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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 27, 1995|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

WRITING WAS EVERYTHING by Alfred Kazin. (Harvard: $17.95; 152 pp.) This fabulous genre, memoir and criticism, this Monday morning quarterbacking on history and culture and literature, surely must be the Tiffany watch we allow our lifelong literary critics. The name-dropping, the constellations reconfigured, the slights on which a career is made or broken, could anything be more delicious? The sure-footedness of these great creatures who once roamed the Earth--Hart Crane, Delmore Schwartz, Edmund Wilson, Simone Weil, Robert Lowell--cutting through those obscene decades (the '30s, '40s and '50s), never doubting for a moment their commitment to their own genius, even if history failed them, even without bus fare home.

And the magazines! The glory of the New Republic, with book editors Edmund Wilson (who once confided to Kazin in his arrogance that he "often rewrote in his sleep the book he had just been reading"), then Malcolm Cowley, "handsome and coolly macho as Clark Gable" as he handed out the few available review assignments to Kazin and other young luminaries like John Cheever sitting on the "hunger bench" outside his office. "I have never recovered from the '30s or wanted to," Kazin writes. "The rage against capitalism was everywhere. . . ."

Kazin distills, with grace and sophistication, the nuggets he has carried with him from the great works; from Proust, from Richard Wight, from Simone Weil: "We cannot go toward God," she said, "we can only wait, with an attentiveness that has no particular object to gain. . . . From the moment I came across this, I knew I had been given a wonderful gift."

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