An Infinite Walk
Alfred Kazin's amazing 65-year journal.
"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.
William Deresiewicz is an author, essayist, and critic. His book A Jane Austen Education will be out this month.
Photographs of Alfred Kazin courtesy of Richard Cook.