Writing Was Everything

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A deft blend of autobiography, history, and criticism that moves from New York in the 1930s to wartime England to the postwar South, Writing Was Everything emerges as a reaffirmation of literature in an age of deconstruction and critical dogma. In his encounters with books, Kazin shows us how great writing matters and how it involves us morally, socially, and personally on the deepest level. Whether reflecting on modernism, southern fiction, or black, Jewish, and New Yorker writing, or sharing anecdotes about ...
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Writing Was Everything

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Overview

A deft blend of autobiography, history, and criticism that moves from New York in the 1930s to wartime England to the postwar South, Writing Was Everything emerges as a reaffirmation of literature in an age of deconstruction and critical dogma. In his encounters with books, Kazin shows us how great writing matters and how it involves us morally, socially, and personally on the deepest level. Whether reflecting on modernism, southern fiction, or black, Jewish, and New Yorker writing, or sharing anecdotes about Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, and John Cheever, he gives a penetrating, moving account of literature observed and lived. In his life as a critic, Kazin personifies the lesson that living and writing are necessarily intimate.

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book. For more than 60 years, Alfred Kazin has been one of the most eloquent witnesses to the literary life of the mind in America. This book is a summation of that life, a deft blend of autobiography, history, and criticism that moves from 1930s New York to wartime England to the postwar South, encapsulating this timeless critic's lively wit and authority.

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Editorial Reviews

James Shapiro
This fabulous genre, memoir and criticism, this Monday morning quarterbacking on history and culture and literature, surely must be the Tiffany watch we allow our lifelong literary critics.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Reflecting with graceful erudition on literature, litterateurs and his own work, noted critic Kazin (On Native Grounds) offers a distilled summa of his engagements with the word. Based on lectures delivered at Harvard, the book opens with a vigorous harrumph directed at postmodern critics. Indeed, Kazin learned from his childhood exposure to Dickens and from his apprenticeship as a book reviewer under Edmund Wilson at the New Republic that books matter, that they link authors-for example, Faulkner, Henry Roth and Richard Wright-to the passions of their time. Assigned in 1945 to report on the social crisis in Britain, Kazin entered a darker world, grappling with Orwell and Kafka, and also with Simone Weil, whose life and writing recalled for him the madness of Moby-Dick. Back in New York after the war, Kazin began walking his city and engaged with Rothko and Bellow, Arendt and Sartre. He ends with an inspirational look at Czeslaw Milosz, whose work not only recalls horrors Americans escaped but also addresses vital questions of faith and evil, setting an example, Kazin writes, in a country that has become ``cruel toward every human weakness... chauvinistic to the point of hysteria.'' (Sept.)
James Shapiro
This fabulous genre, memoir and criticism, this Monday morning quarterbacking on history and culture and literature, surely must be the Tiffany watch we allow our lifelong literary critics.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
New York Times Book Review

Alfred Kazin is our grand old man of letters, supreme keeper of the now-flickering literary flame...Prolific, indefatigable, ambitious on a scale that seems quaint in this day of academic specialization, Mr. Kazin has never been one to bore his readers with detail. He prefers the sprawling canvas, the hard-to-categorize narrative that mingles scholarship and reminiscence, polemic and personal history...One of Mr. Kazin's great strengths as a critic is the sheer passion he brings to his task: from the beginning, his books have been hymns to the centrality of literature, its capacity, as he puts it in Writing Was Everything, to 'make the world shine...In the end, what of [the legacy of Mr. Kazin's generation] will survive? To my mind, the novels of Saul Bellow, a handful of Delmore Schwartz's poems and the urgent, rhapsodic prose of Alfred Kazin.
— James Atlas

Boston Sunday Globe

[Kazin] takes up what it means to practice 'the curious business of being a critic,' which amounts to grappling with the meaning of life—his and in general—and its relationship to literature. In the course of it, he discusses the writers he has admired and offers sketches of some he has known.
— Katherine A. Powers

The New Yorker

With his heart simultaneously bursting and broken, [Kazin] has had to ransack through books in search of what he loves but knows he cannot find—not small entertainments and pleasures but 'everything.' Never has a man turned to books with more ardor and hope! And, among the new books that I myself have read this year, his is the one I love the most.
— Paul Berman

Los Angeles Times Book Review

This fabulous genre, memoir and criticism, this Monday morning quarterbacking on history and culture and literature, surely must be the Tiffany watch we allow our lifelong literary critics. The name-dropping, the constellations reconfigured, the slights on which a career is made or broken, could anything be more delicious?...Kazin distills, with grace and sophistication, the nuggets he has carried with him from the great works; from Proust, from Richard Wright, from Simone Weil.
— Susan Salter Reynolds

