Inspiration Strikes After Tragedy: Alfred Kazin on His New Yorker Trilogy

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Alfred Kazin, February 16, 1965. Photograph by Oscar White.

Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), the second installment of Kazin's New Yorker Trilogy, had just been published when he gave this brief talk on the genesis of his artistic motivation at a 1965 Books and Authors Luncheon.

In 1945, Kazin was caught in a London rainstorm. He ducked into the entrance of a music store where he heard a radio broadcast; it was the transmission of the first Sabbath evening service from the newly liberated concentration camp at Belsen. At the sound of "the prayers of my childhood," Kazin was seized with a sudden vision that "man is not a political animal, an intellectual animal; he is above all an aesthetic animal." The meaning of art, Kazin saw, is that "one's own life story is a story."

Having survived a war which so many members of his extended family had not, Kazin saw his journey placed in what had been a hitherto obscured context, "a single human life on the sea of history." From this need to testify for himself as well as those who no longer could, Kazin embarked upon his New Yorker Trilogy. The author sees the Depression era as fostering a "community of deprivation," in which the "dream of a wholly new society" can form. He goes on to connect this liberalizing spirit to the current time's "simultaneous world revolution" and the growing realization that "we are all terribly precious to each other." 

At the early age of 27, Kazin published On Native Grounds (1942), a survey of American literature from William Dean Howells to the (then) present. This book immediately established his reputation. Orville Prescott of The New York Times called it:

…a thoroughly impressive performance, fresh, sane, original, unintimidated by fashionable shibboleths or the intellectual arrogances of older and less reasonable men. Mr. Kazin cuts his own path through the literary woods and doesn't care in the least where his chips fall.

To some extent, Kazin would be forever defined by this first effort. Fifty-four years later, Edward Rothstein wrote:

On Native Grounds was an attempt to discover a continent and map out its terrain. And at the book's end, Mr. Kazin stood at the edge of the unknown, wondering what lay beyond Faulkner and Hemingway, after Marxism and the New Criticism, past the dark years of World War II. "We have not even begun to see it all," Mr. Kazin concluded, "and what it may become."

Although Kazin continued to write influential criticism for the rest of his life, the New Yorker Trilogy memoirs, A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out In the Thirties, and New York Jew (1978) received more widespread attention. The story of a first-generation immigrant boy exploring and "conquering" America through its literature had a profound resonance not only for his fellow Jews, but for newcomers of all backgrounds. The writer Richard Rodriguez, born to Mexican immigrant parents, recalls:

…reading "A Walker in the City" one summer night when I was a boy in the Central Valley of California. I was a fool of generation and several thousand miles away from Kazin's New York. There was Spanish in my house, not Yiddish. But in that wonderful way that books allow, one life sharing with another, I walked with Alfred Kazin through Brooklyn.

In addition to memoirs and criticism, Kazin left behind his voluminous journals, which were published in 2011. They reveal a difficult, often tortured man, subject to uncontrollable blasts of lust and frustrated creativity. 

However, Kazin's belief in literature and the redemptive power of art, which he speaks of so movingly in the above-cited talk, never wavered. Following his death in 1998, at age 83, an obituary quotes him as saying, "My idea of heaven is to settle down in a jet with a book, a notebook, and a martini."


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.