Richard M. Cook, Ed.
Alfred Kazin’s Journals
Yale University Press, $45.00 (cloth)

The generation of Jewish American writers that was born in the middle of the First World War and came of age in the 1930s was destined, in the 1950s and ’60s, to revolutionize American literary culture.

It was one of those incendiary periods in social history—brought about by the Great Depression and the Second World War—that ended generations of class stability and WASP hegemony. Into this interruption of social certainty poured imaginative writers such as Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and critical ones such as Leslie Fiedler, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, all of whom—having felt stifled by the requirements of high culture—seized the moment to start “speaking” in voices that were so distinctively their own, they could, and often did, seem alarming. An angry fever inhabited the work of many of these writers, one that burned with so singular a strength only the remarkable elasticity of the American language could take it on. In Bellow’s fiction it allowed for the creation of a street-smart, modernist narrator whose rich, racy sound, almost sentence for sentence, erased the gap between high culture and low; in Fiedler’s criticism (Love and Death in the American Novel), one heard blunt truths about American life and literature that the reading public found electrifying.

For many of these writers, the anger never subsided, nor did the sense of outsiderhood; this, as it turned out, proved both the strength and the limitation of their writing. At all times an adversary was required for the prose to spark itself into life. When the open anti-Semitism that had dominated the writers’ lives subsided, and still they continued to experience the world as a place of unrelenting anxiety and frustration, the war against the gentiles was replaced by one against women: neither misogyny nor the obsession with being Jewish reduced its power over this generation of Jewish American intellectuals and artists. And why should it have? Immutable affliction was the metaphor that, in their hands, produced literary gold.

Alfred Kazin, one of the stars of this generation of writers, was born in Brooklyn in 1915 into a family of working-class immigrants. In 1942, at the age of 27, he published a truly groundbreaking book of literary criticism, On Native Grounds, that made so strong a case for American literature it helped break the stranglehold that European fiction had long had on the minds of the American intelligentsia.

From that moment on, the door to the literary world began steadily to inch its way open for Kazin, and then finally it swung wide, whereupon a life of ever-growing eminence ensued. For more than half a century Kazin wrote, taught, and published; received prizes and fellowships at the highest levels; went to dinner with the great and the near-great; was invited to all the parties that mattered. He also married four times and had many affairs. Life should have felt rewarding—but it didn’t. The parties he went to bored him; the women he slept with left him wanting; the men whose respect he most desired he felt ignored by.

For most of his 80-odd years, Kazin was eaten alive by his own demons. Some who are being eaten alive withdraw into brooding silence; some cry aloud to the heavens. Kazin was distinctly of the second type. Explosive and confrontational, known for what he himself called his ghetto manners, he seemed a man in a perpetual state of high-level anxiety: he envied the success of others; experienced his own talent as insufficient; felt romantically shortchanged; obsessed over his Jewishness; and, until the very end, was haunted by the conviction that somewhere a marvelous party was going on, and he had not been invited. None of these neurotic postures found their way into his work—criticism and autobiography written with great skill and undeniable talent, and in the King’s English—but they dominated his inner life to a stunning degree, and the expressiveness with which he continued, throughout his years, to describe private unhappiness informs the bulk of Alfred Kazin’s Journals.

‘What a neurotic set we all are,’ Kazin wrote of his generation of Jewish American writers. ‘It is our manners.’

Kazin kept this journal for more than 50 years; in its entirety, we are told, it runs to more than 7,000 pages. During good times and bad, he turned to it for the comfort and clarification of committing to paper his own impassioned take on daily existence. In time he came to consider the journal a major enterprise. Although he loved writing criticism, it never ceased to amaze him that he had not turned out a poet or a novelist. The writing in the journal began to seem similar to the writing that flows from the imagination. In the journal itself, he refers repeatedly to the act of keeping it, announcing to himself what it is for, what it will accomplish. He imagined the journal fashioning itself into a metaphoric account of experience—his own and that of his time—written by a man of anguished spirit and sentient intelligence, struggling to make a moral being of himself in the midst of social disorder.

In short: the journal was to be redemption through the making of literature. However obscure such ambitions might have been, Kazin must have entertained the secret thought that this private writing had the makings of a Herzog or a Portnoy’s Complaint because he repined for years over not being able to get it published in his lifetime—a wish that, thankfully, went unfulfilled. If this journal had been published as is while Kazin lived, in all probability none of his acquaintance would again have spoken to him, as nearly everyone who crossed his path is trashed again and again. The irony here is that everyone he knew was doing the same in his diary.

“What a neurotic set we all are,” Kazin wrote in 1964 of his generation of Jewish American writers. “It is our manners. There is no tradition of self-restraint, of true politeness and inquiry. . . . There is no ground on which we do not think we have a right to intrude our clamorous demand.”

It isn’t that Kazin doesn’t sound like Herzog or Portnoy when he talks like this, he does. He, like they, can go on complaining forever about being Jewish, not receiving recognition, needing to get laid—to the bargain, Philip Roth is living long enough to go on complaining about being old and having to die—but sounding like Herzog the character, and producing Herzog the novel, are not the same. In Herzog, Herzog himself becomes a metaphor. It is the rare journal that can do the same for its protagonist, even if the personality of the journal keeper is as complicated as Kazin’s.

Two elements dominate the Journals: the ongoing grievance of feeling forever left out, and a passion for writing that promises repeatedly to save the diarist from himself. There are, of course, entries here and there about politics, literature, the idea of America, New York intellectuals, women and career, the Brooklyn of his childhood; but for the most part, the book is a remarkably faithful record—kept day after week after month after year—of these emotional preoccupations. The result is a document that gives us a vivid portrait of the man in whom these contradictions live. At times it seems as though his entire life is composed only of the meanest and the most exalted of impulses, competing endlessly for his inner attention.