Toronto Globe and Mail

[Kazin's] concerns are those of our bewildered and bewildering times: shrinking hope, the indirection of society and loss of faith...An impressionistic, unashamedly subjective tour of the most important writers of this century, Kazin...writes engagingly and provocatively...Writing Was Everything...[is] one man, a life-long writer and reader, and his views on what matters in literature.
— Guy Lawson

Chicago Tribune

[Writing Was Everything is] satisfying in blending autobiography and literary reflection. Kazin tells his personal story by way to the books and authors that meant most to him...[There is] emotional power [in] Writing Was Everything.
— Mark Krupnick

Financial Times

Gives a splendid insight into the mind of this passionate New York intellectual...It is his power to communicate his enthusiasm for a life of reading that gives these lectures their distinction.
— Anthony Curtis

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Most impressive is Kazin's continuing ability, already evident more than half a century ago, to quickly and convincingly characterize an author and place him or her in the context of the times. His discussions of writers like George Orwell, Edmund Wilson and Flannery O'Connor, to name the most bold and remarkable, reminds us of what literary criticism was—and should be today.
— Dave Wood

New York Review of Books

To delight in the dull and feel ecstasy in the presence of the commonplace is very much the privilege of youth. Alfred Kazin has captured more than a patch of that feeling in his short memoir, as he could hardly have done if it had not been there from the beginning.
— Robert M. Adams

Notes and Queries [UK
This is a relaxed and affectionate look back at [Kazin's] career from his early days as a free lance on The New Republic, when the New York Public Library inspired in him, as in so many others, an almost humanly personal affection, and gives account of his meetings with most of the notable American writers of the past half century.
— Douglas Hewitt
American Studies

Over nearly six decades of literary life, Kazin has met and read practically everyone, a fact which Writing Was Everything records in full measure. What remains amazing is the persisting freshness and generosity of his response to literary texts, contemporary thought, events and personalities. Above all, it is his insistence upon the moral implications of his experience that distinguishes his critical sensibility from that shaped by current critical practices...If experience is ever to regain a central place in our critical and theoretical efforts, then Alfred Kazin's work will be one of the most luminous reminders as to how it might be done.
— Richard H. King

Bloomsbury Review

A list of the best writing on writing published in 1995 would have to include two beautiful little books from Harvard, [Writing Was Everything and Writing and Being]...Elegant...[Kazin offers] rich portraits and fluid sketches of his contemporaries...Kazin's power to blend biography, autobiography, history, and criticism does much more than deliver a coming-of-age story of his country's literature to a nation hijacked by Hollywood and television. It splashes a bucket of cold water on Critical Theory, that academic Goliath now presiding over the legions of philistines who have invaded our nation's colleges and universities...Kazin's and Gordimer's...new books are true criticism, which means they are work of art. Each of them overflows with music that could melt the stars.
— James R. Hepworth

Dallas Morning News

Writing Was Everything is drawn from lectures Mr. Kazin delivered at Harvard last year and, like all his work, it is well organized, thoughtful and thought-provoking...[and] concise and brilliant, a combination that few writers think is possible. After discussing authors whose lives and works he has studied, he continues to look ahead, searching for the writer 'who will have the inner certainty to see our life with the eyes of faith, and so make the world shine again.' In that quest is found the reason literature matters.
— Philip Seib

Notes and Queries [UK]

This is a relaxed and affectionate look back at [Kazin's] career from his early days as a free lance on The New Republic, when the New York Public Library inspired in him, as in so many others, an almost humanly personal affection, and gives account of his meetings with most of the notable American writers of the past half century.
— Douglas Hewitt

