Alfred Kazin: Too bad about the sentence
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There's no question that Mr. Kazin himself talks and writes in sentences: great, sweeping sentences filled with words stored up in almost 40 years of literary analysis and criticism.Skip to next paragraph
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From the time a visiting reporter turns on his tape recorder, Mr. Kazin's sentences flow into one another in a rushing profusion, as though he were anxious to get everything said in an extremely short time. There's no need and indeed little room to ask many questions, as one word and one idea rush precipitously into another.$"My life was made possible by my sense of language," he says simply. His sense of language begets words that are thick and powerful, words that are hard and lasting as bright coins in his pocket, as spendable and secure.
His expressive face and endlessly mobile mouth seem terribly concentrated, screwed into the effort to get the thing said and said right. His fingers, stained with ink, travel nervously up and down his sleeve.
He apparently writes as obsessively as he speaks. He admits to being "one of those incessant writers who have to write."
What he writes, like what he says, is great gobs of words, rambling, full of visual power, frequently chaotic. His books are crowded with word pictures of literary geniuses like T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound.
These days, he seeems to be vainly searching for modern literary figures of like public stature to fill new books.
"There are a great many talented writers working now. After all, we've had writers recently like Nabokov. We have writers now like Beckett, Bellow, Solzhenitsyn. Terrific writers. But this is an obvious point, in an age where people spend a great many evenings looking at television, and in which the visual whether in movies or in advertising fascinates them, they don't get the same thing out of reading.
"The people who applauded Dostoevsky had no other way to find out what was happening in the world except to read a book. Today, they turn to Barbara Walters.
"Television is a dominant factor in our lives. Mike Wallace and people like him are remarkably important. Pick up any magazine today. New York Magazine, Esquire. What are they about? A lot of them are concerned with the media. People like Nora Ephron visit the Republican convention and write about the other media people there."
These media personalities, he complains, hold the place in the public imagination once reeserved for literary giants, "national symbols for the people."
When you ask him for an answer to the problems of modern literature, he shrugs and says he doesn't have any solutions.
But strangely, the answer may obliquely appear on the frontispiece of Mr. Kazin's first book, "On Native Grounds," a fragment from Emerson's journals that seems almost identically concerned with a fading literary quality of the age, but ends on a much more hopeful note:
"Sometimes the life seems to be dying out of all literature," Emerson wrote, "and this enormous paper currency of Words is accepted instead. I suppose the evil may be cured by thee rank-rabble party, the Jacksonism of the county, heedless of English and of all literature a stone cut out of the ground without hands; they may root out the hollow dilettantism of our cultivation in the coarsest way, and the newborn may begin again to frame their own world with greater advantage."