Questioning faith in the parsha
ALFRED KAZIN, June 5, 1915 – June 5, 1998, was an American writer and literary critic many of whose writings depicted the immigrant experience in the early twentieth century America. He got his BA at City College, MA at Columbia University, was Professor of American Studies, Amherst College, Professor of English SUNY Stony Brook. The New Republic, Literary Editor, Fortune Associate Editor.
BOOKS: On Native Grounds (1942, nonfiction), A Walker in the City (1951, memoir, from which our Chevra text is taken!) , Starting Out in the Thirties (1965, memoir), Bright Book of Life (1973, nonfiction), New York Jew (1978, memoir), An American Process Nation (1984, nonfiction), A Writer’s America (1988, nonfiction), A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment (1996, memoir), God and the American Writer (1997, nonfiction).
A talk with Alfred Kazin,
one of our finest critics and teachers. Interview by Roger Bishop, 1996.
For over 50 years, Alfred Kazin has been a leading men of letters. As literary critic, autobiographer, and teacher, he is the author of such classics as On Native Grounds and A Walker in the City. Earlier this year he received the first Lifetime Award in Literary Criticism from the Truman Capote Literary Trust. Now, he shares with readers entries from thousands of pages of his journals, which he has kept since 1938. This extraordinary volume gives us his observations and reflections on a broad range of subjects, both personal and public, as well as incisive portraits of literary figures.
I recently spoke with Kazin about his new book, Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.
In 1946-1950, you wrote, “Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have.” In 1993-1995, you wrote, “still beginning my day as I have ever since I was a boy — writing up things in my notebook as if my life depended on it.” Early and late, writing in your journals has occupied a central place in your life. Please talk about the reasons for doing it.
I discovered as a very young man that my way of writing was to talk to myself, as it were. In everything I’ve written since I began to write professionally, I adopted a habit of putting down my thoughts and arguments, my impressions, my experiences, to myself in diary form, in journal form. Somehow the bits of writing to myself made it easier for me to uncover things which in a more formal writing I might have overlooked. And then I found, as keepers of journals often do, it was solace in times of great trouble. It was a way of exploring, of looking at things I had not thought about before, precisely because a journal was so informal. I was not worried about what the public would think. So, it became simply my way of writing. I never bored myself. I found it always exciting. I still do.
When did you decide to publish the journals? What criteria did you use?
My answer is not a simple one. When I began writing the journals which I selected from for my current book — that was in 1938 — I was simply aware of the pleasure of writing things down. Over the years they became more inexorable in the amount of paper they consumed. One of the things I discovered, to my surprise, in writing a book of literary criticism, for example, my favorite of my books, An American Procession, was that I could think what I really wanted to say about William James or Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman by first writing in my journals as if I were writing about a personal experience. That helped me to write about these people-I hope I did-as personal experiences. Although I was a professor and teaching at different places, the teaching was important to me. Being a professor was not. The only way I could manage to feel that I was a good teacher was by relating in my journals what I wanted to say in class.
When did I decide to publish them? Quite a few years ago. Inevitably it made a great change in the way I wrote in my journals because I was more conscious, more deliberate. I was now writing as a writer. There were two periods of journal keeping for me: the first, I was under great stress for all kinds of reasons, and I had to relieve my mind and my soul. The other was when I was writing, as I’ve indicated, to help me along in my book writing. It was quite some time back that I decided to publish the journals, and then began the terrible problem of what to select.
You wrote rather early (1946-1950), “I shall always be more a mystery to myself than others are to me.” In the years since you wrote that, have you become less a “mystery” to yourself?
I don’t believe in what is called psychological man. I don’t believe psychology explains one’s self. In the last few years also I became more and more interested in religious influences. Part of it, though I am Jewish, came not from my Orthodox mother but from my passion for nineteenth-century American literature. I don’t mean that I changed my religion, just that I was very much influenced by that literature from Emerson to Emily Dickinson and William James. I think it’s the core of American literature. The more I studied the more I realized that there was no such thing as knowing one’s self in the perfect way. I don’t pretend to know myself the way someone fresh from psychoanalysis would claim. I think that’s silly. Coleridge said, “Literature puts the whole soul of man into activity.” I think that is what has always attracted me to literature. That’s all I know. I don’t know anything beyond that.
The journals contain philosophical and religious reflections. If you would, speak about these.
I suppose I’ve always been eccentric because of my interest in religion rather than being religious. I have great respect for the Jewish faith, but for me the Jewish faith is in the same Bible which the Christians have read and used. As I got older, I became aware that I was not satisfied with a lot of the secular optimism of our period. My parents were immigrants. There was a great deal of idealism. They expected a great many things. I like to think that their children, my sister and myself, made them happy, but there’s no question in my mind that the Second World War had been the end of all hopes for democratic socialism, that naive, old-fashioned ideal had been totally obliterated by Communism, by Marxism.
I was very much impressed by the Holocaust as the kind of evil to which people seemed to be essentially indifferent. Or if they tried to be empathetic, they were too busy improving themselves or trying to be content in their lives to pay much attention to what was ravishing me, not just as a Jew, but as a human being. I’d always known since the time I was a kid that the Jews were always in the wrong no matter what they did. The Holocaust really gave me a sense of original sin. It made me more empathetic to certain postulates in theology (not my own, but which I read) as a corroboration of what I knew of human nature. Since then, the increase in violence in mass society, the growth of technology, the terrible wars made me realize, too, that the more we know about evil the more outrageous the lack of attention to it seems. And nothing could be done about it except hoping for a justice that was not entirely human. This is nothing to a good novelist who takes it for granted that human nature is so complex.
But I’m not a novelist. As I say in my journals, I’m too much interested in history, in ideas. I remain the hopelessly bemused scholar that I’ve always been. At the same time, my journals were an attempt to describe the moral temperature of my country. You remember what Joyce said about The Dubliners: “I want to write the moral history of my country.” And Dublin was the center. On the one hand, I was very happy publishing, very happy teaching, very happy in my personal life after a while, happy with my children, but I was more and more perplexed by the way people behaved. There seemed to be no satisfactory explanation anywhere except in the Bible and in the mystery Melville called “the mystery of iniquity” in Billy Budd. But I don’t expect to solve these things, just confront them in a helpless way. But I stick by my helplessness, and I don’t try to get away from it. I’m not satisfied with anything that’s going on right now.