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Alfred Kazin (Arnold Newman/Getty Images)

I’ve only read a few essays by the heralded critic Alfred Kazin, but what I have read I found brilliant. A new biography of Alfred Kazin (by Richard M. Cook) was reviewed by Brian Morton in the Sunday New York Times. Some memorable gems are worth highlighting:

A representative essay by a New York intellectual (Philip Rahv, say, or Irving Howe) is a nimble and intricate blending of literary and political analysis. A representative Kazin essay is something else. His essays often start in the same place — he could tease out the delicate ties between art and politics as deftly as anyone — but then he’ll take a sharp turn, striking off for a territory of reverence and rapture, of awestruck contemplation of the sheer mystery of being alive. In an essay on Thoreau’s journals, seeking to capture Thoreau’s uniqueness as an observer of the natural world, he quotes Simone Weil’s remark that “attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” In an essay on Emily Dickinson, after examining the poem that begins with the line “Because I could not stop for Death,” he comments: “To write of death with this wonder, this openness, this overwhelming communication of its strangeness — this is to show respect for the lords of life and death. This respect is what true poetry lives with, not with the armed fist of the perpetual rebel.”

“Attentiveness without an object is prayer in its supreme form.” Simone in one of her moments of genius.

Morton knew Kazin personally and isn’t altogether convinced that Cook “gets” who Kazin was. I love the following passage in that regard:

The biographer attributes the critical indifference that met the 1984 publication of “An American Procession,” Kazin’s account of the literary scene from Emerson to Fitzgerald, to “the risks incurred when a critic relies wholly on his own personal impressions and reflections,” rather than on the work of other critics. The book, Cook continues, “is a very personal work. Kazin keeps other critics out to get more of himself in. He insists on being alone with his writers — one-on-one, writer-to-writer, taking their measure according to his lights, his experiences, his prejudices.”

Coming upon this passage, the reader may be tempted to deface the margin with a comment like “What the hell should he be doing?” Being alone with writers is what any good critic does, what any good reader does. It was precisely through his deeply singular, deeply personal relationships with “his writers” — Melville and Thoreau and Emerson and Dickinson — that Kazin produced such indelible criticism.

In his essay “The Writer and the University,” Kazin himself made this point as well as anyone ever has: “Above all, the writer does not work with anyone; he is not a collaborator, he is not cooperative; and it can be to his very peril as a writer if he sacrifices the excruciating precision of his vision.” It’s hard to understand why a biographer who does not instinctively rejoice at the example of a critic who “insists on being alone with his writers” should have wanted to take Alfred Kazin for his subject. For Kazin, you could say, being alone with his writers was “prayer in its supreme form.” At times, one almost gets the sense Cook is embarrassed by Kazin. If this is so, it’s easy to see why. Kazin was passionately “personal,” passionately excessive; he was a virtuoso of the art of going too far. You can see it even in the titles of some of his books. The volume of excerpts from his journals, for example, is called “A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment.”

Excess. A “virtuoso of the art of going too far.” Now that’s an approach I can relate to.

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