Kazin is psychologically savvy about his own inability to let go of the grievance—nevertheless, he cannot. It marches on, as strong and demanding at the end as at the beginning.

1948: “My craving for fame, prestige, ‘love’, seems uncontrolled . . . . I could weep when I realize how much time I waste . . . how much fiction I am occupied with day in and day out, hour by hour, by my anxiety, my useless shadow-boxing with the imaginary censure and rejection by others.” (emphasis in original)

1955: “My constant feeling of being isolated and of not being a recognizable part of any literary tendency . . . . I feel that I do not belong to any of it, that I am not classified or classifiable, that I do not belong as a ‘writer,’ or as an abstract ‘critic’ either, and so tend to hug my ideas, fancies, my very love, until they feel like grievances.”

1959: “The day so hot, my heart so heavy, . . . It seems to me that I am still looking for a position, a philosophy, which will help me to escape . . . . this rawness, this sensitivity, this eternal cry for love and warmth and security.”

To lose oneself in one’s work, Kazin knew, was to find oneself.

1980: “I am haunted by Sir Isaiah [Berlin], The Court Jew who always knew everybody at the top and who still makes me quiver with resentment when I think of the snubbing I received from his unseeing back at the Santa Caterina Amalfi [Hotel] in 1947.” (emphasis in original)

1982: “So what does this anxious sleeper brood over in the infamous watches of the night? Why he is not more famous, not a ‘celebrity’ like Other People.”

1986: “I shiver when I read day after day of my journal and come across the same anger, the same unappeasability, the same heart, the same, the same unrest and anxiety. . . . a hungry soul, often a bitter soul. . . . Still, there is a gnawing loneliness, a sense of living apart. . . . And the worst of it is how I resent the social gift in others . . . . [the] talent for sociability, that I certainly lack. And it makes me bitter, bitter.”

At the same time, he loved writing—the act of it, the joy of it—with a singleness of heart that produced both eloquence and wisdom. He loved it because writing was his work. To lose oneself in one’s work, he knew early, was to find oneself. This he had known since he had realized that his work, in particular, entailed giving shape and depth to his own experience: an awesome task.

“Fidelity to one’s own experience,” he wrote in 1947, at the age of 31,

is the most difficult, not the easiest, thing for a writer to practice—for it necessitates a real understanding and acceptance of one’s own singularity, one’s special fate—an ability to separate what we learn from others from the temptation to hide ourselves under the mask of others.

That same year he also saw that the writer was not working in a vacuum; part of the work included making vital connection with the reader: “The value of a critic can be defined by the extent to which he remembers that he is a reader and by his cleverness and passion in applying that remembrance to the service of his readers.” Again, not a thing easily accomplished.

Insight follows insight:

1954: “My greatest problem . . . is in realizing the limits of my subject . . . . I am constantly trying to put everything I am and everything I think into a book, and it takes me years to realize just what I can make a book of.”

1955: “It is exactly in proportion to [the] full concentration of all our power on an object—a subject—that the real work is done.”

1957: “Only the passionate encounter between the writer and the book makes for real criticism—for the constant sense of new discovery. It is this voyage of discovery that counts, this passionate journey of perception that counts; the freedom and speculative richness of [the] discovering mind that counts.” (emphasis in original)

1960: “This is the beauty of writing, of thinking. Every day my cup runs over. I have so many perceptions. They bombard me. I have only to wait for them. How with this gift, my gift, can one be unhappy? What fortune for me. What daily bliss! It suddenly came over me, lifting the fog of the usual self-pity. Great God, Good God, how can one be unhappy when I can think so well every day?” (emphasis in original)

Entries such as these are a powerful reminder of all the good writing that this permanently agitated man—as a critic and a biographer—left behind when he died.

Kazin wrote at least three marvelous memoirs—A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, New York Jew—all of them first-rate in their richness of detail and evocation of time, place, and character. It is interesting to note, that while many of Kazin’s contemporaries—Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, Daniel Bell—appear in the journals as well as in the memoirs, in the journals all meet uniformly with negative treatment of an often-coarse nature. In the memoirs the sense of insult is much reduced by virtue not only of the elegance of the writing, but of the writer’s intention to rise above narrow self-interest. Again, a genuine accomplishment.

In the autobiographies, Kazin becomes a narrator whose major concern is with storytelling; the storytelling voice delivers a life set fully in its times. In writing them Kazin came to understand what every good memoirist understands: the writer’s own ordinary, disheveled, everyday self must give way to that of a narrating self—a self who will tell the story that needs to be told. This narrator—or rather, persona—will simultaneously be the reason for the story and the servant of the story. In 1964, while teaching himself to do this work, Kazin wrote in his journal:

Basically every autobiography hangs on the value, or impersonation, given to the Me. The Me becomes the central myth, the corridor down which all the other characters walk, and what counts for the book is simply what single myth or interpretation the author of the recital is willing to give his Me, which one he will choose out of the many selves that he really experiences in his daily life.

Alfred Kazin’s Journals is the richly unmediated expressiveness from which the memoirs derive. That expressiveness is both a glory and a source of dismay. On the one hand, it echoes brilliantly the collective mindset of all those fictional Jewish American narrators whose breast-beating hungers produced culture-changing prose in the ’50s and ’60s. On the other, it lays bare the appalling nature of raw material untransformed by art. Taken all in all, this book is a remarkable demonstration of how good writing struggles to emerge from the inner chaos with which we all live and that only a writer as talented as Alfred Kazin can bring to its knees.