Sunday, May 15, 2011

The literary profession

Yale University Press has just published a first substantial edition of the journals written by Alfred Kazin, one of the most important American literary critics of the 20th century. The journals, the Press says, collectively tell the story of Kazin’s journey from Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood to his position as a dominant figure in twentieth-century cultural life.

Kazin was born in 1915 in Brooklyn to uneducated Yiddish-speaking immigrants, but went on to study at City College of New York. He became a book reviewer for The New Republic, and while still in his 20s, he wrote On Native Grounds, a much-lauded re-interpretation of American literature - a book of literary criticism which read, according to The New York Times, ‘like a passionate communication intended for intelligent, living human beings rather than like a 1940s academic exercise or a 1930s political tract.’

Although there is a published biography of Kazin, there is not much detailed biographical information about him freely available on the internet. Christopher Hawtree, in his review (for The Telegraph) of Alfred Kazin: a Biography, by Richard Cook, says that after publishing On Native Grounds ‘other literary studies progressed as tentatively as his four marriages; affairs distracted him as readily as new ideas did from the book in hand. He found succour and success, however, with three acclaimed autobiographical works. . . A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965) and New York Jew (1978).’

In 1996, Kazin was awarded the first Truman Capote Lifetime Achievement Award for literary criticism. He died two years later - see The Independent or The New York Times for obituaries.

For most of his life Kazin kept a diary, and though he planned to release parts of it during his lifetime, no volume appeared until 1996 when HarperCollins published A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment - From the Journals of Alfred Kazin. ‘Written with the vividness and power of first-rate fiction,’ HarperCollins says, ‘it brings to life the great artists and thinkers who shaped the times, including Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Hannah Arendt, and shares Kazin’s insights on politics, literature, Jewish life after the Holocaust and American society. It is an immensely rich and resonant memoir from an observer whose eloquence can imbue each moment lived with a lifetime of thought and passion.’

Now, another 15 years later, Yale University Press has published Alfred Kazin’s Journals - ‘judiciously’ selected and edited by Kazin’s biographer Richard Cook. The publisher’s promotional material states: ‘To Kazin the daily entry was a psychological and spiritual act. To read through these entries is to reexperience history as a series of daily discoveries by an alert, adventurous, if often mercurial intelligence. It is also to encounter an array of interesting and notable personalities. Sketches of friends, mistresses, family figures, and other intellectuals are woven in with commentary on Kazin’s childhood, early religious interests, problems with parents, bouts of loneliness, dealings with publishers, and thoughts on the Holocaust. The journals also highlight his engagement with the political and cultural debates of the decades through which he lived. He wrestles with communism, cultural nationalism, liberalism, existentialism, Israel, modernism, and much more.’

Cook himself explains this about Kazin’s diaries on The American Scholar website: ‘Since high school he had been writing almost daily in a private journal that he had hoped to publish. He never did, though he published a memoir, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, based loosely on a few dozen undated and heavily edited entries. Why the journals or a substantial selection of entries never appeared is unclear. Other projects apparently intervened, and Kazin eventually despaired of working his way through the “pile-up of words,” 7,000 pages, amassed during 65 years of journal keeping.’

A generous number of extracts from the new book are available on the same website.

3 May 1945
‘Interview with T S Eliot, at his offices (Faber & Faber). Eliot now, if I calculate correctly, must be 57; face has aged and relaxed greatly, so that one’s first impression of him physically is of a rather tired kindness as opposed to the otherworldliness & hauteur of his early pictures. He was extremely kind, gentle, spoke very slowly and hesitatingly, livened up a bit when I pushed the conversation on to literary topics (at first, because of my official business, he spoke a little about popular education and his own experiences teaching for the WEA and LCC). He looks like a very sensitive question mark - long, winding, and bent; gives the impression that his sensibility is in his long curling nose and astonishing hands. I was so afraid that he would be standoffish or just reluctant that I spoke more than I wanted to, just to keep the conversation going. He said things which just verged on “you Americans,” but I grinned when he spoke of Truman and Missouri and he grinned back. . .’

6 October 1952
‘The literary profession - what a misnomer, what a horror. This very profession (of faith!) to which I entrust my life (for by that I mean my thinking) is also a mad scramble for social prestige and a job. So that at every point (but obviously most on Sunday night, before the treadmill gets me back) I oscillate between the native purity, the relative selflessness of my inner thought - and this splintery, tormented, boring, boring attempt to get things by my profession - my name on this list, my bank account full. The profession which by its incarnated incarnation the nullity of egotism, serves (how often!) only our egotism.

What a monster it is, then, this being not a writer, a thought-bearer, but a WRITER quoted on the jackets of the latest books, much sought-after by summer workshops, an object of mystery, a perpetual mode of unbelief, to the vulgar - “And do you write under your own name?” As if most us wrote for any purpose other than publicizing our own name!

No name, no writer.’

26 April 1972
‘Met Isaac Bashevis Singer in the Braniff waiting room at Laguardia. [. . .] He makes an impression on all around him even when they are not exactly sure who or what he is. His bags (which he insisted on carrying at all times) were crammed with mss. in large manila envelopes. He writes on loose pages torn out of school exercise books, and said, among other wonderful things, that the Jews hypnotize the outsiders & then get hated when they themselves desert “their” cause (i.e., first Christianity & then Marxism). He brightened up (without the help of any strong meat or drink whatsoever) at dinner, became positively pixieish at times. The essential solitude of the man, a kind of genial indifference to the world while happily tasting its money, prizes, etc. (his only recreation is travel) was very noticeable. It no longer matters where he is; he does not believe in anything outside his creative mind & fancies. . .’

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