New York Times Book Review - James Atlas
Alfred Kazin is our grand old man of letters, supreme keeper of the now-flickering literary flame...Prolific, indefatigable, ambitious on a scale that seems quaint in this day of academic specialization, Mr. Kazin has never been one to bore his readers with detail. He prefers the sprawling canvas, the hard-to-categorize narrative that mingles scholarship and reminiscence, polemic and personal history...One of Mr. Kazin's great strengths as a critic is the sheer passion he brings to his task: from the beginning, his books have been hymns to the centrality of literature, its capacity, as he puts it in Writing Was Everything, to 'make the world shine...In the end, what of [the legacy of Mr. Kazin's generation] will survive? To my mind, the novels of Saul Bellow, a handful of Delmore Schwartz's poems and the urgent, rhapsodic prose of Alfred Kazin.
Boston Sunday Globe - Katherine A. Powers
[Kazin] takes up what it means to practice 'the curious business of being a critic,' which amounts to grappling with the meaning of life--his and in general--and its relationship to literature. In the course of it, he discusses the writers he has admired and offers sketches of some he has known.
The New Yorker - Paul Berman
With his heart simultaneously bursting and broken, [Kazin] has had to ransack through books in search of what he loves but knows he cannot find--not small entertainments and pleasures but 'everything.' Never has a man turned to books with more ardor and hope! And, among the new books that I myself have read this year, his is the one I love the most.
Los Angeles Times Book Review - Susan Salter Reynolds
This fabulous genre, memoir and criticism, this Monday morning quarterbacking on history and culture and literature, surely must be the Tiffany watch we allow our lifelong literary critics. The name-dropping, the constellations reconfigured, the slights on which a career is made or broken, could anything be more delicious?...Kazin distills, with grace and sophistication, the nuggets he has carried with him from the great works; from Proust, from Richard Wright, from Simone Weil.
Toronto Globe and Mail - Guy Lawson
[Kazin's] concerns are those of our bewildered and bewildering times: shrinking hope, the indirection of society and loss of faith...An impressionistic, unashamedly subjective tour of the most important writers of this century, Kazin...writes engagingly and provocatively...Writing Was Everything...[is] one man, a life-long writer and reader, and his views on what matters in literature.
Chicago Tribune - Mark Krupnick
[Writing Was Everything is] satisfying in blending autobiography and literary reflection. Kazin tells his personal story by way to the books and authors that meant most to him...[There is] emotional power [in] Writing Was Everything.
Financial Times - Anthony Curtis
Gives a splendid insight into the mind of this passionate New York intellectual...It is his power to communicate his enthusiasm for a life of reading that gives these lectures their distinction.
Minneapolis Star Tribune - Dave Wood
Most impressive is Kazin's continuing ability, already evident more than half a century ago, to quickly and convincingly characterize an author and place him or her in the context of the times. His discussions of writers like George Orwell, Edmund Wilson and Flannery O'Connor, to name the most bold and remarkable, reminds us of what literary criticism was--and should be today.
New York Review of Books - Robert M. Adams
To delight in the dull and feel ecstasy in the presence of the commonplace is very much the privilege of youth. Alfred Kazin has captured more than a patch of that feeling in his short memoir, as he could hardly have done if it had not been there from the beginning.
Notes and Queries [UK - Douglas Hewitt
This is a relaxed and affectionate look back at [Kazin's] career from his early days as a free lance on The New Republic, when the New York Public Library inspired in him, as in so many others, an almost humanly personal affection, and gives account of his meetings with most of the notable American writers of the past half century.
American Studies - Richard H. King
Over nearly six decades of literary life, Kazin has met and read practically everyone, a fact which Writing Was Everything records in full measure. What remains amazing is the persisting freshness and generosity of his response to literary texts, contemporary thought, events and personalities. Above all, it is his insistence upon the moral implications of his experience that distinguishes his critical sensibility from that shaped by current critical practices...If experience is ever to regain a central place in our critical and theoretical efforts, then Alfred Kazin's work will be one of the most luminous reminders as to how it might be done.
Bloomsbury Review - James R. Hepworth
A list of the best writing on writing published in 1995 would have to include two beautiful little books from Harvard, [Writing Was Everything and Writing and Being]...Elegant...[Kazin offers] rich portraits and fluid sketches of his contemporaries...Kazin's power to blend biography, autobiography, history, and criticism does much more than deliver a coming-of-age story of his country's literature to a nation hijacked by Hollywood and television. It splashes a bucket of cold water on Critical Theory, that academic Goliath now presiding over the legions of philistines who have invaded our nation's colleges and universities...Kazin's and Gordimer's...new books are true criticism, which means they are work of art. Each of them overflows with music that could melt the stars.
Dallas Morning News - Philip Seib
Writing Was Everything is drawn from lectures Mr. Kazin delivered at Harvard last year and, like all his work, it is well organized, thoughtful and thought-provoking...[and] concise and brilliant, a combination that few writers think is possible. After discussing authors whose lives and works he has studied, he continues to look ahead, searching for the writer 'who will have the inner certainty to see our life with the eyes of faith, and so make the world shine again.' In that quest is found the reason literature matters.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

Meet the Author

Alfred Kazin was Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the author and editor of many books, including, most recently, A Writer's America: Landscape in American Literature.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: All Critics Are Mortal

1. Before the War

2. During the War

3. After the War

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