- Reassessing A Walker in the City:Alfred Kazin’s Brownsville and the Image of Immigrant New York1
More than six decades after its initial publication, Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City (1951) occupies a curious place in the canons of Jewish-American and ethnic writing. Though still read in university courses and cited in discussions of the history and literature of Jewish New York, Kazin’s memoir of growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn during the 1920s and early ’30s has increasingly been assigned the role of a representative cultural document whose value is more historical than literary. Kazin was vocal in his opposition to this use of his memoir.2 Writing to his French publishers about their decision to release the book under the title Retour á Brooklyn [Return to Brooklyn], Kazin noted that he was “very distressed” that the new title might encourage readers “to think of the book as just another sociological document.”3 His concerns would prove well founded.
A Walker in the City tells the familiar story of the coming of age of an immigrant family’s first American-born son: his discovery of literature and, through it, the world beyond the “ghetto,” and his attempts to make a new and better life for himself in that vague but radiantly imagined world. From this familiar plot, critics have extrapolated a no less familiar set of values, presenting the memoir as a conventional assimilation narrative told in the key of postwar nostalgia.4 According [End Page 391] to Kazin’s biographer, Richard Cook, A Walker in the City reflects the broader “inward” turn of Kazin’s generation, for whom “living and writing after [the Second World War and the Holocaust] meant a narrowing of political hopes and an increased attention to the self…”5 Hebrew scholar Robert Alter offers a similar, albeit less sympathetic, reading, suggesting that “at least some of [the memoir’s] appeal during the [’50s] can be attributed not to intrinsic virtues of the book but to its role as a document of the new American pluralism after the war and as an expression of the American Jewish intellectual’s newfound nostalgia for Jewish origins.”6 The practice of reading A Walker in the City as representative of the cultural moment in which it was written, much like its use as a “sociological document,” has ensured the narrative’s continued relevance for students of Jewish history and culture. At the same time, however, it has done much to obscure the originality of Kazin’s stylistic and representational innovations, as well as their significance within the history of Jewish-American writing.
A Walker in the City was more radical in its political and literary ambitions than these interpretations would suggest. Though certainly influenced by the cultural discourses of the postwar years, Kazin’s memoir was not an uncritical reflection or echo of discursive trends. Rather, it was a pointed — even a polemical — response to literary and political ideas that had been of deep concern to Kazin since as early as the mid-1930s, the tumultuous decade in which he began his career as a writer and critic. Published nine years after his classic study of American prose literature, On Native Grounds (1942), A Walker in the City was Kazin’s second book, as well as the first and most culturally significant of four memoirs. If we are to fully understand this significance at the distance of sixty years, we must first distinguish Kazin’s own understanding of literary and political history from the larger (and later) historical narratives [End Page 392] about postwar Jewish writing and thought that have been used to interpret the memoir.
A Walker in the City was crafted as a retrospective intervention in the literature of the Great Depression and as a response to the kind of urban, working-class, coming-of-age narratives that have been described as the tenement novel or, in cultural historian Michael Denning’s influential formulation, as the “ghetto pastoral.”7 More specifically, it was an attempt to clear a space for individual agency in the city and an effort to free the working-class subject from the...