Alfred Kazin's Journals

Monday, August 15, 2011

Alfred Kazin's Journals

Selected and Edited by Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press

“God is simply the name for our wonder.” So said Alfred Kazin in a December 1944 journal entry from this new volume, edited by Richard M. Cook. Kazin straddled mid-twentieth-century literary criticism as few essayists did. His only possible equal was Edmund Wilson, an individual who could make or break a new work and, concordantly, the career of its creator. He was the quintessential urban essayist—his affection for New York City was as intense and exuberant as Henry James’s. Kazin was one of those critics one had to read, like Wilson, Frank Kermode, and Northrop Frye. He was rumored to be the most accessible, the most peculiarly American, and the most optimistic and visionary.

I long ago learned of Kazin’s On Native Grounds: An Interpretation Of Modern American Prose Literature and A Walker in the City, two books that were met with critical praise uncommon for epistolary and diaristic writing. However, reading his journals first was what enabled me to see what had mesmerized so many, and had made Kazin America’s most popular literary critic and essayist for decades.

Especially during the journal entries of the 1930s, when he was still convinced that Marxism was to have a successful future, his array of portrayed personalities is abundant, vigorous, and decidedly fair, even when criticizing a class enemy. He uses the individual character to then twist the magnifying glass into a telescope, embracing whole social movements and countermovements with sparks and flashes of insight:

Feb 8, 1942

Where are all of us going? The Nazis stand in the night with their spears; waiting, waiting, waiting; and we don’t know. We don’t yet know how much this war is our war, the only real war fought in hundreds of years. We say we know, or we think we know. But each man wants to finish his book, enjoy his snooze, go on his way. And so much to be done! When I read of these lectures the army boys are getting from soldier-brain instructors, and I think how great an opportunity for education lies there---the fields so fallow---my “depression generation,” “lost between two wars with all the street lights out”---when I think of what could be done, and how it will not be, I get sick.

[Reporting on the education of American soldiers for Fortune magazine]

Kazin’s thirties are brimming with political theories and their refutations, eclectic conjectures hatched by the “mass man” (Leon Trotsky’s word for what the personality of a true socialist should be: individuation subsumed into and dissolved by identification with the communal cause), the oppressed woman, the outraged, marginalized and galvanized minority. Appalled by capitalism’s brutality, Kazin trusted Lenin’s diligent broom—“Sweeping, sweeping it all away,” he writes—and stayed dazzled enough by socialism’s “immanence only in action,” its “methods, substance and form… encompassing the highest promise of human life.” When Stalin’s horrors were revealed and huge segments of the American Left deserted their Marxist ideologies, Kazin envisioned a “third group” that would retain the communist ideal’s essential vision while casting off its newly police-repressive machinery. Kazin could swim against the tide of the politically fashionable, never straying from the foundation of a declining or distorted ideology.

But for all of Kazin’s concern for politics and the public sphere, there isn’t a paragraph in Kazin’s journals that doesn’t reveal the essential interiority of writing and its bracing challenges. Kazin’s sensitivity to the act of writing creates the magnetic tone of his voice, a quality he sees in Proust above all others: “The tyranny of love in [Proust]; it fills all the spaces formerly occupied by custom, law, religion. It is the private man’s last expression of his finiteness and longing for the infinite. The irony implicit in his own suffering; his awareness of his suffering, of its intrinsic greatness and triviality.”  Kazin saw the writer’s loneliness birthed in infancy—the “obsession with childhood” foregrounded in Joyce and Proust (and Sherwood Anderson) led Kazin to the notion of “personal history,” a genre he explored in A Walker in the City.

Walker was the public result of his private journal entries, the success of which made him more confident in his judgments, more sweeping and definitive in his assignments of value to certain literary forms and devices. “Even the most banal and casual observations have purpose,” he wrote. Journal composition redeems the long string of “days that die so forgotten,” he says. It is “pitiful…. Not to save what is unsaveable, but define what is peculiarly mine.” The diaristic impulse constructs personality, bestows coherence, and battles back death.

The beauty of Kazin’s judgments is that they do not come with the irritable certainty of those of, say, Edmund Wilson, or art critics like Clement Greenberg and John Berger. Kazin had what Keats would call “negative capability,” an allusion to Shakespeare that connotes an ability to more convincingly draw characters because of the author’s detachment from them. As a critic, one sees him questioning his assessments, even (like Henry James) as he swoops in on a work, waiting to eviscerate it.

However confident or arrogant Kazin became, he effaced himself in the service of accurately delineating others. He lived to serve literature, not to self-aggrandize, and he wished to personalize the literary process, to show that the great, allegedly mysterious figures producing it had faults and shortcomings. It is no surprise that his snapshots of other personalities strike the reader as so effortlessly perfect, so balanced and wise and knowing.

In his only meeting with T.S. Eliot, Kazin’s subject reveals convictions, pretensions and diffidence, and, once again, the subject’s awareness of each:

He [Eliot] was extremely kind, gentle, spoke very slowly and hesitatingly, livened up a bit when I pushed the conversation to literary topics. He looks like a very sensitive question mark----long, winding and bent; Gives the impression his sensibility is in his long, winding nose. He said things which just verged on “You Americans,” but I grinned when he spoke of Truman and Missouri and he grinned back! When I gave him [Harvard philosopher] Professor Spencer’s regards, he brightened considerably and asked if I was a Harvard man.

Kazin ruminates on why he endeavors to capture a concept or personality in the first place. But once he has his subject in his grasp, he is able to pick at marble until it becomes art. His generosity of spirit animates both condemnation and praise—whether he is writing the Swedish Academy to nominate Robert Penn Warren for the Nobel Prize or blasting away at the defects of even a good friend’s latest effort (say, Bellow’s Henderson The Rain King), his judgments never descend to the petty or the personal. Rather, they are observations charged with perception of the utmost clarity and wisdom