Lifetime Burning Every Moment: From the Journals of Alfred Kazin

Lifetime Burning Every Moment: From the Journals of Alfred Kazin

by Alfred Kazin
     
 

From the journals of one of our most distinguished critics comes an extraordinary panorama of the intellectual, social and political culture of the last half century. Written with the vividness and power of first-rate fiction, it brings to life the great artists and thinkers who shaped the times, including Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Hannah Arendt, and shares…  See more details below

Overview

From the journals of one of our most distinguished critics comes an extraordinary panorama of the intellectual, social and political culture of the last half century. Written with the vividness and power of first-rate fiction, it brings to life the great artists and thinkers who shaped the times, including Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Hannah Arendt, and shares Kazin's insights on politics, literature, Jewish life after the Holocaust and American society. It is an immensely rich and resonant memoir from an observer whose eloquence can imbue each moment lived with a lifetime of thought and passion.

Author Biography: 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Jewish Book World
This collection of selected entries from the journals of Alfred kazin, one of today's premiere scholars of American literature, covers significant portions of his life from 1938 to the present. Written in the same powerful and lyrical prose of his essays, A Lifetime Burning guides readers with beguiling deftness through Kazin's life growing up in New York, traveling in Europe during and after World War II, and facing the challenges of modern American politics and art.
Kirkus Reviews
With over 50 years' worth of raw material to plunder and pick through, Kazin unearths pieces of autobiographical and critical prototypes, along with literary gossip, academic kvetching, private rhapsodies, and 20th-century angst.

Overlapping with Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), New York Jew (1978), and Writing Was Everything (1995), these journal selections naturally lose out by comparison, being fragmentary and, for Kazin, unpolished. Yet they still have their own allure, offering the freshness of first impressions and (relatively) uncensored honesty and self-examination. Many of the entries on Kazin's intimate life—several failed marriages, feelings of inadequacy, and old-age ailments—read embarrassingly, but the passages on his public, intellectual life, amplified by the 20th- century history he has witnessed, more than make up for any longueurs. From vantages in London, Italy, Amherst, Yaddo, Stanford, and, naturally, New York, Kazin's portraits of five decades are vivid but sometimes hit-and-miss, but his personal portraits are winning throughout, with vibrant cameos of Zero Mostel, Arthur Miller, Robert Frost, Saul Steinberg, Harold Bloom, and Jerzy Kosinski, to name a few described in these populous pages. Perhaps the most touching portrait here is of his friendship in the 1950s with Josephine Herbst, a penniless, "politically exhausted relic" of a leftist activist and proletarian novelist, who shows Kazin her indomitable spunk while reliving the 1930s for him. Other friendships prove more complicated over time: Kazin had an intense but increasingly difficult relationship with Hannah Arendt and became estranged from Saul Bellow. His intellectual relationships, chiefly revolving around his love of America, his hatred of ideology, and his independent Jewish identity, are even more complicated.

A composite intellectual and literary album, travelogue, commonplace book, and confessional diary from a leading critic still "writing up things in my notebook as if my peace depended on it."

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060190378
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
04/12/1996
Pages:
341
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.34(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

1938-1945

Before Asya and I were married, we decided to keep a daily record of our lives. Of course we won't keep it up. I do need a notebook-journal-record of some sort, and this may be it. Asya is like nothing I ever anticipated or even hoped for. She's priceless.

"They will more than arrive there, every one."

A Sunday afternoon walk to the East River with Asya. In this industrial kitchen of Long Island City, where the factories lie scrubbed and waiting in the sun like so many pots and pans hung up to dry, there is a weariness in the air. The river is not the sluice of New York Harbor it usually is, but a pallid, turgid stream breaking weakly against neglected docks, piers, and river dumps.

Sunday: The fog over the river and the long line of yellow lamps all along the subway line near the "project," where Italians live in modern-art slums, cut and parceled like cheap dresses in a factory. The Italians play an old game with a few balls and a hole in the ground. It just needs a little earth, a wall, a gutter for us to have a game.

I remember the sadness of Sunday because I was so terrified of school the next day—the waiting, the fear before the soul returns to its treadmill, the fear of stammering in class the next day as my mother stammered when she was afraid. And when was she not afraid, even as she passed the fear on to me? She could not speak my English, and I hated falling into her Yiddish—it was so broken with her fear, her grief over everything she had left, full of dark Poland, Jew-hating Poland. Even when there was no school I wanted not to leave the sand at Coney Island as the beach emptied and I could stilllook to another world in the water.

Sunday: The walk to Highland Park out of Brownsville and East New York, out of everything I knew to the wonderful line of yellow lamps across the embankment before the park—the dumped earth we used to climb over to the playing grounds, where the boys had a last game of touch football in the twilight, and we would sit on the benches near the reservoir, petting so madly as the lights of the YMCA spread out before us, challenging us, that I came, astonished to ecstasy by the weights in my body steadily falling.

