God and the American Writer
By Alfred Kazin
Alfred A. Knopf
272 pp., $25
The early church fathers brought with them to New England a hatred of fiction as deep as their unified faith in God. Ironically, over the past 400 years the model theocracy they hoped to create evolved into a capital of religious pluralism and entertainment hegemony.
According to "God and the American Writer," Alfred Kazin's latest epistle on the canon, this remarkable religious history has posed special challenges for American authors trying to articulate their isolated visions to such a diverse audience.
In a dozen essays that mix biography, historical analysis, literary criticism, and even personal experiences with some of the authors, Kazin discusses "the unavailing solitude" in which American writers from Hawthorne to Faulkner have struggled to communicate.
The theological promise of his title is more subtle in the book itself. Indeed, several of the authors he presents had no clear religious interests. Kazin admits that he is "interested not in the artist's professions of belief but in the imagination he brings to his tale of religion in human affairs."
In the irresistible egotism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, Kazin sees writers from a culture "drenched in religion" choosing instead to posit their fervid individualism as their own special creed. He explains, "The American writer was so self-sufficient that if his art was entirely his own, so (if he had one) was his religion."
Kazin explains his own definition of religion "as the most intimate expression of the human heart," he writes, "as the most secret of personal confessions, where we admit to ourselves alone our fears and our losses, our sense of holy dread and our awe...."
As the greatest moral crisis in American history, slavery serves as the book's spine. The question of this "peculiar institution" tried the spiritual stamina of every 19th-century writer, no matter how geographically removed from the slave quarters or the tragic war to demolish them. Even cloistered away in her bedroom, Emily Dickinson had to contend with the bodies of young men returned to Amherst.
Kazin's analysis shines brightest on the private visions that Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln cast over a nation reluctant to care about "the invisible plight" of black Americans. While Stowe flamed the embers of Christian righteousness with her portrayal of long-suffering Uncle Tom, Lincoln struggled to retain the Union with the power of his cool reason and "a sense of divinity wrested from the many contradictions in human effort."
Since he established himself as a major critic of American literature 55 years ago with "On Native Ground," Kazin has been writing the kind of literary criticism everyone wants to read but so few seem willing to write. There are, of course, critics more dazzling and provocative, but Kazin casts judgments like a principled friend, noting T.S. Eliot's repulsive anti-Semitism, for instance, but detailing his admiration for the "Four Quartets."
In a voice that's engagingly conversational but with a command of the texts that's encyclopedic, his affectionate frustration with Robert Frost's anxiety seems as intimate as his disappointment with Hawthorne for remaining outside the abolition movement. Here, for the new student or the experienced scholar, is an account that captures the true complexity of American authors' attempts to describe their sometimes beautiful, sometimes desperate visions of the essential issues.
* Ron Charles teaches English at The John Burroughs School in St. Louis.