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Alfred Kazin: The Good Enemy

June 14, 1998|JAMES ATLAS | James Atlas is a staff writer for The New Yorker

"I used to want to live to avoid your elegy," Robert Lowell wrote ruefully in a poem to his late friend John Berryman. I thought of this line when I sat down to write about Alfred Kazin, who died June 5 on his 83rd birthday after a protracted battle with cancer. Would Alfred (as I only learned to call him when I'd known him for many years; to me, he was the eminent critic and mentor, I the youthful disciple) have wanted a tribute from me? Over the course of the nearly quarter-century I knew him, we spent as much time not speaking as speaking; misunderstandings, insults, fits of hostility and rage were as characteristic of our relationship--I don't dare call it a friendship, though to me it was one--as were genial exchanges. We fought, snarled, dashed off angry letters. But that's how Kazin was--that's who he was. His passionate, flaring temper helped make him the person I admired, it made him vivid, memorable, intense, someone whose very presence in a room kindled powerful feelings. Maybe he wouldn't have minded a few commemorative words from me after all.

We met when I was in my mid-20s and at work on my first book, a biography of Delmore Schwartz. One of the things that excited me the most about this project was the chance to meet my literary heroes, not least among them Kazin, who had been a significant figure in Delmore's life. "A Walker in the City," Kazin's lyrical memoir of a New York childhood, was one of the most cherished books in my extensive high school library of coming-of-age paperbacks. (I can still conjure up the cover, a portrait of a moody boy gazing longingly at the Brooklyn Bridge, his connection to the great world of Manhattan.) "I'm so glad that you are going to do a biography of Delmore, but I don't envy some of the interviews you are going to have!" he wrote me on a postcard in reply to my request for an interview. I have described elsewhere the awkward encounter that ensued: I found myself reading aloud to him the very pages in my work-in-progress in which Delmore denounced him as "a serious menace to criticism." After a tense dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Village, a few blocks from Kazin's bleak writing warren above an auto driving school on West 8th Street, he saw me off with a summation of where matters stood with us: "I like you, Atlas, but cut the crap."

I failed to obey this pithy advice. A few years later, still working out my authority problems with the old Partisan Review crowd, I referred to Alfred in the New York Times as a "culture apparatchik"--a particularly tone-deaf deployment of political nomenclature. He called me up the next day. "Do you know what an apparatchik is?" he shouted--and proceeded to give me a concise lecture on Stalinism. I was ashamed of myself, but my abject tone only made things worse. "Really, Atlas," he said, "if you're going to use words like that, at least know what they mean."

I must have written him a belated apology, because I have among my papers a letter from him dated around this time; it was the winter of 1979, and he was teaching at Notre Dame:

"Since my favorite character in history is A. Lincoln, who detested vindictiveness, I have to admit that I forgot long ago about your article and have long wanted to clear up certain things. But having also a highly Jewish sense of the absurd, I cannot help laughing at the contrast of my 'apparatchik' self in South Bend, Ind., the land-bound icebound frozen and already numb and numbskull capital of nothing, with New York and especially New York Times Book Review [I was working there as an editor], where the railroad men direct and redirect the switches that make it possible for certain prominent books to come roaring down the rails. Man, that is power! Or is it? But I never wanted to be on any magazine or review!"

He meant it. Part of Alfred's charm--a quality he possessed in considerable degree, despite his curmudgeonly side--was his indifference to the worldly element of power. What consumed him was literature. His idea of power was to write a book that lasted. The rest--literary politics, jockeying for editorial position, getting ahead--was a distraction from the work at hand. The title of his last book but one said it all: "Writing Was Everything."

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