An Infinite Walk

Alfred Kazin’s amazing 65-year journal.

Alfred Kazin

“I have a dream of an infinite walk,” Alfred Kazin told himself in 1947, “of going on and on, forever unimpeded by weariness or duties … until I in my body and the world in its skin of earth are somehow blended in a single motion.” He was 31 and just beginning A Walker in the City, his celebrated memoir of youth in darkest Jewish-immigrant Brooklyn. Not sitting and studying, not watching or reading, but walking: going out, going through, the self in motion, in the world and with the world and being breathed on by the world—this was Kazin’s master metaphor. And not just walking, but walking in the city, in that city, in his city. Kazin knew that walking in New York is not the idle stroll of flânerie, aestheticized, detached. A moral pressure everywhere surrounds you, streaming from the urgency and clamor, the sirens and grime, from faces alert, beset. You are implicated; you are called upon. You do not float—you press. That is how Kazin moved through the world— A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, he called a later memoir—and that is how we can begin to understand him as an exemplary American intellectual.

Kazin was the author of more than a dozen books; of more than a thousand reviews and essays; of On Native Grounds, the massive, pathbreaking study of modern American prose that made his reputation at the age of 27; and of Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew, sequels to A Walker in the City and together a dazzling group portrait of the generation of American intellectuals who came of age in the Depression and the war and bestrode American thought in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Himself among that generation’s signal members, he was perhaps the country’s leading critic, a mainstay on radio and television as well as in the highbrow press. It was the right time to be a public intellectual. In 1961, for the American Scholar,he interviewed the new president at a private luncheon at the White House. In 1966, he was numbered among the “five hundred most famous people in the world” invited to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. But all along his deepest work was being done in private, in the journals he had started at the age of 17 and would continue writing for the next 65 years, some 7,000 pages in all. If his life was an “infinite walk,” his journals were the record of that walk.

Here’s a rough summary, based on the lovingly edited (though rather sloppily indexed and annotated) selection by Richard M. Cook: Reading! Writing! Sex! New York! America! Jews! Words, books, books, life, life! The journals’ overwhelming note is passion. Kazin wrote with his whole being, from a ferocious intensity of hunger and joy. “The problem,” he told himself, “is to bear oneself up, to go through to the end, to be and to grow and to deepen with everything one has.” Note “the problem.” Ideas, for Kazin, were nothing less than “instruments of salvation”—a pretty good definition of what it means to be an intellectual. His never-ending struggle was to understand himself and the world and himself in relation to the world.

He was a writer, he insisted, not a critic. “They are critics and have good taste,” he wrote about a couple of acquaintances. “I am a writer and interested in everything I can see and read and feel and touch.” Writing, as the journals are uniquely fit to show, meant integrating one’s whole experience, one’s whole personality, moving fluidly between thinking and feeling until they became a single thing, moving among the holy Trinity of books, the self, and the world as ways of understanding one another, and expressing it all, creating it all, discovering it all, in the daily, private act of laying down words.

Writing meant taking it personally, too. “I have always approached all literary and critical questions with the instinctive quick sympathy of the writer,” he said, “not with the objectivity and heaviness of the critic.” Kazin’s greatness as a reader lay in his remarkable ability to get to the writer behind the writing, to understand literature not as an isolated realm of aesthetic exploration, but as a way of coming to terms with the world, of addressing “the problem,” of expressing a stance about life. The writers that he dwelt with down the years—”these presences, these menaces, these taking-overs”—he imagined “walking, breathing, crowding, loving, talking to me … talking back to the constant reader, the lovelorn reader, the nudnick reader.” Blake, Emerson, Henry Adams, Edmund Wilson, Hemingway: He had them in his heart and on his fingertips, carried their photos in his wallet.

