Over the course of sixty years, Alfred Kazin's writings confronted virtually all of our major imaginative writers, from Emerson and Emily Dickinson to James Wright and Joyce Carol Oates -- including such unexpected figures as Lincoln, William James, and Thorstein Veblen. It is fair to say that in his books, essays, and reviews, Kazin succeeded Edmund Wilson as the secretary of American letters, the one who kept closest track of its proceedings, its history, its symbiotic relationship with American society, and its relations with other Western literatures. He did so out of a particularly passionate concern for the significance and well-being of our literary heritage. The America that was mostly a political and cultural position-taking for his fellow New York intellectuals was for Kazin a lifelong possession and a complex fate. His working title for his final book, God and the American Writer, which dealt mostly with nineteenth-century authors, was "Absent Friends."
At the same time this son of immigrant Russian Jews wrote out of the tensions of the outsider and the astute, outspoken leftist -- or, as he typically put it, "the bitter patriotism of loving what one knows." To indicate the development of this charged point of view, Ted Solotaroff has selected material from Kazin's three classic memoirs to accompany his critical writings. These excerpts also provide the pleasure of his sharply etched portraits of the Brownsville, Greenwich Village, Upper West Side, and Cape Cod literary milieus and of such figures as Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and Hannah Arendt.
The selections in Alfred Kazin's America follow the course of his career. They are introduced by the editor's substantial essay, which connects the youth to the man and both to the critic, and draws upon Solotaroff's own relations with him. This close joining of the personal to the critical seeks to pass on and reactivate a great American critic's presence and legacy.
As our sense of the American past continues to dry up and threatens to blow away in the heavy winds of change, those writers who can make our heritage come alive again and challenge us become all the more essential. Alfred Kazin's America provides an ongoing example of the spiritual freedom, individualism, and democratic contentiousness that takes us back to Emerson and forward through our literature to the better part of our own Americanism.
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Alfred Kazin was born in Brooklyn in 1915. His first book, On Native Grounds, published in 1942, revolutionized critical perceptions of American literature. It was followed by many more books of essays and criticism, including A Walker in the City and, most recently, Writing Was Everything.
Kazin has taught at Harvard, Smith, Amherst, Hunter College, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. In 1996, he received the Truman Capote Literary Trust's first Lifetime Award in Literary Criticism.
Kazin lives in New York City.
Ted Solotaroff is a well-known editor and critic. His first memoir, Truth Comes in Blows, received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. His second, First Loves, was recently published by Seven Stories Press.From Publishers Weekly:
Intended as "a resource, rather than as a monument" this posthumous anthology traces a biographical arc through the work of one of America's finest literary critics, interspersing selections from almost all of his major critical works (On Native Grounds; God and the American Writer; etc.) with the remarkable memoirs published in his middle later years (A Walker in the City; Writing Was Everything; etc.). Few critics lend themselves to such integration, but as Solotaroff's extensive, nuanced introduction explains, Kazin (1915-1998) "wrote less as a literary critic than as a writer possessed by literature as moral testimony and lived history." The collection starts with his childhood in a provincial Brooklyn ghetto, where his work-dogged mother would leave her sewing machine only long enough to gaze briefly and lovingly out of the window at the world, and impoverished friends found transcendence in poetry and politics. Here, too, the teenaged Alfred, having already seized upon Blake and Hemingway, read the Gospel and found in the co-opted figure of "our Yeshua" a fulfillment of Jewish longing and "another writer I could instinctively trust." Then come Kazin's beginnings in the brave new and largely gentile literary world of the '30s; the months spent at the New York Public Library researching the brilliant study of American realism that made his career; the rise and decline of the literary left and the moral disillusionments following the war. The book ends with his canny but troubled assessment of letters in the early 1980s, the end of the American century. Kazin's great faculty as both a critic and a memoirist was his passionate belief in the voice on the page as a means of communicating historical experience. Here is a writer, and a reader, we can trust.
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