Alfred Kazin has been a conspicuous presence on the literary scene for the past four decades, ever since the auspicious debut he made with his first book when still in his 20s. ''On Native Grounds: An Interpretation of Modern American Prose Literature'' (1942) was a grandly ambitious attempt to map out major trends in American fiction, criticism, and literary journalism.
Trenchantly identifying ''the greatest single fact about our modern American writing'' as ''our writers' absorption in every last detail of their American world together with their deep and subtle alienation from it,'' Kazin was moved to ask why each new generation of American writers ''must still cry America! America! as if we had never known America.''
Kazin's attempt at so ambitious an enterprise, coupled with his gift for impassioned prose, established his name. As Robert Alter remarked in a recent essay (1978), ''The single decisive gesture of producing this book made Kazin virtually overnight an authoritative voice in American criticism.''
Would Kazin live up to the promise of his debut, or would none of his subsequent books ever match his early achievement?
''An American Procession'' purports to deal with ''the major American writers from 1830 to 1930 - the crucial century,'' and might well be taken, if not as its author's magnum opus, then at least as an attempt at producing one.
One way to write about the central tradition of American literature, a topic which has not exactly suffered the blight of critical neglect, is for the critic somehow to subsume the perspectives of previous critics in a grand summation that will strike all subsequent readers as definitive. Kazin inclines toward this course, presenting recognizable portraits of such figures as Emerson the Oracle, Dickinson the Solitary Priestess of Death, Whitman the Champion of the Self and Democracy, Twain the Writer as Talker, and Henry Adams as ''Old Man in a Dry Month.''
There is an undeniable flair to his presentation: Large cultural concepts are limned in a few swift strokes, quick allusions summon up a broad range of reading. But Kazin lacks the precision necessary to produce a definitive work of criticism. His sweeping statements range from the inspired to the merely windy. And, in smaller particulars, his admirable fluency often becomes mere glibness.
In his chapter on Pound and Eliot, for example, we read: ''Pound's Fascist writings and broadcasts, his thirteen years in St. Elizabeth's in Washington, all belong to the past; no need to go over it all again, is there?''
Of Henry James, Kazin writes: ''Even poetry soon bored him.'' Having only recently had occasion to read the middle-aged James's paean of praise to Shelley and Keats in his collected letters, I would have welcomed some evidence from Kazin in support of his contention.
Even his choices of which ''major'' writers to include in the ''procession'' seem, at times, unconsidered. Why, for instance, should Dreiser, Twain, and Henry Adams figure prominently in two chapters apiece, when no attention is paid to Willa Cather or Edith Wharton? Poets suffer even greater neglect: No place in this procession for Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, or Robert Frost. Instead, the too-familiar figures of what was once called ''modernism'' are trotted forth yet once more - Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner - to receive the usual praise. The ''procession'' indeed is rather like a holiday parade: a spectacle more likely to rouse the emotions than to stimulate the mind.