Sunday: Playing Bach duets with Anne, my partner in the violin section of the Franklin K. Lane High School orchestra. Then her mother's Polish cups of tea. The sharp, reproving taste of lemon in my mouth as we go over French irregular verbs for tomorrow. Sunday: Always Highland Park and the reservoir, around which my teacher Julian Aaronson and I walked, dissecting the first stories I wrote in high school. Sunday: Always Highland Park and the trees in shadow, the flower garden we could barely see in the growing dark. Darkness, the darkness! And then the walk through the Italian neighborhood to home—the butcher shops busy of a "Jewish" Sunday, the pushcarts lining Belmont Avenue, Cousin Sophie's old room with bed and a table for me to write on and the fragrance of Sophie still where she had kept her dresses, behind a curtain, forever bring her back. And sitting there, looking out on Sutter Avenue, and I thinking, Israel! Israel! Why have you forsaken me! Sunday: The long-remembered waiting and then Nancy's rhinestone-studded dress as we huddled together against the wall of the toilet, hoping her parents would not return too soon. Sunday: The waiting, the waiting for the next day, the benches in Highland Park, the cold, the kitchen sink, the water in the reservoir

Every once in a while some token—a sentence in a book, a voice heard, will recall for me the fresh instant delight in American landscape and culture that I felt when I really got into On Native Grounds. The sentence this morning, fresh as a spring wind, comes from Constance Rourke's book on Audubon, on the sudden realization that his ornithology showed a national sense of scale, that like Whitman he was a great voice of American nationality.

I recall the excitement under which I lived for weeks in 1939, when I knew that I had this passionate and even technical interest in images of the American past. Thomas Eakins, always a hero to my spirit. I would walk up and down the "American" rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, taking in the portraits of solemn colonial and Revolutionary figures—dull, glazed transcriptions of a Sunday morning in ye olde Flatbush, 1836. Images that brought back the delight I had taken even as a boy in old narratives of American discovery—the indomitable Henry Hudson always at the center—in life stories of Americans at all times and in all conditions. As a college student during the depression, one of my jobs for the National Youth Administration (fifteen dollars a month) was to comb the Dictionary of American Biography for Southerners who had graduated from college before the Civil War. I never got tired of reading their stories. I have never been able to express the excitement I get from "Americana," from Constance Rourke's saying, "the poet of American nationality"—from the very names Cope, James, Peirce, Dickinson, and Roebling in Lewis Mumford's The Brown Decades—from Thomas Beer's Hanna and The Mauve Decade—from the letters of William James. To think of Albert Pinkham Ryder and Henry James, of Emerson and Whitman and Dickinson in the same breath, as it were, gives me extraordinary satisfaction. Makers and movers and thinkers—observers in the profoundest sense. I loved to think of America as an idea, to remember the adventure and the purity, the heroism and the salt.

Of course I love all this from the outside, as the first native son after so many generations of mud-flat Russian Jews who never saw the United States. But my personal need is great, my inquiry is urgent

His name is Howard Nott Doughty, and he comes from a family that despite its long settlement in Ipswich, Massachusetts, is still in touch with its English cousins. They don't, it seems, quite approve of these relatives across the sea, who are so backward in our advanced American ways that in sending over some silver spoons as a wedding present, they neglected to add the bride's initials to the groom's.

At Harvard in the twenties (he was born in 1904), he was, with Lincoln Kirstein and Varian Fry, one of those advanced undergraduates who put out The Hound and Horn, that great founding journal of an American modernism. Tall, rangy, languidly humorous about his descent in the world, he is still the proud Yankee and is writing a biography of his distant kinsman Francis Parkman. He is so glad to meet up with another literary bloke in dreary Long Island City that he has taken to presenting me with rare editions inscribed to me in French—Moby-Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent, and Madame de La Fayette's beautiful little seventeenth-century novel, La Princesse de ClSves, the story of the exquisite heroine's overcoming the temptation to illicit passion.

The question about this Yankee patrician and kindly friend is, What is he doing in Long Island City? He is teaching at the Police Academy! Why he is fallen this low is a question around which he genially circles without ever telling me anything. Until the other day, when he said, as if exasperated, "Of course you know I'm homosexual." Of course I hadn't known any such thing, and probably exasperated him even more by having nothing whatever to say on the subject.

He is married, with a daughter, and is regularly unwell. He suffers such spasms from colitis, which he offhandedly describes as "a stress disease," that he frequently doubles up as he is talking to me. What interests me is his stoical sense of failure, his clearly having a "failing," as his ancestors might have said.

He is interested in me because of my book, but my being a Jew seems to be a problem to him. His feisty little wife, Binx, laughs in a knowing way as she makes "jokes" about Jews. These pass over me like air since, despite her malice on the subject, I never quite know what she is talking about. In his turn Howard seems to feel that my being a Jew is a terrible loss to me. This bothers him a lot. The other day, assuming for no reason that I observe the dietary laws, he came by not only with his usual gift of a book but with a bag of oysters that he carefully shucked and cleaned, and then to my amazement demanded that I eat them right then and there.

Thinking of John Dewey this morning. Some weeks ago, as I was walking to the subway after my day at the Fifth Avenue Library, I saw Dewey on Lexington Avenue with a woman I took to be his daughter. I looked at him with affection and pleasure that I had recognized him. He stared back. After half a block I looked back. He was still staring, talking to his daughter as if to say, "Now, when did I have him in my classes?"

I was thinking of Dewey because my impression of his career and significance is different from that of students of his philosophy alone. For me Dewey represents more than the pragmatic adaptable twentieth-century intelligence that was going to fit philosophy to the scientific age. He really speaks with the security and serenity of a vanished world. I think not of his lack of elegance, the clumsy handiwork of his style, but of his nobility, his steadiness, the work of immense, quiet usefulness, the moral achievement that constitutes his life.

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What People are saying about this

Philip Roth
"An impassioned, mentally charged, gorgeously written, splendidly astute historical journal by the most comprehending American reader of the last fifty years."
Christopher Lehmann Haupt
"Kazin writes to possess in these journal entries...some understanding of the God who could have allowed the Holocaust to happen."
Edward Rothstein
"Whether describing a literary style or a physical appearance, Mr. Kazin can compress life within a turn of phrase."

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