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Alfred Kazin: The Good Enemy

June 14, 1998|VIVIAN GORNICK | Vivian Gornick is author of several books, including "Fierce Attachments" and "The End of the Novel of Love."

Twenty years ago I wrote a review in the Village Voice taking Hannah Arendt to task for an absence of feminist perspective. The day it appeared on the stands Alfred Kazin called me up. "That's a very interesting review," he said mildly. "Thanks," I smiled over the kitchen phone. "But you've missed an important point," he went on. The smile left my face. "In fact," he said, the voice now sharp, "the only important point". I held the phone away from me and looked at it.

Twice more over the next five or six years I had the same encounter with Kazin. He'd say something to engage my interest, I'd respond, and quickly the atmosphere became one of challenge and debate. I always came away from these meetings in turmoil: It was the kind of exchange that both attracted and repelled me. The style was one I was familiar with; I'd grown up inside it, had developed a contentious personality myself, could perform dismissively as well as anyone. But I no longer wanted to. I'd arrived at a place in life where this sort of conversation pained and wearied me. On the other hand, how could I not want to talk to Alfred Kazin? It seemed to me that I'd been waiting all my life to talk to him. Ah, there lay the rub. By the time we met, "my life" had transmuted into something no longer receptive either to the confrontational style, or to the men like Kazin who practiced it with an arrogance that now shriveled my soul.

Yet, in the end, it was Kazin himself--not someone like Kazin--who rang a final change on the register, reminding me that it isn't over 'til it's over.

Alfred Kazin was a member of a group of novelists and critics--men from the urban Jewish immigrant working class--whose influence on American literature had been great. Their impact on my generation of literary students was inestimable. Delmore Schwartz, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Kazin himself were writers whose work changed the sound of the American language and advanced the cause of criticism as an art. Each of them wrote at least one book of lasting value, and all of them spent their lives producing work that made them worth reading until the last period at the end of the last line.

They were also men who'd emerged from a harsh, peasant-like culture that condoned a brutal directness of speech, insult in argument when called for, point-scoring at all times, scorched earth if necessary. For them, to open your mouth was to enter "the debate" exactly as Lenin (whom they they all reviled) had entered the debate: not to defeat the enemy but to annihilate him. In my experience of these men, once a position was taken there was no retreat, no negotiation, no reversal. For years, I thought of them all as people who had never once reviewed a position. And then Alfred Kazin, suddenly and unexpectedly, made me rethink my position on the matter.

As a student I had loved "A Walker in the City," Kazin's famous memoir of a Brooklyn childhood. The subsequent memoirs (especially the one called "New York Jew"), however, I did not love at all. I found them egocentric and shockingly hateful toward women. Kazin, of course, was not alone among his confreres in demonstrating a misogynist underside to the espoused liberal humanism. The contempt they all felt for the idea of women as intellectual equals was visceral. Norman Mailer, Howe, Bellow--every one of them turned pathologic, hissing and spitting at the feminists; Howe famously dismissed Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics" because, he said, it had no theory, it had no manifesto and therefore it was rubbish).

Many of us were stunned by their response. We'd been so sure they would applaud us as good political daughters who were advancing the larger cause. But it seemed that any revolution not their revolution was a revolution to be stamped out. I felt great anger then and even greater pain. Within myself, I turned away, I continued to read the "New York intellectuals" but no longer as though what they said would illuminate my worldly unease. As the years passed, they and their work became a remoteness to me.

Then, one day I picked up the New York Review of Books and saw that Kazin (this was a couple of novels back) was reviewing Bellow (whom I had stopped reading). I had decided to skip it--you know what he's going to say, I thought--but then didn't, and to my amazement found he wasn't saying what I'd thought he'd say at all.

The piece included an overview of Bellow's work written by a man who had considered this writer central to American literature for decades. Now, of a sudden, he (Kazin) was finding the work insufficient, even false, a mechanical performance devoid of vitality, informed by a wearying sameness of approach. How had Kazin arrived at this heretical conclusion? ? Because, he said, of the unreality of the characters who were women. The naked reductiveness of Bellow's women--the use to which he put them--was the key to the novel's failure: the proof that the human relations at the heart of this book were not to be believed.

Some of the sentences in Kazin's review made me stare. Only a vital movement in thought and feeling could have framed them. Some important shift seemed to have occurred in him. I remember thinking, "Whether he's got it or not, he knows it's out there, and now he also knows that its meaning is undeniable."

I sent him a card then, telling him I admired the review and was grateful for it. He never replied. For a time I wondered why. Then I thought, Why would he? What was there to argue about?

So we never spoke or met again. But I began to read him with reawakened pleasure. What I saw in that review I continued to see--in snippets here and there--in other things that Kazin wrote between that day and the other day when he died on his 83rd birthday, willing, I now believe, until the very end, to rethink the position.

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