Alfred Kazin: Too bad about the sentence
The last thing Alfred Kazin wants to be accused of its spreading greatly exaggerated rumors about the death of American writing. "Look," he says a little defensively, "I don't want to be put in the position of saying modern literature is dead.Skip to next paragraph
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"I don't think that writers today are less talented than they ever were. It's just that literature itself means less than it ever did."
But after reading his recent disquisitions on the subject, and spending an hour or two talking to him in his cramped, airless office across the street from the New York Public Library, you get the unmistakable impression that American literature is indeed in bad trouble.
"Our literary culture is in the same disarray as our politics, or rather our lack of politics," he wrote recently in The New Republic.
"Whatever the stamp is that made 'Gatsby' last for all its plotfulness, 'An American Tragedy' for all its barbaric epithets, 'The Sound and the Fury' for all its obsessive family matter, Frost for all his sententiousness, Stevens for all his contemplative coldness, I am quite sure that most of our leading novelists and poets just now do not have it."
A modest, unassuming figure, wearing an old tweedy suit, jogging sneakers, and several days' growth of beard, Mr. Kazin makes un unlikely doomsayer for the world of books.
He is surrounded by stacks of novels, nonfiction works, biographies, and literary studies. He is hard at work on at least three books himself, including a study of 19th-century literature from Emerson to Eliot, entitled "An American Procession," which he refers to as "the big thing in my life." He is also working on a book review -- one in an unending stream -- for the New York Times of a biography of John O'Hara, and he has just completed a review of a biography of Alice James, Henry James's sister, for The New Republic.
His own literary output was launched when his book "On Native Grounds," a study of American writing between the 1880s and the 1930s, burst like a supernova onto the literary scene in the 1940s. A first work, it earned him an instant reputation as a voice to be reckoned with in American letters.
Since his first book appeared, Mr. Kazin has written an autobiographical trilogy ("A Walker in the City," "Starting Out in the '30s," and "New York Jew") , and a study of American literature since World War II, "Bright Book of Life," none of which wound up being quite the acclaimed success that his first opus was.
As a critic and literary historian, however, he has written countless words about other writers and gained recognition as a writer capable of insight, illuminated thinking, and deft assessment of other writers' literary stature.
He probably reads -- and writes about -- as many books as any man alive.
What he reads, and sees in the society around him, makes him "very disillusioned about the age" in which he finds himself living.
"What impresses me politically about America right now," he says by way of explanation, "is the immense number, almost the infinite number, of pressure groups of all kinds. . .. I think they are helping to split up in many ways the national culture."
This fragmentation contrasts strikingly with his description of the unified literary spirit among the early realists: "It is to these primitive realists . . .," he wrote in "On Native Grounds," "that contemporary literature in America owes the paramount interests that have dominated it for 50 years.