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The Inner Clamor

Alfred Kazin’s Journals
Selected and edited
by Richard M. Cook
(Yale University Press, 598 pp., $45) 

“As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers.” Alfred Kazin reveled in William Blake’s words in 1944, at the age of twenty-nine, as he stood in the Huntington Library turning the pages of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. When he described this epiphany in New York Jew, the third volume of his memoirs, Kazin clearly wanted the reader to be swept up, as he was, by the sovereignty of the Blakean self: “All is within the vaulting leaping mind of man,” he continues. “All deities reside within the human breast.” But to say that a man sees as he is does not necessarily mean that what he sees is true. What he sees may strike him as lovely because it is made in his own image-like kindling to like; but what is not made in his own image he will not be able to see at all. The world, to such a self, may become a prison of mirrors, all of them reflecting the same obsessions, the same cycles of delight and disappointment.

Alfred Kazin’s journals, which begin in 1933, when he was seventeen years old, and continue until 1998, the year of his death, are a monument to the literary consequences of such overpowering subjectivity. The self on display in these notes is magnificently, ruinously consistent: the voice we hear in the first entry is recognizably the same as the one we hear in the last. It is the same, above all, in its devout belief in the overwhelming fascination of the self. “Life calls us to nothing more than passionate and rigorously logical (truthful) introspection,” Kazin declares on May 14, 1933, weeks before his eighteenth birthday. “There is no externality but the outpourings of the self.” Thirty-seven years later Kazin has learned that introspection can bring torment as well as rapture, but he has not desisted from it: “All this lifetime feeling, all this long passion of the heart, all this longing—all this anger—all this bitterness, all this love, all this seeking,” he writes in 1970. “I feel as if I were the site of many storms. Everything keeps thundering through me.”

No reader of Kazin’s autobiographies could be entirely surprised by the storminess of his inner weather, as documented with often painful candor in the Journals. A Walker in the City, his extraordinary memoir of growing up in the Jewish tenements of Brownsville, in Brooklyn, begins with a confession: “Every time I go back to Brownsville ... an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.” Rage, dread, and tenderness are leitmotifs of the Journals, too—as are Jewishness, sexual desire, and literature, the other central subjects of A Walker in the City. Indeed, the great historical value of that memoir was that it helped to dispel the nostalgia and sentimentality about the immigrant experience that the descendants of immigrants love to foster. From the perspective of the suburbs, the ghetto can appear as a place of warmth, but to those who lived there, Kazin showed, it felt more like fire: “I was always holding my breath. What I must have felt most about ourselves, I see now, was that we ourselves were like kindling—that all the hard-pressed pieces of ourselves and all the hard-used objects in that kitchen were like so many slivers of wood that might go up in flames if we came too near the white-blazing filaments in that naked bulb. Our tension itself was fire, we ourselves were forever burning—to live, to get down the foreboding in our souls, to make good.”

The life laid bare in the Journals is the fated product of this tense, anxious, ambitious childhood. To call Kazin’s background parochial would be too ample: it was not a parish he called home, but a single city block. The world was divided into “the block and beyond,” and “anything away from the block was good: even a school you never went to, two blocks away.” The energy and the ambition of the children raised on that block boiled over into the “scalding ... hammer blows” of handball games, in voices that “crashed against the walls like a bullet.” When the wide world finally opened up, Kazin shot out of Brownsville with the same violence and recklessness. “My aggressiveness has been terrible; my lack of love and understanding has been terrible,” he writes in his journal in 1944. “All my life I have lived like a bullet going through walls. I have thought only of my own progress, and in the end there has been no progress, for in my life-long terror, in my never-ending anxieties, I have lived only for myself, so that now I am left only with myself.”

Reading such savage self-criticism makes the reader of Kazin’s journals uncomfortable, because it is hard to know how to respond: with pity, understanding, impatience? But as the Journals progress and the same note of self-hatred is sounded again and again, impatience begins to get the upper hand. It is exasperating to read about a man who never seems to achieve any self-mastery or selfforgiveness—though not a fraction as exasperating as it was to be that man. In 1948: “It takes me violent efforts and ruthless self-urgings to lift myself out of that pit.... The chaos in my nature fills me with despair.” In 1961: “At least when I write like this, and not in some pompously analytic style like the rest of this fucking notebook, I can say that I feel pain. I feel pain! I’m in pain!” In 1970: “I mustn’t dwell on this—or I will take my life, I’m so unhappy.” Kazin even predicted how the reader of his Journals would react to them: “What will not be forgiven me by the reader of these diaries is my obstinate unhappiness. And quite right. This is what I do not forgive myself. Lord, what a disease, what sentimentality, what rhetoric! What excuse for not living!—Above all, what self-centeredness!”

THIS PASSAGE PUTS into focus one of the literary problems with Kazin’s Journals. It is not that Kazin is writing a journal with an eye on future publication—as his comparisons of his own diary with those of Edmund Wilson and André Gide make clear. It is, rather, that the primary audience for the journals is Kazin himself: the journals are a performance in which author, actor, and audience are the same person. And it is impossible to exhort and chastise oneself in print in an earnest, unselfconscious way. 

Here, for instance, is Kazin in 1975: “I nevertheless cry out against all determinism of my condition, and with a free heart opt for joy, for difference, for independence, for fantasy, for love impossible.... To be free of my determined condition! An everlasting yea and yea again!!!!” As a proposition, this is strong, with its ardent echoes of Carlyle; as writing, it is awkward and false, because it is not the language of actual consciousness. It is the language of a man admiring himself in the act of making a speech about the beauty of joy, difference, and so on. It is, in a word, rhetoric. And this is the tone of most of Kazin’s journals, whether he is in a joyful mood or a wretched one.

Kazin often seems aware that his diary is fundamentally a performance for his own benefit. Contrasting his journals with those of Edmund Wilson, which were being published in the 1960s, he writes, “I notice in all excerpts from Wilson’s famous journal that they are set pieces of literary-historical description, formal portraits, essays in miniature. How nice it would be to keep a journal like that, to leave a treasure like that. But so often I turn to this notebook as if it were my private lie detector, my confession, my way of ascertaining authenticity—and recovering it—of making myself whole again.” What Kazin does not want to admit is that a journal written in Wilson’s style—objectively, frankly, looking outward—is superior in literary terms to a journal written for the audience of the self. Yet he clearly intuits this, as you can see from the way he lashes out defensively at Wilson: “I wonder if E.W., the literary surgeon of the culture-world, ever gets into his journals the incoherence that comes with the honest personal note with so much passion.”

This kind of defensiveness is always a mark of literary failure. It is characteristic of a kind of writer who, unable to escape his ego while writing, insists that egotism is a proof of authenticity. James Wright, in his poems, does something similar, and so does James Agee, in the tormented prose of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It makes perfect sense that Kazin, in New York Jew, writes so warmly about Agee, who he met when they both worked for Henry Luce in the 1940s: “What I loved most about him was his gift for intoxication. At any given moment he swelled up to the necessary pitch, he made everything in sight seem equally exciting.” This is exactly the ideal of Kazin’s own prose, too. At moments of high emotion, he “swells up,” with a catch in his throat at the beauty of his own feelings: 

the riot in my heart as I saw the cables leap up to the tower, saw those great meshed triangles leap up and up, higher and still higher—Lord my Lord, when will they cease to drive me up with them in their flight?—and then, each line singing out alone the higher it came and nearer, fly flaming into the topmost eyelets of the tower. 

Kazin was a seeker after, and a student of, rapture. He never recognized the limitations of pure exaltation. Whenever Kazin encounters a writer who is less self-delighting, cooler, more objective, his journals suffer painful eruptions of envious self-justification. Saul Bellow is the supreme example. In New York Jew, Kazin writes ambivalently about Bellow, acknowledging his genius—“He had pledged himself to a great destiny. He was going to take on more than the rest of us were”—while also criticizing his pride: “He was proud in a laconic way, like an old Jew who feels himself closer to God than anybody else. He could be unbearable in his unresting image of himself.”

In the diaries this ambivalence appears as early as 1950, when Kazin writes: “Why I do not like Saul Bellow, no—au fond, I don’t; a kalte mensch [cold man], too full of his being a novelist to be a human being writing.” Here is the same tactic Kazin used against Wilson: the suggestion that literary perfection is somehow humanly inferior to his own hot sincerity. But the results—Bellow’s books and Kazin’s books—suggest that to succeed at being a human being writing, one has to make oneself something less indulgently human, more professional and disciplined: a novelist, or a memoirist, or for that matter, a critic.

IT WAS AS a critic that Kazin came to renown after the publication of On Native Grounds, his study of modern American literature, in 1942. He published widely, and achieved great cultural authority, over the next four decades; but it is impossible to deny that Kazin is remembered today for his autobiographies more than for his criticism. Indeed, On Native Grounds itself probably matters to more readers as an event in the life of Alfred Kazin and his generation of Jewish intellectuals in New York than as a book in its own right. Many young writers must have walked into the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, where Kazin wrote the book in his early twenties, and shared his dreams of glory: “Even the spacious twin reading rooms, each two blocks long, gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers.”

The nature of Kazin’s posthumous reputation would probably not have surprised or displeased him. In the journals he is often frank about his impatience with criticism, his sense that it is not his true métier. As early as 1942, while finishing On Native Grounds, he remarks, “I may have come to make too much of criticism—but the truth is that it no longer even begins to satisfy me. When I write criticism, I feel as if only a quarter of my mind ... were going into it.” No wonder he could make no progress on what was supposed to be his next critical work, a study of American literature called The Western Island, or that he did not publish another full-length critical study until An American Procession, a disappointing book, in 1984. More and more, he realized that what he really wanted from the great American writers was not to interpret them, but “sanctions for my own kind of search. Unless I could find that a Ryder, a Thoreau, a Whitman, a Melville had lived ... I could not believe that what I sought so doggedly and furtively was real.”

Kazin was a critic whose genius shied away from criticism. He was “bored with the objectivity I can muster as a critic ... for such objectivity does not express itself in continuous feeling and brooding, but has limited aims and ends detached from myself.” It is no wonder, then, that he measured himself so irritably against writers who were objective and unselfconscious enough to become critics of genius—Wilson and, above all, Lionel Trilling. It would not be too strong to say that Kazin was obsessed with Trilling. His complaints about him begin in 1951 (“the continuous ache about Lionel and his nervousness with me”) and continue until after Trilling’s death in 1975. They would culminate in the vicious portrait of Trilling in New York Jew, where he is portrayed as an ultra-cautious careerist, “intent on not diminishing his career by a single word.” 

At moments in the journals, however, Kazin is able to acknowledge that his running feud with Trilling was one-sided. “Trilling, the pompously respectable professor, is a character in my imagination of society, not a person to argue with,” he notes in 1966. Indeed, he is only one of a number of writers onto whom Kazin projects his uncomfortable sense that to rise in the world, to become a member of the literary establishment, is a betrayal of his own origins, and of his class and political allegiances. In an entry in 1956, there are other examples: “The ‘success-story’ for America does blunt and dampen all one’s fires by its belief in ‘happiness’ and fulfillment. All those fat Jews—Jason Epstein and my own Richard H[ofstadter] ... all this represents the death not merely of ‘alienation,’ but of the vital and fiercely hungry intelligence.... We wanted to get out of Brownsville, the steerage—and we got into the ‘American’ business.”

Kazin is well aware of the irony that this was written while he was on vacation in Nice, “sitting here on the balcony overlooking the sea.” Indeed, the bullet speeding out of Brownsville ended up hitting some lofty targets. “John Chamberlain wrote in the Times this morning that I was the only new voice in criticism to come out of the thirties. Who, me?” Kazin writes in 1942. By 1959, he is having lunch with Dag Hammarskjöld at the United Nations: “The view from the 38th floor reminded me of Jesus being shown the mountains of the earth and tempted.” 

The allusion is a little grandiose—it is not obvious that Kazin was actually being tempted with anything more than lunch—but he is sincere in his conviction that, if he were to forget Brownsville, his right hand would lose its cunning. One May Day, the labor holiday that was celebrated fervently in socialist-communist Brownsville, the middle-aged Kazin finds himself “at a soirée, a real soirée, honest, at the Frankfurters on Park Avenue.... Ah nuts, ah soirée, ah poo-poo-nuts,” he mutters to his journal.

YOU CAN HEAR in this mock-petulance the comic echo of what would become one of Kazin’s major preoccupations in the second half of his life: the estrangement of many of his Jewish and intellectual peers from socialism and liberalism. Much (perhaps too much) has been written about the New York intellectuals’ journey from left to right, the pilgrimage that started in the Trotskyists’ Alcove B in the City College cafeteria during the early 1930s. If Kazin never made that journey, it is largely because, even though he went to City, he was never part of Alcove B and what it stood for—the deft ideological infighting of the communist and ex-communist left. Kazin’s interests were always primarily literary; he was a socialist by tradition and instinct, rather than a communist out of conviction and a will to power. “Socialism,” he writes in A Walker in the City, “would be one long Friday evening around the samovar and the cut-glass bowl laden with nuts and fruits,” and later, “Socialism would come to banish my loneliness.”

Kazin is smiling at himself in this passage, well aware that nuts and fruits do not make a politics. As early as 1945, he recognizes in his journal that “my own belief in humanist-socialism is only a private ideal; it has no actual political meaning at the moment. But ideals are psychological goals, necessary to the health of the mind.” To be on the left was for Kazin less a political philosophy than a token of identity. Naturally, this did not make his emotional investment in liberalism less intense. ”It is not their fucking revolution I loved, it was the revolutionaries,” he writes in 1959, striking the familiar emotional pitch. “It was not a system, any system; it was man at his bravest, at his most loving, at his most far-reaching. O brave, O more brave, O mighty hearts!”

Having invested his romantic selfimage in liberalism, Kazin perceived abandonments of liberalism by his peers as an attack on his identity—just as Trilling’s reserve, or Bellow’s literary discipline, were implicit rebukes to his own emotionalism and subjectivity. And in politics, just as in literature, the stakes were raised by Kazin’s lifelong tendency to cast all questions of identity in terms of fidelity to Jewishness. (“For Trilling I would always be ‘too Jewish,’ too full of my lower-class experience,” he writes in New York Jew.)

But Kazin’s intense personalization of Jewishness had the effect that he was never able to see it clearly, on its own historical and religious terms. “My autobiography will always be most deeply the autobiography of a Jew,” he writes, and while he makes hundreds of attempts in the Journals to define Jewishness, he is always drawing only a self-portrait. Often this means advancing the familiar idea that the real Jew is a universalist, a dissident, a moral critic, a prophet: what Kazin calls, in 1957, “the heroic isolation and eternal fightingness of the real Jews, the true Jews, the few Jews.” “The Jew wears the great burden of history.... and it is a prophetic burden,” he writes in 1949; the Jewish exemplars are “Yeshua [Jesus] or Marx, Simone Weil.”

But few of the Jews Kazin knew growing up in Brownsville, or encountered in literary New York, were of that caliber. Thus, in another familiar turn, the failure of actually existing Jews to live up to the heroic dissidence of the “true Jews” gives rise to an impatience that is hard to distinguish from contempt. “Every original Jew turns against the Jews—they are the earth from which his spirit tries to free itself,” Kazin writes in 1951. “And shall I tell you a secret?” he says a few months later. “I don’t feel like a Jew.” Meeting with a group of émigré professors at the New School prompts this entry: “The German Jews—each one slightly more grotesque, more Cruikshank-looking than the other. What a race, what a group.” At one point Kazin reaches the conclusion that “Christianity alone does justice to the historic mission of the Jews—that it is only as Christians that Jews can remain Jews.” For a moment in 1950, he even seems to be toying with conversion: “I, who am not a Christian, who may become one by the time this journey of reflection is finished, but strongly doubt it,” he writes in an entry headed “Easter Sunday.”

How seriously are we to take this fantasy of apostasy and release? Kazin’s hostile statements about Jews must be taken in the context of his whole career—a career that could not have been more publicly identified with Jewishness. In the privacy of his journals, Kazin feels free to express his moments of frustration and resistance toward his Jewishness, just as he also feels free to express moments of joyous solidarity—for instance, after the Six Day War: “Every day since the Israeli victory in early June, I go to bed thinking: we are not as fit for killing as we were—we can be proud.... It is Israel that will keep the flame of Jewish faith alive. What does anything else matter? The Jews will hold—they cannot but keep faith. Nothing else matters but that God lives, and that His people know Him—in their own land.”

Here Kazin seems to be trying on the voice of Rabbi Kook, just as earlier he tried on the voice of Simone Weil. What the reader resists at such moments is not the content of the sentiments but their theatricality. Kazin seems more interested in how it feels to enunciate a lofty sentiment than in its truth or its accuracy, or even whether he actually believes the statement that it excites him to utter. It is notable that, in all the decades of rumination about Judaism that fill the Journals, we never see Kazin actually reading a Jewish text, or studying Jewish history. To give Judaism any kind of objective content—to treat it as a historical phenomenon or a body of knowledge, rather than a mystique—would limit Kazin’s ability to make grandiose pronouncements about it, whether positive (“A Jew has had experiences that other people simply don’t understand or wish to understand”) or negative (“Christians, in my experience, are so much more complicated than Jews, so much more at home in the world”).

It is not until a trip to Israel in 1970 that he begins to realize the problem: “Somewhere I had come to believe that Jew and my family were identical.... Has the ‘Jewish experience’ ever meant anything to me outside these relations-identifications?” But the realization doesn’t stick: three years later, Kazin is reflecting on “how the State of Israel reminds me of myself, and how myself reminds me of the State of Israel.” At such moments, the Journals seem less valuable as the record of a life, or of a brilliant, passionate mind, than as a document of a failed pursuit of wisdom—the kind of self-knowledge and knowledge of the world that, ideally, is supposed to come with maturity.

Wisdom seldom comes, of course; but the best writers are those whose works communicate an understanding that may be conspicuously missing from their lives. One reason to be grateful to literature is that it grants an opportunity for self-forgetting and self-transcendence, not to still the inner clamor but to gain a saving, objective, ironic distance from it. “The task,” as Kazin recognizes, “is to use our suffering and to use it so well that we can use it up.” That is what he does in A Walker in the City and Starting Out in the Thirties, his enduring books. His Journals are made of what’s left over. 

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.