The last thing Alfred Kazin wants to be accused of is 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.
"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 desquisitions 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 News 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 an 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 reputaton 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 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. . . 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."
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."
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.
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."