Alfred Kazin's Journals
selected and edited by Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press, 598 pp., $45.00
Alfred Kazin’s Journals is a profound and exciting book, more so even than the best of the dozen works of criticism and autobiography that he published during his lifetime. Almost every morning from the age of eighteen, in 1933, until his death in 1998, he wrote his private thoughts about literature, history, the social world of publishing, universities, and politics, his four marriages and uncountable affairs, the “many people I know and admire, or rather love,” and what it means to be a Jew. He wrote sometimes as a literary and erotic conqueror, sometimes as a guilty victim of conscience, always with infectious intellectual energy.
Kazin climbed from a Jewish ghetto in Brooklyn to the sudden fame of his book about American writing, On Native Grounds (1942), to the literary editor’s desk at The New Republic, where he followed Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley, and on to the success of his memoir A Walker in the City (1951). By the 1960s he was the most powerful reviewer in America, passing judgment in The New Yorker and the Sunday book reviews, and in more than sixty essays in these pages. As he recorded in his journals:
The beggarly Jewish radicals of the 30s are now the ruling cultural pundits of American society—I who stood so long outside the door wondering if I would ever get through it, am now one of the standard bearers of American literary opinion—a judge of young men.
Dag Hammarsköld asked him to lunch at the United Nations. John F. Kennedy asked him to lunch at the White House after learning that Kazin was writing an essay about him. Kazin, unimpressed, portrayed Kennedy as a charmer without substance.
Readers expect revelations from a posthumously published journal, and this one does not disappoint, though the secret it reveals has no shock value. From adolescence onward, Kazin was engrossed in a spiritual and sometimes mystical inner life that he never talked about. None of his friends or lovers seems to have been aware of it. It was far more hidden than his notoriously florid erotic life. Much of what he had to say in his essays about other people’s religion was secretly about his own, especially when he described an inner faith that rebelled against all churches and doctrines. He wrote in An American Procession (1984):
Emerson was beginning to understand that total “self-reliance”—from his innermost spiritual promptings—would be his career and his fate.
The same thought prompted his journal entry: “Emerson made me a Jew.”
The journals make clear that his long introduction to The Portable Blake (1946) was a disguised self-portrait, with Blake’s Christianity standing in for Kazin’s Judaism:
[Blake] was a libertarian obsessed with God; a mystic who reversed the mystical pattern, for he sought man as the end of his search. He was a Christian who hated…
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For more than sixty years, Alfred Kazin has been one of the most eloquent witnesses to the literary life of the mind in America. Writing Was Everything is a summation of that life, a story of coming of age as a writer and critic that is also a vibrant cultural drama teeming with such characters as Hart Crane and Allen Ginsberg, Simone Weil and Flannery O’Connor, Hannah Arendt and Robert Lowell, Edmund Wilson and George Orwell.
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 reliving the work of 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.
Writing Was Everything encapsulates the lively wit and authority of this timeless critic’s unmistakable voice. It stands as clear testimony to Kazin’s belief that “literature is not theory but, at best, the value we can give to our experience, which in our century has been and remains beyond the imagination of mankind.”