- Native Son
Alfred Kazin was among the considerable number of gifted American writers of the twentieth century who were the children of European immigrants. Late in his life he published a distilled refashioning of his journals in which he reflected on this inheritance. Recalling his awakening love of American literature and art, he wrote: 'Of course I love all this from the outside, as the first native son after so many generations of mud-flat Russian Jews who never saw the United States. But my personal need is great, my inquiry is urgent.'1 The basis of this passage is a journal entry of 1942, but it is unlikely that Kazin ever entirely lost this feeling of outsiderness.2 Richard M. Cook's biography - the first extensive study of Kazin's life and work - captures well the urgent detachment of his writing about America, and examines his career in the light of the changing political and cultural movements of America in the mid-twentieth century with lucidity and detail. (Students of modern American literature should be particularly grateful to Cook for his clear charting of the intricate relations between twentieth-century American literary criticism and liberal, socialist, and communist critical thought.)
Kazin's first book, On Native Grounds (1942), a study of American literature from 1890 to 1940, was published when he was only 27. Following his education at New York's City College and an MA year at Columbia University, Kazin had already won some small fame as a good, young reviewer of books for the New York Times and the New York Tribune. On Native Grounds met with great acclaim. Almost seventy years after its publication it is still required reading for students of American literary history. In 1942 Kazin was appointed as the literary editor of the New Republic [End Page 388] (a post that had been held by Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley) and from that moment he never lost his prominence in American literary life.
As Cook documents, Kazin intended his first book to demonstrate the antagonism that American writers displayed towards the growing influence of plutocratic institutions over democratic ideals. In the writing of the work, however, he found himself ambivalent about the capacity of modern American novelists to represent modern American life; indeed, the impassioned nay-saying of its final chapters (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner are found wanting after Kazin's initial praise) is one of its most memorable features. Cook is perceptive in noting the seeds of its preoccupations in Kazin's early reviews. Kazin, Cook observes, 'preferred fiction that stayed close to traditional realist conventions, registered the pressures of the "outside" world, and . . . moved through private experience into history, engaging the shared public world of people and events' (p. 38). As Cook says elsewhere, Kazin was wary of modern American fiction whose intensely subjective narrative voice seemed to neglect this 'shared public world'. Indeed, one of the few writers to emerge unscathed from On Native Grounds was not a novelist but a literary critic - Edmund Wilson - whose ability to place his subjects in a vivid historical context without diminishing their individuality represented for Kazin criticism at its finest.
It should be noted, however, that On Native Grounds made evident a division in Kazin's critical thinking which he never resolved. In his preface he wrote that 'the greatest single fact about our modern American writing' was 'our writers' absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it'.3 Just after finishing the book he wrote in his journals of the 'terrible and graphic loneliness' he saw in the great American writers.4 And yet he frequently attacked American writers for their failure to engage adequately with the social and political currents of American life. Kazin, I think, could not reconcile his love of realism with his belief that literature gave voice to a non-representative imaginative consciousness which remained imprisoned in its talented state of loneliness. In a 1959 essay on Lady Chatterley's Lover, Kazin wrote that 'The more...