August 17, 2011

Glimpses into the life of the mind

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Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) was one of the two or three most prominent and influential writer-intellectuals in post-World War II America. He was a widely published literary critic, memoirist and, much later in his life, a professor. His first book, the highly acclaimed On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature, was published in 1942 when he was 27 years old. In the Preface to the 50th Anniversary Edition, an incredibly long print life for a book on literary criticism, he noted, “I wrote about American literature before it became the industry it is today. . . . The people in my book still thought, like Emerson, that they were creating American literature.” His autobiographical books were A Walker in the City, which is often regarded as a classic, Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew. His critical studies include Contemporaries, An American Procession and God and the American Writer. He moved in literary and social circles where his close friends included Hannah Arendt, Richard Hofstadter and Saul Bellow.

At the same time, beginning in the 1930s and continuing until shortly before his death, he was also engaged in keeping personal journals, which give his observations and thoughts about a wide range of private and public matters. He describes these journals as “the most exciting and influential form of my life,” his “true autobiography,” where “everything that is fundamental in me has first found its expression.” Now Yale University Press has published a representative selection from Alfred Kazin’s Journals, edited and given valuable annotation by Richard Cook, whose Alfred Kazin: A Biography was published in 2007. The journals total 7,000 pages and Cook offers about one-sixth of the total.

The journals reveal a sensitive and passionate man, always aware of his upbringing as the child of uneducated Russian immigrant parents, and show him as a gifted and insightful interpreter of American literature. He writes about his often turbulent life with his first three wives and contentment with his fourth wife, Judith Dunford. We get his frequently conflicted responses to his Jewish heritage and the Holocaust. His word-portraits of, and sometimes contradictory feelings about, contemporaries such as Edmund Wilson and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. are a highlight. He never forgets his roots and he is critical of those who he feels have abandoned the less fortunate in our society.

I interviewed Kazin for BookPage in 1996 when his A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment: From the Journals of Alfred Kazin was published. In that collection, many if not all of the selections were rewritten and the reader was given only a general idea when the original entry was written. When we requested the interview we were told that because Kazin was being treated for cancer he would be able to take only seven questions. Once we got into our conversation, however, talking about his life and career and literature, he was fully engaged and enthusiastic, and our talk went on for much longer than I expected.

This extraordinary new volume takes us into the life and times of a gifted and fascinating man who was, no doubt, at times difficult to be around. His brutally honest look at himself is a rare look at an important literary figure.

Roger Bishop is a retired local bookseller and a longtime contributor to BookPage.


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