For Kazin, all of this was not only his own way of being an intellectual; it was the Jewish way. “New York Jew,” this child of poverty and fervor defiantly declared himself: prophetic, angry, ironic, dispossessed; gauche, emotive, intemperate, rude. Writing from need, writing from hurt, writing from the margins, writing to pick a fight with the world. Thinking of Augie March, and of Augie’s creator, and of himself and many others, he unfurls a bravura passage evoking the young Jew in America as “this eternal traveler … innocent and tough, skeptical and lyrical … corrod[ing] like acid any society he finds himself in … a force … a stir in the world … a living and fiery particle of spirit.” WASP writers like Adams and Wilson and Van Wyck Brooks he envied for their aristocratic equipoise and effortless possession of America. (Of his beloved Wilson he wrote, “EW thinks he is writing history whenever he sits down to his diary.”) Jewish writers like Lionel Trilling, his bête noire, who aped, he felt, the Anglo-Saxon style, he couldn’t hate enough. “T. cannot stand my temperament,” he wrote, “he cannot stand the ghetto Jew in me … L.T., the would-be gentleman—the little gentleman.”

Kazin was not a traditional Jew, but Jewishness filled him to bursting. “The problem, as always,” he wrote, “is how to be a ‘Jew’ without ‘Judaism’ “—that is, without traditional belief and practice or even communal affiliation. Kazin was not an American Adam. He did not believe in self-invention. He believed in self-discovery, in the sense of figuring out what history had already made you. What does it mean to be a Jew? What does it mean to be an American?These were his lifelong questions. On Native Grounds was followed by four more books on American literature. Unlike Trilling and other postwar critics, interpreters of the European tradition to a newly rising middle class that felt itself in need of culture, Kazin did not look to England and the Continent. Unlike other progressive intellectuals of his generation, he embraced American values. “I love to think about America,” he wrote, “to remember the kind of adventurousness and purity, heroism, and salt, the best Americans have always had for me.”

Alfred Kazin

Most of all, as time went on, Kazin marveled at the conjunction of his two identities, of what had become of the Jew in America. “The beggarly Jewish radicals of the 30s,” he wrote in 1963, “are now the ruling cultural pundits of American society.” It filled him with ambivalence, “The Jewish success,” the ambivalence of the outsider become an insider, of the man who’s gotten what he feels he never should have wanted. It also filled him with sheer awe at what his generation had done. Thinking one day in 1968 of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It, he sings an epic catalogue of notable Jews, 61 names that begin with him and end with Susan Sontag, everyone from Mailer to Marcuse to Mike Nichols.

But something, he would later feel, had changed, as mention of Podhoretz (“The brutal, little mind of Norman Podhoretz”) suggests. “What excuses we do find,” he writes in 1985, the depths of Reaganism and the heyday of the Jewish neoconservatives, “(we who once had no trouble execrating everyone in power) for those in power.” It was a betrayal of origins, spirit, mission, history: “There really is no continuity between the ‘sacrificed’ (whether in the Holocaust or under slavery) and those who, in their name, are very busy sacrificing others.” Kazin was never a Marxist, hated ideologies, always did his own thinking; but he never lost faith with the impulse that animated the ‘30s, and the Hebrew prophets. "The cry for justice is eternal,” he writes, “because it comes from the condemned, the pariahs, the proscribed, the forgotten, the homeless, the dissidents, the outlawed.”

The further one gets in Kazin’s journals, the more salient the word power becomes. The story of the postwar years, as we can see him live and watch and write it day by day, was the asymptotic ascent of American power. “Everywhere today,” he wrote in 1967, “the American who has any imagination and conscience tries to relate himself to the superpower we have become, and fails.” For Kazin, steeped to saturation in American history, this was a new version of an old story, the first flush of American might in the last, industrializing decades of the 19th century, witnessed at one end by Emerson, at the other by Adams. The charge for the intellectual remained the same: not to succumb to that power, not to become its accomplice, but to make it accountable to the moral intelligence. Quixotic, he knew—the quest of the mind in the world, the walk as long as life itself.