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Kazin: Debate About Topics That Matter

June 14, 1998|Thomas Bender | Thomas Bender, who teaches history at New York University, is the author of "New York Intellect" and "Intellect and Public Life."

NEW YORK — Not many people know that the upper triangle of the urban space known as Times Square is, in fact, Duffy Square. I possess this slightly esoteric knowledge of Manhattan's geography because of Alfred Kazin, the distinguished writer and critic who died June 5. As a graduate student from California, new to the city in 1970, I went there to hear Kazin speak in the open air about the moral condition of our society, about class and racial injustice and in opposition to an immoral war. In the most literal sense, he was being a public intellectual, taking advantage of the city's public space to speak the truth, particularly moral truth, as he saw it.

Kazin's distinguished career invites reflection upon the role of public intellectual. We may live in a knowledge society, but there is a general lament for the passing of the intellectual's voice in public debate.

Kazin was an outstanding literary critic, but that alone did not make him a public intellectual. He used literature for larger purposes, to talk about subjects that mattered to contemporary society. His capacity to speak to more general and deeply felt worries, questions and aspirations, and to do so in a common idiom, made him a public intellectual. Kazin's death raises large questions for many because we share a sense that intellectuals of his type are becoming rarer, and we fear their extinction would be a loss to society as a whole.

The work of Kazin and critics like him was to continually reread, and with each reinterpretation to initiate a new conversation between the present and the past about the future. Without reducing literature to politics, they made it speak to politics: Literature and politics were at once distinguished and brought together to illuminate each other. There is reason to worry that this balanced counterpoint has eroded in recent years. Literature is now in danger of being reduced to politics. The distance that made literature such a fecund foil for moral exploration collapses when, under the sway of identity politics, one seeks a mirror of oneself both in literature and in one's audience, instead of reaching for the other.

The defining moment for the modern literary intellectual occurred a century ago, in 1898, when Emile Zola published "J'accuse," in protest against the anti-Semitic accusers of Alfred Dreyfus. He claimed moral authority for art and intellect, free of obligation to established institutions. When the establishment derided Zola and his fellow writers as "intellectuals," they embraced the epithet and the role. In the United States, the philosopher William James, writing in McClure's magazine, was among the first to recognize and embrace this new way of bringing intellect into public life.

Kazin entered this world in the 1930s, while still a college student, and he was able to earn his living and hone his writing as a book reviewer for several magazines and newspapers. His models were the early 20th-century critics who emerged during James' time: Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley and others. In 1942, after years of reading in the New York Public Library, Kazin published "On Native Grounds," a fresh and vigorous interpretation of American writing since the Civil War.

From that point on, Kazin was a public figure. He later taught at universities, but he was formed in the literary world of the city, a public world bound together by a common fascination with and intense debate over literature as a domain of moral and political insight.

Literature and public life have been linked since the 18th century. The public sphere of that time, however, was still informed by the classical tradition. The founding fathers, for example, worked within the classical intellectual tradition, and their social position was far different from that personified by Kazin. These leaders were not critics of power: They were men of learning in power.

It is no accident that the emergence of the intellectual outside of power, indeed as a critic of power, coincided with the democratization of politics. Intellectuals, committed to the idea of democracy but often uncomfortable with its practice, spoke for the continued worth in public of the singular voice of learning and insight.

Only in the 19th century would the novel, a literary form disdained by the Founders, emerge as the locus for literary exploration of moral and political issues. Fiction and poetry sustained a new intellectual type: the writer as public moralist. The Dreyfus affair did not mark the creation of this type but rather named it. In the 1830s and 1840s, "Young America," a circle of New York writers, including Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, saw literature as a medium for exploring the possibilities of a democratic polity and culture. They did not comment directly on politics but were political and public in a way that presaged Kazin, who would become a great commentator on these writers as he examined the moral and political questions of his own time.

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