Over the course of sixty years, Alfred Kazin's writings confronted virtually all of our major imaginative writers, from Emerson and Emily Dickinson to James Wright and Joyce Carol Oates -- including such unexpected figures as Lincoln, William James, and Thorstein Veblen. It is fair to say that in his books, essays, and reviews, Kazin succeeded Edmund Wilson as the secretary of American letters, the one who kept closest track of its proceedings, its history, its symbiotic relationship with American society, and its relations with other Western literatures. He did so out of a particularly passionate concern for the significance and well-being of our literary heritage. The America that was mostly a political and cultural position-taking for his fellow New York intellectuals was for Kazin a lifelong possession and a complex fate. His working title for his final book, God and the American Writer, which dealt mostly with nineteenth-century authors, was "Absent Friends."
At the same time this son of immigrant Russian Jews wrote out of the tensions of the outsider and the astute, outspoken leftist -- or, as he typically put it, "the bitter patriotism of loving what one knows." To indicate the development of this charged point of view, Ted Solotaroff has selected material from Kazin's three classic memoirs to accompany his critical writings. These excerpts also provide the pleasure of his sharply etched portraits of the Brownsville, Greenwich Village, Upper West Side, and Cape Cod literary milieus and of such figures as Saul Bellow, Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, and Hannah Arendt.
The selections in Alfred Kazin's America follow the course of his career. They are introduced by the editor's substantial essay, which connects the youth to the man and both to the critic, and draws upon Solotaroff's own relations with him. This close joining of the personal to the critical seeks to pass on and reactivate a great American critic's presence and legacy.
As our sense of the American past continues to dry up and threatens to blow away in the heavy winds of change, those writers who can make our heritage come alive again and challenge us become all the more essential. Alfred Kazin's America provides an ongoing example of the spiritual freedom, individualism, and democratic contentiousness that takes us back to Emerson and forward through our literature to the better part of our own Americanism.