Geoffrey Wheatcroft | The Spectator | 8th April, 2008
In a recent review of They Knew They Were Right, Jacob Heilbrunn’s book about the neo-conservatives, Mark Lilla began by asking:
How many of you are sick to death of hearing about City College in the 1930s, Alcove One and Alcove Two, the prima donnas at Partisan Review, who stopped speaking to whom at which cocktail party . . .
and a good deal more besides? Well, the answer is that some of us can’t get enough of the extraordinary story of the ‘New York intellectuals’, from Starting Out in the Thirties, the title of one of the books by that New York Jew — the title of another — Alfred Kazin. He was not only an excellent writer, as critic and memoirist; his life illustrates a number of salient themes in mid-20th-century American social as well as literary history.
Born in 1915 the son of semi-literate Yiddish-speaking immigrants, Kazin grew up in Brownsville, a quarter of Brooklyn then as Jewish as the Polish or Russian shtetls from which its inhabitants had fled. He went to City College, geographically not many blocks from Columbia on the Upper West Side of Manhattan but a world apart. Some of its alumni who would become famous, Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe and Bernard Malamud, remembered ‘CCNY’ with affection, but Kazin hated it. He was never as politicised as many of his contemporaries, and the radical atmosphere at the college, with those famous competitive Stalinist and Trotskyist alcoves in the cafeteria, seemed to him odiously ‘fanatical’, for him the harshest term of abuse.
On the other hand, he followed so many other children of the immigration when he chose English as his academic subject. The implications of this were obvious, in terms of the urge to assimilate: Kazin said that he fell in love with American literature because ‘this literature was mine — I felt a part of it and at home with it’. He made his name with On Native Grounds, his study of American writing from the late 19th century to the 1930s, published while he was still in his twenties, and he was unmistakably claiming a place for himself and those like him on those native grounds.
Less happy was the academic appropriation of culture which was to be such a baleful story in the period covered by Kazin’s life, from his starting out in the Thirties to his death ten years ago. He began in healthy fashion with old-fashioned literary journalism, and precociously at that, his first review in a grown-up magazine appearing when he was 19, before he became a prolific and accomplished critic. He nevertheless shared the growing assumption of American authors that the proper place to live was a campus, and still more that a writer’s natural lot was to be supported by someone else rather than by his own pen.
Early on we learn that his life would be spent ‘applying for grants, hustling up visiting professorships, getting his name on lists’; and how. As life goes by, Kazin arrives in Pasadena
on a two-month fellowship at the Huntingdon Library . . . the Guggenheim Foundation had renewed his fellowship . . . a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters . . . Kazin would be offered a Gauss lectureship in the fall . . . Kazin accepted a summer Fullbright . . . Finally there were the Guggenheim and Bollingen foundations to petition,
until he reader wants to shout, ‘Get a job, man!’ In his twenties he had indeed ‘begun to think seriously’ about finding proper employment and did work for a time on a commercial magazine, but he soon kicked the habit.
While not quite ornery or obnoxious, Kazin was clearly an awkward man. For all of assimilation and ascent into the mainstream, experience ‘made me realise that I was regarded as a Jew . . . a question of manners . . . The general view was that the Jews were low,’ although the truth is these things are a matter of personality. As Richard Cook says in this detailed if humourless biography, Kazin never got over ‘his perceived lack of social grace’, which he attributed to his upbringing, when plenty of people born at the very bottom of society have the greatest charm.
He certainly wasn’t unattractive, at any rate to women. His personal life was unusually mouvementé, with four wives, numerous mistresses and too many casual flings to count. Kazin’s foibles included ‘breaking into Mozart arias, on the street, after sex, and, to relieve the strain, after difficult occasions with his family,’ of which there were many, not least since his philandering complicated his relationship with his children as they grew up. But then his writing is attractive too, in a way that Cook (an academic teacher of American literature, needless to say) does not properly convey.
Acutely conscious of his heritage as he was, Kazin was neither religious nor a Zionist, and his misgivings were strengthened when he visited Israel. He befriended there the political scientist Yaron Ezrahi, whose fine book Rubber Bullets laments the tendency of Zionism to deny ‘cultivating the solitary self, the lyrical personal voice of the individual,’ and the way that
autobiography — as the voice of the first person singular, of the self-reflecting, self-narrating individual, not as a soldier or missionary of a particular collective — has not flourished in Jewish or Zionist culture,
which is precisely what did flourish in Kazin’s own autobiographical writing.
Later in his life he engaged once more in political debate, as he saw several of those contemporaries move sharply rightward to form what we know as the neo-conservative movement. Kazin wrote to Daniel Bell — one more of the New York intellectuals, and his brother-in-law — about something ‘only a few of us know’, that
some horribly reactionary national policies were actually born, long, long ago, in the violent debates between radicals dominating the City College alcoves.
In 1983 he turned his savage indignation on the neocons in the pages of the New York Review of Books, while giving a rare political speech on The Strange Death of Liberal America.
But it won’t be for his political writings that Alfred Kazin is remembered, so much as those memoirs, salty and idiosyncratic. Try A Walker in the City to see the heights the solitary self and the lyrical personal voice of the individual can reach.