Alfred Kaz­in’s Journals

Richard M. Cook, ed.
  • Review
By – November 18, 2011
Select­ed from jour­nals that total more than 7000 pages by Kazin’s biog­ra­ph­er and obvi­ous admir­er Richard Cook, chair of the Eng­lish Depart­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri-St. Louis, the entries begin in 1933 when Kazin was a sopho­more in col­lege and con­clude with entries from March 1988, a few months before his death. Kazin was admit­ted­ly com­pul­sive about writ­ing in his jour­nal and writ­ing in gen­er­al. A pro­lif­ic author, he drew on ideas record­ed in his jour­nals, most direct­ly in his final pub­li­ca­tion, A Life­time Burn­ing in Every Moment (1996). He was a well-known and influ­en­tial pub­lic crit­ic from the 1940’s to the end of his life, teach­ing, review­ing, and writ­ing com­men­taries on lit­er­a­ture, lit­er­ary fig­ures, pol­i­tics, and soci­ety. His jour­nals are the imme­di­ate expres­sions of what inter­est­ed him. Entries on Jews, anti-Semi­tism, the Holo­caust, Israel, and social issues doc­u­ment his life-long iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a New York Jew” as well as his life-long ambiva­lence on the sub­ject. For those inter­est­ed in Han­nah Arendt, Elie Wiesel, Philip Roth, Bernard Mala­mud, and Saul Bel­low, among oth­ers, Kazin’s uncen­sored entries will pro­vide a per­son­al per­spec­tive not often found else­where. As for Israel and Jew­ish issues, his per­spec­tive is often that of a left­ist out­sider. The select­ed entries on his per­son­al life reveal Kazin’s inse­cu­ri­ties from child­hood in a poor Jew­ish house­hold, his sex­u­al appetites – four mar­riages and many extra-mar­i­tal affairs — and his harsh, often mean-spir­it­ed opin­ions about lit­er­ary peers such as Irv­ing Howe and Lionel Trilling. 

The index includes more than 900 indi­vid­u­als about whom Kazin wrote: authors – both past and con­tem­po­rary — polit­i­cal fig­ures, aca­d­e­mics, edi­tors, and pub­lish­ers, among oth­ers. Pro­fes­sor Cook’s edit­ing is impres­sive. Brief, lucid essays intro­duce sec­tions that define peri­ods in Kazin’s life. Cook has foot­not­ed every indi­vid­ual Kazin almen­tioned — invalu­able, since many of the peo­ple, once well-known in the intel­lec­tu­al milieu of much of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, have passed into rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty. Cook, raised in Maine and the son of two Bap­tist min­is­ters, writ­ing about the New York Jew,” has done an admirable job. 

This book will con­tin­ue to fan the fires of con­tro­ver­sy about Alfred Kazin’s place in the intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry the last cen­tu­ry but at the same time it is filled with expres­sion of direct expe­ri­ence of life by a keen observ­er of much of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, per­son­al hang-ups notwith­stand­ing.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions