Alfred Kazin in his Journals

August 25, 2011

by Richard M. Cook

I discovered Alfred Kazin’s journals in the summer of 1984. I was researching a book on American public criticism, criticism written for the reading public, or what Virginia Woolf called the “common reader,” rather than for academics. Kazin was one of the critics I wanted to include along with Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, and Van Wyck Brooks.  Hearing that he had deposited his personal journals in the New York Public Library, I thought the private diarist might contribute to my understanding of one of America’s most influential public critics. I soon discovered that the Kazin of the journals was an even more arresting personality than that projected in his criticism and in his three well-received autobiographies. In Alfred Kazin: A Biography. I attempted to capture some of the qualities that made him such a compelling figure, and in the book Kazin is allowed to speak for himself. Though the volume contains only a sixth the material housed in the NYPL, I have tried to select entries that faithfully represent his range of views and interests and that demonstrate the qualities that make the journals fascinating reading.

One of these is their documentary value. They register history from the inside. Kazin liked to say that he lived at the storm centers of the twentieth century. This was not strictly the case, but he did write as though he were, registering his reactions to the Depression, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the cold war, communism and anti-communism, and the movement of American Jews into the intellectual mainstream. Kazin published on all these topics and many more; but it was in his journals that he tried out his ideas. “Everything that is fundamental in me has first found its expression here” he wrote in one entry. “There is no joy like working out one’s ideas for oneself, like coming to the root of the matter for oneself,” he wrote in another. Watching Kazin think through these matters as he reflected on the day’s news and the latest controversies, one lives through the urgencies and insecurities of the moment. We know and read history largely in retrospect, but history is also what people, particularly alert, highly intelligent people, are feeling and thinking during the event.  On one level History is “personal history”– a favorite phrase of Kazin’s—and the journals are rich in immediate personal history.

Another attraction is the portraits.  Kazin had a gift for literary portraiture, a gift on display everywhere in the journals. Kazin knew or crossed paths with many prominent and influential people, including Arthur Schlesinger, Edmund Wilson, Hubert Humphrey, Lionel Trilling, Mary McCarthy,  T. S. Eliot, Harold Laski, Norman Podhoretz,  Robert Lowell, and President Kennedy (with whom he had had a private lunch). They are all subjects of portraits—some sardonic, some loving, many of them humorous, all of them keenly appreciative of the qualities, physical and otherwise, that make them distinctive personalities.

Interview with T.S. Eliot, at his offices (Faber and Faber). Eliot, now, if I calculate correctly, must be 57; face has aged and relaxed greatly, so that one’s first impression of him physically is of a rather tired kindness as opposed to the otherworldliness and hauteur of his early pictures. He was extremely kind, gentle, spoke very slowly and hesitatingly, livened up a bit when I pushed the conversation on to literary topics (at first, because of my official business, he spoke a little about popular education and his own experiences teaching for the WEA and LCC). He looks like a very sensitive question mark – long, winding, and bent; gives the impression that his sensibility is in his long curling nose and astonishing hands. I was so afraid that he would be standoffish or just reluctant that I spoke more than I wanted to, just to keep the conversation going. He says things which just verged on “you Americans,” but I grinned when he spoke of Truman and Missouri and he grinned back. When I gave him Spencer’s regards, he brightened up considerably and asked me if I was a Harvard man.

However, perhaps the chief attraction of the journals is what they tell us about the writer himself. Kazin saw a psychoanalyst throughout much of his adult life, and though he considered the visits, sometimes three a week, essential to his creative and emotional health, he believed psychoanalysis went only so far. “There is everything to say, outside that strictly clinical room that can only be discussed here” (in the journal). Only in the journal was he able “to come home to himself because there is where the heart lives. . . the life you do not share with anyone.”  Kazin shares a great deal in the journals: There are accounts of his fraught dealings with publishers and other writers, of the baleful influence of his “dominant mother” and “reclusive father,” of his troubled marriages and his many sexual liaisons. One also finds a surprising amount of self-criticism—including criticism of his self-preoccupation, “the me, me, me, me in my writing.” Self-concern is hardly a surprising trait among diarists and autobiographers. What is somewhat surprising is Kazin’s almost daily struggle to get outside himself, to free himself of “that cruel self-consciousness that I feel pressed over my brain every night. ” This tension, this contradiction between self- concern, self enclosure, and the need to break free is a recurrent theme in Kazin’s writing. 

A child of the Jewish ghetto, he saw his life as a constant struggle to free himself from constrictions of any kind, including the constrictions of family and the boundaries of the ghetto world. “Why were these people here and we there? Why had I always to think of outsider and insider, of their belonging and our not belonging?” he asks in A Walker in the City. He was equally wary of any ideology, government, intellectual fad, or mental habit that would constrict his thinking. He made every effort to resist Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” that would limit thought and experience. Writing in his journal was essential to that effort, each entry part of a renewed struggle for freedom, an attempt to somehow see around himself, to escape the categories that he felt trapped him and blinded him to what is “beyond”—a favorite word. Like Emerson, whom he revered, Kazin believed “that every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison.”  A self-proclaimed “literary radical,” he liked to say that “salvation would come by the word.” Yet he often quotes Wittgenstein that “the limits of language become the limits of the world.” The daily entry was an attempt to get beyond words, to see the world differently, to break through.  

The struggle continued to the end. Suffering advanced prostate cancer in March 1998, he complained of the “trouble, pain, inconvenience, and sheer helplessness” inflicted by his failing body as he looked towards death now just a few weeks away. “And all the time my mind is singing, my soul, spirit, call it what flying around of its own accord. What a division, my friends, what a dual self I walk around in—these days. No wonder one starts embracing supernatural agencies and whimpering “Get me outa here’.”  Kazin didn’t whimper.  He wrote and he wrote, pushing through the pain to the next thought and the next, the only agent of liberation in which he truly believed.

All photographs courtesy of the Author


About the Author:

Richard M. Cook is professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He has published articles and three books on American literature and criticism. His Alfred Kazin: A Biography (Yale UP 2008), was listed as a best non-fiction book in 2008 by the Washington Post and was selected by Choice as an “outstanding scholarly book” for 2008.