1933
[Alfred loves Nancy; Alfred loves Sex: Nancy!]
The essence of fascism is not so much the capitalist as it is the nationalist ideal. It is of course a platitude that the use of nationalism since the 13th and 14th centuries, particularly in Western Europe, has been marked by adherence to the laissez-faire theory of economics and the bourgeoisie side of the class-struggle, but what I want to bring out principally is that fascism, being a mass-spontaneous movement, has fundamental roots in that blind, implacable chauvinism so dear to the heart of every moron. Fascism's essences are militarism, chauvinism, the arrogant Narcissism of Germany and Italy. Fascism is natural and real for the average individual. Even American Communism, most demagogic and fascist-like of all contemporaneous social (and particularly Marxist) creeds is often a stimulus for the average of the hoi-polloi. When a Social-Democrat aids the capitalists he does not become a "Social-Fascist," but a bourgeois. A Social Fascist is a Trotskyite Communist, with his asinine and pernicious doctrines of permanent revolution and exaggerated leftism. The Fascist influences in the modern Communist parties are the stress upon the violent features of the class-struggle with the incredible demagoguery of boring from within, the "bonus riots," the teacher's mess, etc., and the actual militarization of the proletariat. Did I not see young Pioneers wearing uniforms? Communism believes that the social-pacificsts of the world are dangerous and obstructing influences in the class-struggle, that pacifism, if sincere, deluded and intellectually effeminateand, if "hypocritical," obviously and manifestly the instrument of the bourgeoisie.
Marxism, in its theory of dialectical materialism offered to the contemporary thinking world a secularism so audacious and so cosmic that even we of today fail to appreciate the purely intellectual revolution it excited. The 19th century was the consummation, the climax of the Italian Renaissance, the vortex of an aimless secularism and a vast, desperate individualism. Marxism, of its own essence, propounds the most amazing denouement of the Copernican revolution and its subsequent non-metaphysical ramificationsit makes man historically and continuously an animal, an animal not so much of Darwin's purely physical aspects with its major allusions of brutality and infinite, omnipotent struggle, but an animal devoting its speculative, clarifying, cognitive and social powers to the promulgation of evil social cultures. Intellectually Marxism represents the climax of intellectual honesty. It marks the determination on the part of the intellectual individual to see the history of man's social and mental cultivation and refinement from the perspective of the organic and scientific methodvizto envisage man's intellectual odyssey, not in terms of an idealistic ethic as did Goethe, Herder, and Spengler, but in terms of a dispassionate reality. Marxism marks the overthrow of man's omnipotence and egotism. Organized religion of the 19th century and particularly contemporary fascism have their fundamental roots in this specious and hypocritical ethican ethic of delusion and criminal projectionsince it is a theology of materialism, an idle and irrational ramification of the silly idealism of the Era of Enlightenment. It is here apropos to deal at length with the added features of Marxism: that it is a fundamental or final idealism of the scientific methodthe attempt to reorganize an idealist society, a noble utopia with the instruments and clarifying powers of a rigorous and brilliant logic. But it is a logic of extraordinary scope and dimensions because it gives the final blow to the anthropocentric myth.
[Written in the top margin:] (Sex and mental Pathology) H. EllisSexual Inversion FreudThree Contributions to the Sexual Theory Kraft-EbbingPyschopathia Sexualis McDougalAbnormal Psychology CorotProblems of Sex
August 3, 1933
Thomas Mann and Buddenbrooks. Buddenbrooks is in itself a perfect piece of art because it is so completely accurate and satisfying an expression of a mode of life that is ordinary and stable, inherent in human life. Outwardly, it is but the rapid recital of the births, development, marriages and deaths in a prosaic and prosperous family. But what does not go on within this dull exterior! What a wealth of exaltation, tenderness, and super-humanized mystery. Reading it one seems to be living sheerly immersed in the very [illegible] and proportions and a lasting well-built monument to a class and creed approaching the spiritual in its fanatical devotion to a material essence and a material Deity. It is interesting to compare this novel with the Forsythe Saga! Galsworthy's work has certain elements of the melodramatic in itthat is to say, the feud between Irene as the implacable, victorious sense of beauty and Soames as the devotee of the sense of property and righteous morality is doubtlessly not a common idea, nor is the feud extending to young Jon with Fleur Mont valid as a transcription of actual experience. What is most extraordinary in the work, however, amounting to an idea of genius is that the accredited force of evil, Soames, is made into so comprehensible and even likeable a human being. The feud is a fissure, an adjunct. What is at the heart of the novel is the extraordinary feeling and tenderness approaching the cosmic moments of the Russian novel, that we are made to feel for one who is so obviously and completely a pernicious influence and whose power and ability are sufficient to ruin the lives of the most able and the most enduring of the book's characters. But Buddenbrooks is placid and normal. It is normality exalted to literature. The only character who approaches anything like individuality of a marked sort is Hanno, and Hanno is the consummating and most complete irony of the novel, for it is precisely Hanno who by his dreamy effeminacy, his love of music, his common dullness throws into grotesque relief at once the pitiful decline of the house and the fundamental, terrible, and disheartening dichotomy born in temperament and experience between the fourth and the fifth generations. The novel is superb in its titanic serenity, its reticence, its artistic form. [...]
