I met Alfred Kazin because of I.B. Singer. It was 1991, and I’d been working at the Forward for less than a year when Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning master of Yiddish fiction, died. The next day, the phone rang: “This is Alfred Kazin. I’d like to write something about Singer.” If Singer himself had been on the line, I could hardly have been more surprised–or more delighted. Both men, to my mind, inhabited a peak of the literary Olympus, but I had not understood how connected Singer’s Yiddish-speaking world was to Kazin’s mandarin American literary milieu. Of course, the evidence was everywhere.
In A Walker in the City, his first and best volume of autobiography, Kazin describes his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, when he was 14 years old. He’d become separated from classmates who were headed to City Hall, but he decided to continue across the bridge alone. In rhapsodic language reminiscent of Henry Roth, Kazin takes in all the crackling sounds and sights of the emerging city, the trolleys and the crush of people and the dark roofs of Manhattan. “Only the electric sign of the Jewish DailyForward, burning high over the tenements of the East Side,” he writes, “suddenly stilled the riot in my heart.”
Whether that sign stilled his heart with calming thoughts of home (where the Forward was read in Yiddish by his house-painter father and dressmaker mother) or whether it momentarily halted the reach of his escaping imagination is not explained. For Kazin, both were no doubt true, for he was able to express multiple selves simultaneously. He once told me that he had considered calling his final and fourth volume of autobiography, published in 1996, simply Jews. He opted instead for A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, a line taken from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” “Jews,” he decided, “would be too much.” But it isn’t as if he chose the lines of the anti-Semite at the expense of his own American impulse toward ethnic self-assertion. (He had, after all, called his third memoir New York Jew.) When I suggested that what he was really doing was Judaizing Eliot, making him serve as an epigraph to Kazin’s American-Jewish life-hungry odyssey, he laughed approvingly. “Yes,” he said, “I like that.”
In 1942, at the age of only 27, Kazin had published On Native Grounds. The grandeur of the title and the immodesty of the subtitle–An Interpretation of ModernAmerican Prose Literature–mark it as the sort of book only a grateful child of immigrants could write. Who else would tune his ear so finely for traces of an emerging national consciousness, while teasing out the finer points of its economic, social, and moral awareness? His open-armed embrace of American literature, his magisterial “we” in speaking about literary matters in this country, had the assertiveness of the newly enfranchised. Once, after I got to know him better, he told me that his daughter Kate had moved to Israel, and I jokingly observed that she was really on native ground. Kazin was not amused. He had labored too long to make America his own to feel it pulled out from under him, even in jest.
He never denied the Jewish piece of his identity. It’s just that America was where he felt it was possible to express all the pieces of himself at once. Kazin was different from many first-generation intellectuals who sailed into American high culture and sent for their past only long after they had established themselves, like immigrants bringing over the rest of the family. Kazin brought everything with him at once.
The story Kazin wound up telling in the Forward about Singer recounted the Yiddish writer’s desire to see the grave of Edmund Wilson. Singer was, Kazin recalled, fascinated to learn that Wilson, that patrician WASP man of letters, had chosen a Hebrew inscription for his headstone. Kazin was clearly delighted with this confluence of elements–Wilson translating himself into Hebrew; Singer translating himself into English; and Kazin himself telling the story, presiding over both, knitting together the two disparate elements that fueled his own unique style.
No wonder Kazin was drawn to the bridge in AWalker in the City. Brownsville, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where he came from, had one foot in eastern Europe and one in the New World. Kazin himself had one foot in Brownsville and one foot in the highbrow literary world of Manhattan. Critics such as Kazin and writers such as Saul Bellow–born the same year as Kazin–stretched out their intellect and imagination across disparate worlds and helped a generation of book-hungry immigrant offspring walk into American cultural life.
Kazin was a bridge for me as well. It was his introductions–to Henry Roth, to D. H. Lawrence, to Henry James– that helped me feel at home with great modernist writers. Kazin wrote about American literature in particular as if he had discovered it himself. He imparted to everything he wrote that same feeling of magical discovery he describes experiencing when he walked as a young man out of immigrant Brooklyn into sophisticated Manhattan.
One day this past winter, my wife and I went to a party in Westchester also attended by Kazin and his wife, Judith. My wife and I had taken the train, and the Kazins offered us a ride back to the city–but only if I drove. His wife told me they didn’t mind risking their own lives in the dark but that younger people were another matter. Needless to say, I was terrified, creeping along the Saw Mill Parkway as if all of Western literature were in the back seat. Kazin’s conversational style now closely resembled a memoir in progress–he chatted casually about Harry Levin, the great Joyce scholar at Harvard, and about critic Clifton Fadiman’s TV appearances, and about Singer, whom he had recently written about for the New York Review of Books.
We came to the West Side Highway. There, in the distance, was the George Washington Bridge, lit up in the darkness. This was the same approach to Manhattan, I suddenly realized, that I had known when I was a teen-ager making the drive to New York from the Westchester suburb where I grew up. Though I’d had a very different childhood from Kazin and approached Manhattan from a direction completely different from Kazin’s Brownsville, I remembered vividly the sense of possibility the drive suggested. And I understood that it was partly because of Alfred Kazin that New York seemed a place of the imagination, a place where life opened up. My heart filled with gratitude. Here was Kazin, 50 years older than I but still traveling happily toward New York, still talking about books and people with passion and devotion, and still holding out the promise of a New World.