Literary critic Alfred Kazin, as observed by essayist Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Alfred Kazin, the great literary critic and cultural historian, died in June on his 83rd birthday. The passing of an intellectual like Mr. Kazin is probably of less moment now than in any time in our history, such as the roar or the din of pop culture, more notice is taken of the drug overdose of a rock star.
Alfred Kazin belonged to another American, to a wonderful generation of writers and critics, known now as the New York intellectuals. Their influence extended from the 1930's to the late 1960's. Many of them were Jewish, the sons of working-class immigrant parents. Many began their journey to the great world by going to City University.
For many reasons my favorite Kazin is "New York Jew," his memoir of coming of age, working for magazines, and writing essays. Today one meets kids at Stanford or Yale whose intellectual ambition is to design video games in Silicon Valley, or to write apocalyptic screen plays in Hollywood. Alfred Kazin's dream was to write for the New Republic magazine. Imagine New York in those decades when the city trafficked in ideas, a circle formed, intellectuals who were friends and rivals. Alfred Kazin knew Irving Howe, who knew Dwight McDonald, who knew Lionel Trilling, who knew Edmund Wilson, who knew Clement Greenberg, who knew Delmore Schwartz.
There are lots of reasons why the New York intellectuals faded in importance by the late 60's. American culture had grown national. Los Angeles and Washington became serious rivals. The jet airplane and the expansion of higher education dispersed the intellectual life to every corner. And the old debates about Stalin and Trotsky didn't matter to the new left of the Vietnam era. Finally, one must say too that high intellectual culture had given way by the 1960's to mass entertainment.
Today the preferred accent at many of America's journals and magazines is British, not Brooklyn. The obsession is with pop, not high culture. It's not the literary scene Alfred Kazin knew as a young man.
I think of Alfred Kazin's most acclaimed book, "On Native Grounds," published in 1942. His conversation with Hawthorne and Whitman and Dickinson, this immigrant son, the outsider, had the chutzpah to take on high American culture, to make it his own.
At Kazin's death a friend of his with affection called him "a dinosaur but a giant." This dinosaur continued writing until the end, brooding over the legacy that America gives each new generation, our American culture.
His most tender book was his childhood memoir, "A Walker in the City," published in mid-life. It is a book about Brooklyn when he first knew it—Brownsville, his neighborhood, the Jewish stores, the public library, the downtown movie palaces where his parents saw magic on the screen. As a teenager, Kazin used to spy from the Brooklyn side of the river the towers of Manhattan, which were symbols of the public life—"Beyond, beyond, beyond was the city," he wrote.
I remember 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.
That is what I remembered when I saw the small notice in the local newspaper that the old man had died of cancer on his 83rd birthday. I remembered Alfred Kazin, a boy in Brooklyn, myself a boy as reader, the two of us intent on assuming an American voice, on joining our voices to the chorus that has sounded through generations before us.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.