August 5, 1933
[...] The "Epilogue" to Crime and Punishment is not only one of the most beautiful and impressive scenes in the whole of fiction, it represents with an extraordinaryclaritythewholespiritoftheRussiannovelofthe19thcenturyand more important, of the Russian people. This has its chief interest in me because the Christ-spirit, conceived by me to be the greatest idea and passion ever given to the Human race, is so completely consummated in art by the Russians. Think of these intellectual and spiritual titans, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, each of whom turned, the one in the flower of his creative period, the other at the close, to a repercussion of the Christ idea in terms that verged on the abnormal!
For it is Christ and Christ alone who sums up the human race in its greatest significance!its contradistinction from animalism. It is Christ who by his theory of love for one's fellow man expresses finally and irredeemably that divine understanding of man and his stature and significance in a universe of hostile and unrelenting inhospitalityit is Christ who more than the oriental prophets rings clear forever and forever to the soul-piercing declaration of man's solidarity with man and the hatred of injustice, inequity, and, above all, violence. For the essence of Christ's teachings is love and the divine rationalism that is pregnant with so complete and cosmic a fatalism. It is Christ who is the secular pacifist and anarchistthe great spirit of love and pity. Christ's pity is not condescension or even aid. It is love, a love of such divine proportions that it realizes inequality among men, the inequality of talent, strength, and innate organic temperament to be nothing but a pitiful joke, and realizing the wisdom of Lucretius' atomism, it seems to say: "My brother, I pity you not as one stoops to lift a less able brother from the dust, but as a fellow-creature. I realize with you such a comradeship, that I recognize in you my desires, my defects, my exaltations, and my despairs. [...]"
August 7, 1933
The music of Mozart presents some of the most curious implications for the philosophical critic. In its purity of form, its ease, its jollity, it seems at first glance the unaffected happiness of eternal childhood. But it requires no deepset penetration to realize the classic imprint of the more tragic emotionsparticularly in the violin concertos and the chaste and reticent suffering of the 4th Symphony. Mozart is the greatest representative of Classicism because he, more than any other, includes with a subtle and major influence, the spiritual strivings of the Romanticists, its passionate and intense individualism and emotion. [...]
September 5, 1933
Form is Substance. One of the most ludicrous and pathetic features of "critical thinking" is the incredible short-sightedness and pedantry of its views. Our critics seem too often unable to see into a problem of thought or expression save when bulwarked by a comfortable traditionalism and a body of established ideas and axioms which are conveniently made to influence all problems, whether or not the thinker becomes conscious of a differentiating necessity. It is the lack of intellectual courage that is most repellent and even pernicious, for fanaticism and falsehood thrive only on half-truths and [in] that dark and sequestered region of intellectual impotence and repressiveness. If thought has any value as a part of one's individual experience, it has precisely that dynamic influence upon a man's common experience that seems so alien to the majority of our folk and so precisely with form. Now, it seems to me that logic is too often seen (when it is seen at all in a conscious, brilliantly alive philosophical sense) as a convenient instrument for coherent dissertation. Form is viewed as a categorical vehicle, of a static and permeable influence alone which one may work upon at will and make one's own but possessing no active, dynamic-relevancy to the matter at hand, forming, of course, the main issue at hand. Wrong. What is obviously lacking here is a perception of the vital unity of an artist's consciousness, of the sharp immediacy of impressions, comprehensions, exultancies, perceptions that go to make up the thriving nameless, a natural expression of his being as he works. For substance does not follow or enter into formit makes form. [...]
September 12, 1933
[...] And all philosophies of history suffer for their grandiosity and the pathetic pompousness of individual positiveness of assertion and complete belief. But deep, deep in the soul of man, reinforced by that superb intuition that is great with the profound sense of the abiding tragedy in all human life is the knowledge of the complete flux and transitoriness of all things and that solely that miraculous poetry that floods the dull and dismal crevices of life rises forward to a new and more complete conception of man, and his instrumentality of existence, the soul.
Excerpted from Alfred Kazin's Journals Copyright © 2011 by Estate of Alfred Kazin, and Richard M. Cook. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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