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Review of Alfred Kazin’s, “A Lifetime burning in Every Moment”

The New York Observer, May 27, 1996

Alfred Kazin's A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment book coverIn a culture virtually addicted to the ritual of revealing private sentiments in public places, we set out to read a writer’s journals with a combination of prurient curiosity and weariness. I always feel slightly guilty reading someone’s personal journals, as if their very existence in my hands were evidence of a theft or betrayal. But even amid the multimedia cacophony of confessional television and poison-pen pathographies, the journal-for all its 19th century quaintness-still entices because of the suspicion that rough jottings are more likely to yield up a life’s worth of secrets than artfully composed prose or memoirs.

Once in a great while, a diarist emerges whose literary talents are actually heightened by the act of self-revelation, as was the case in John Cheever’s remarkably beautiful, posthumously published journals. Some critics have even suggested that they , rather than his fiction, will be Cheever’s greatest legacy. Edmund Wilson’s multivolume journals merely help the reader connect the dots of his long and eventfu1life, whereas Cheever’s diaries disgorge the agonizing emotional conflicts over alcohol and sexuality that drove his stories. Cheever’s life simply doesn’t make much sense without the journals, while Wilson’s-so thoroughly dominated and defined by his work-is just made more comprehensible and human,

A lifetime Burning in Every Moment ,a selection of Alfred Kazin ‘s journals from 1938 to 1995, sits somewhere in between the two genres, A distinguished literary critic and one of the famed New York intellectuals who at- tended City College in the 30’s and gathered around magazines like Partisan Review and Commentary in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, Mr. Kalin has devoted the bulk of his life to writing passionately about American literature and society. From the moment he burst onto the scene in 1942 at age 27 with his first book, On Native Grounds , Mr. Kazin has exhibited an incisive talent for locating a work’s emotional center through close, lyrical readings. Feeling somehow in, but never entirely of America, Mr. Kazin draws on his Jewish and immigrant roots to decipher the complex relationship American writers have always had with their country. Mr. Kazin’s own credo is echoed in his preface to On Native Grounds : ‘The greatest single fact about our modem American writing,” he writes, is “our writers’ absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it.” Or, as he writes in his journal sometime in the early 50’s: “I am trying to describe the original myth of America, to imagine the promise that has been life for me and millions of immigrants in what I call the Western Island .”

Over the course of his long career, Mr. Kazin, who is 80, has consistently eschewed the fashionable literary theories of the day in favor of a more personal, methodless approach that might be thought of as a kind of literary phenomenology-a phrase that would surely make him blanch. Reading his criticism, one gets the feeling that he practically lives in the books he reads-a suspicion that is amply confirmed by the journals. Mr. Kazin understands the fear and trembling that accompanies the creative act and believes a critic has a responsibility to be similarly moved. Mr. Kazin savors the very dangerousness of great literature, and the journal’s best passages convey his esthetic titillation. “I was accompanied by an armed guard when I went downstairs at the Huntington to study the magnificent original of [William Blake’s] Songs of Innocence and Experience . The guard kept his hand on his holster all the time I was turning the pages in awe.”

Mr. Kazin’s greatest gift is a kind of literary compatibility with the author and the work, maintaining a delicate balance between them, never reducing one to the other or falling into the quicksand of clichéd psychobabble. He examines literature with a degree of personal curiosity one ordinarily finds in the essays of novelists or poets.

His critical instinct was born of his own early intoxication with literature. Bedridden by illness as a 12-year-old, he began to read Charles Dickens. “Confined as I felt by my narrow room, by my bed, by fever, I felt a strange if awful happiness,” he recalls in Writing Was Everything. “Oliver Twist was all around me and in me. I wanted never to get away from its effect. There was something in this I had to track down: Why was Dickens compelled to write like that, and why did it work on me like a drug? Since that was the literary problem I represented to myself, I had to figure it out for myself, That was how I started as a critic,” Nearly 70 years later, he is still trying to understand the mysterious powers of literature. He’s not out to solve an intellectual puzzle, but to assert his existence in an otherwise meaningless world “I write in order to lay claim to what I would like to become,” he records in the journals, “Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have.”

Given the evocative nature of Mr. Kazin’s various memoirs (A Walker in the City, Starting Out in the Thirties, New York Jew, Writing Was Everything ), and the informality of his criticism, it is little surprise that the journals are so charming. Freed from the responsibilities of narrative and explication, Mr. Kazin discovers his most engaging voice as he escorts the reader from prewar Brooklyn to the heart of Manhattan’s intellectual-literary world. Though these short prose bursts cover familiar biographical ground, they deepen our understanding of the texture of the critic’s life.

And a rich life it has been-entries about his four wives, 12 books and many famous colleagues (Hannah Arendt. Randall Jarrell, Bernard Malamud, Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow) make for engaging, thoughtful and often humorous reading. Jackie Kennedy, while being escorted home from a fundraiser for Robert Kennedy’s 1964 Senate run, asks Mr. Kazin, “Do people actually give lectures on Huckleberry Finn? ” “Alas,” he replies, “I do.”

The journals give one a feel for the life of a sensitive New York intellectual living in a bygone era in which art, life and politics were separated from one another more by differences of degree than of kind. “Not a dull moment,” Mr. Kazin writes after fighting with his wife. “Reminds me of the time we were making love on the couch while the radio was on and it announced the death of Stalin.”

If Mr. Kazin’s criticism stands out for the light it sheds on the inner life of fiction, his journals show the making of the critic-as-artist. He is dismayed by the fact that criticism has lost its autonomous function and that it has been sucked into the public relations blender of the culture industry. “When’ read Pauline Kael’s violently energetic, pseudo-robust movie criticism,” he writes, “her reactions, so stormily in excess of the commodity she is appraising, remind me why criticism itself is now such a popular commodity… [T]he style is one of aggressive conversation on the New York party circuit. The critic as dominator, as know-it-all, as experiencer. As peasant mothers once chewed up food in their own mouths in order to feed the baby, so Pauline chews up the film for the New Yorker reader so he will know what to think.”

For Mr. Kazin, criticism comes alive only when it stands deliberately apart from its audience. “No critic who is any good sets out deliberately to enlighten someone else; he writes to put his own ideas in order; to possess as a critic, through the integral force of his intelligence, the work of art that someone else had created,” he writes in his essay “The Function of Criticism Today.” A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment is an eloquent personal testament to that tenacious critical spirit.