Selections from the distinguished late critic’s books and articles highlight his sense of kinship with American writers from Hawthorne to Didion.
Writing as a literary scholar for the general public, Kazin (1915–98) coupled his criticism with three volumes of memoirs to proclaim the personal sustenance a son of immigrants found in American literature, and to assert that it belonged to everyone. Excerpts from A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1962), and the bluntly titled New York Jew (1978) paint vivid, bracingly unsentimental portraits of Brooklyn in the 1930s; of such peers in “the literary life” as Mary McCarthy, Philip Rahv, and Saul Bellow; of elder statesmen like Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson (the latter one of Kazin’s best character/cultural sketches). Pieces drawn from On Native Grounds (1942) remind us of Kazin’s pioneering work in tracing the flowering of realism in American literature from William Dean Howells in the 1890s through Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson to Lost Generation icons Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Only Edith Wharton seems to evade his complete understanding, but he does better with contemporary female authors like Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates in a section also notable for sharp essays on Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy; Cheever, Salinger, and Updike; Bellow, Malamud, and Roth. WASPS, Jews, or southerners, they were all Americans first and foremost to Kazin: few critics have more penetratingly limned the “belief in the ideal freedom and power of the self, in the political and social visions of radical democracy” that informs our national literature. “Departed Friends” examines those same overriding themes in the 19th-century titans, including Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, and Twain. Editor Solotaroff’s introduction sets Kazin’s life in historical context, an important service for a critic who always insisted on the intimate, intricate links between literature and society.
Despite the inevitable omissions—his warmly democratic tribute to the New York Public Library being the most egregious—an enthralling introduction to the work of a man who “lived to read” and conveyed that passion to his own readers for half a century.