|Kazin lecturing in 1986. (Berg collection/judith dunford)|
Alfred Kazin: A Biography
By Richard M. Cook
Yale University, 452 pp., illustrated, $35
Ah, the business of being an intellectual. You go around publishing books, giving lectures - always under the impression that ideas matter, that a democracy without a free-market debate of opinions would be less humane, and that the vigorous life of the mind is worth living.
But is it? When Alfred Kazin died, in 1998, I remember seeing the same sentence popping up everywhere: The last of the New York Jewish intellectuals is gone. What a foolish statement! A decade later, there are still a handful, but who needs a New York Jewish intellectual today? Other immigrant groups have come to the fore. Literature no longer commands serious attention. (It's music and movies now.) Plus, who ever said intellectuals make good role models? Judging from the biography just published by Richard Cook, Kazin surely wouldn't get the prize.
Upon migrating from Mexico to the United States in the mid-'80s, I read everything I could find by Kazin. There was a hypnotizing quality to his prose. "On Native Grounds," his study of Whitman, Howells, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and others who helped define our literary canon, gave me a thread to follow: American literature, I came to believe, was an extravaganza of inflated egos.
But Kazin's autobiography "A Walker in the City," published in 1951, did something better: It granted me a sense of place. Kazin was the child of impoverished Polish immigrants. Books and schools were his entryway to the English language. I too wanted to walk, to make English my own (like him, I grew up with Yiddish), to leave a mark. How did a Jew like him, at the time when quotas were blocking the way, make the city - and, indeed, the whole of Western civilization - his habitat? What could I learn from him?
First and foremost, I could emulate his chutzpah. Outsiders like him made a difference. They challenged the center to think differently.
While I felt less connected to Kazin's other books, his reviews and essays enthralled me. In his biography, Cook unveils the pathos holding the pen. He writes exhaustively - and exhaustingly - of his general state of malcontent, his finicky and supercilious personality, his abrasiveness with students, his grumpiness as a parent, friend, and colleague. Using Kazin's journals as well as his correspondence, and interviews with him and those around him, Cook builds a rich but dismaying picture.
We discover Kazin's views on schools like Cambridge University("dear beautiful Cambridge") and Amherst (pedantic because of, among other things, the "marble-like puffiness" of "men grown middle-age professors") and on people like the Puerto Ricans ("lambs" whose "famous docility" is the result of "the apathy of tropical countries and . . . Step'n Fetchit sloth").
Cook penetrates Kazin's mind, allowing us a glimpse of his reaction to feminism, multiculturalism, and the Holocaust. He catches him failing repeatedly at marriage, admiring Hannah Arendt while picking fights with Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and Saul Bellow. He also lets us see his dismissive response to competitors like Edmund Wilson (who found Kazin's diction "vague and imprecise"), Leslie Fiedler (a " 'brash' and 'shrewd' young man . . . riding 'a fashionable thesis' as far as it would take him"), and Harold Bloom ("Extraordinary how that round, vaguely baby, Jewish, unworldly face imposes itself, takes hold").
I applaud Cook's industriousness. Yet there's something trite, mechanical in his endeavor. It isn't altogether his fault. These days producing biographies seems to be done in cookie-cutter fashion. First, abundant information needs to be gathered, then emptied into a container as the biographee's life is cut in symmetrical chunks in chronological order. A few quotes by the biographee are sprinkled throughout, along with comments from reviews, interviews, and the like. The concoction must coalesce so as to give the reader the feeling that the arc of the person's life has been properly conveyed.
Cook performs the task dutifully. His book contains everything you ever wanted to know about Alfred Kazin. But do we need to know this much? Strangely, the effort seems soulless.
The image that kept returning to me was Sisyphus, the king of Greek myth cursed with rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again. Kazin was an integral part of the cadre of Jewish thinkers who made America less provincial. But who reads him today? Most of his books are out of print. And in a recent, strictly unscientific poll, I asked around and couldn't find more than half a dozen people under 40 who had read him.
I'm not sad, though. Intellectuals foolishly believe they can mend the world. It doesn't matter that the world is unfixable; there we go again, dispensing opinions, publishing books, delivering lectures, looking for grants. It's our pastime.
Yes, Alfred Kazin proved it: A vigorous intellectual life is worth living, even if only oblivion waits around the corner.
Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His book "Love and Language" was recently published, as was "Cesar Chavez: An Organizer's Tale," which he edited. His graphic novel, "Mr. Spic Goes to Washington," will be out in June.