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Alfred Kazin: Too bad about the sentence

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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. . . It is to these lone protestants of their time, who did not always know that they were writing 'realism,' to Jeffersonian hearts plagued by a strangely cold and despotic America, to writers some of whom lacked every capacity for literature save a compelling passion to tell the truth, that the emancipated and metropolitan literature of contemporary America owes its very inception. It was these early realists, with their baffled careers and their significant interest in 'local color,' cultivating their own gardens, who encouraged in American that elementary nationalism, that sense of belonging to a particular time and a native way of life, which is the indispensable condition of spiritual maturity an a healthy literature."

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The current fragmentation of our national culture, he feels, makes it impossible for any author or group of authors to embody the public spirit of America.

"You can only compare the place Dostoevsky had with the place Emerson had in America, that Victor Hugo had in France, that Goethe had in Germany.

"I suppose the last American writer who played a great role in that sense was Robert Frost, because Frost had a way of symbolizing classical American values to people. It was no accident that Frost was honored by Congress, the only writer who has been. He was admired by many politicians, and of course by (President John F.) Kennedy, as well as by many poets.

"I can't imagine today that very gifted writers Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates would have the same role. But that's because, first of all, the country itself is so divided, right now, so full of factionalism."

Periodically during the interview he seems to repent of such gloomy assessments. "This is a brilliant age of fiction," he stabs out at such moments. "There are some wonderfully gifted writers working today. I'm a great admirer of Norman Mailer, in spite of everything. V.S. Naipaul is currently my favorite novelist."

But then he starts ruminationg about the age we live in, which he calls "the greatest age of technology the world has ever known," in which Marx's prediction that technology would usurp culture is finally coming true, and soon he is back trying to figure out where we went wrong.

"In the 19th century," he points out, "many famous novelists Dostoevsky in Russia, Dickens in England, Henry James in America used to serialize their novels. The magazine in the 19th century was not like a New York Magazine, something which panders to middle-class taste, you know, sort of a branch of the advertising industry. It was a literary magazine.

"When I began writing, Scribner's Magazine and The Atlantic Monthly used to serialize fiction. They don't do that anymore. . . There are very few magazines left that publish fiction. All these things are an indication of what has happened to fiction.

"There is an incredible amount of illiteracy today," he says ruefully, adding that the library that nurtured him seven days and nights a week during the writing of "On Native Grounds" is closing its doors every Thursday and Sunday in a struggle to remain solvent.

He also speaks longingly of the 19th century as a time when "people still talked and wrote in sentences."