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Alfred Kazin’s Last Steps

In his last weeks of life, Alfred Kazin was still reading with passion, discussing books with friends who’d visit in the hospital, thinking about the book he still wanted to write. The author of “A Walker in the City,” a keen observer of New York, could no longer walk, but his mind was ever curious. His silence will be deeply felt.

The author of 13 non-fiction books and editor of 10 literary collections, Kazin died of cancer on June 5, his 83rd birthday, in his Upper West Side apartment. Born to Russian immigrant parents-his father was a house painter and his mother a dressmaker–in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the distinguished literary critic had a career spanning more than 60 years.

Kazin’s prose was direct and penetrating, a delight to read and, as many colleagues and friends have commented, awesome in its breadth. His prime subjects were literature and his own life. He kept a daily journal and continued to publish frequent reviews and essays; his poem, “River Mornings” appeared in The New Republic last month.

In 1934, while a student at City College, Kazin began writing for The New York Times Book Review. His first book, “On Native Grounds,” about American literature, was published in 1942 and remains in print. Other books include works of criticism like “An American Procession” and memoirs “Starting Out in the 30’s” and “New York Jew.” His latest book, “God and the American Writer” was published last year. While writing, he taught at many universities here and abroad. Since 1973, he has been a distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

“He was a unique figure among New York Jewish intellectuals,” Morris Dickstein, a critic and colleague at the Graduate Center, comments. “Early on, he was strongly interested in American culture when others were more interested in Europe, and he was interested in his Jewish background when other intellectuals looked toward the mainstream.”

Kazin’s daughter Cathrael, a lawyer and former professor of English who moved to Jerusalem two years ago, describes him as “the last of this great line of men of letters. There is no one with his hugeness of vision.”

What made his criticism special, according to Dickstein, was his “human interest in literature rather than a technical interest or purely linguistic interest.” He characterizes Kazin’s style as having a “tremendous eruptive vitality” with “strong continuities” between his autobiographical and critical writing.

Michael Kazin, the writer’s son who is an author and professor of history at American University, notes that his father’s “great gift was to write about novelists with the lyricism of a novelist.” He adds: “He never stopped loving the writers he began loving. He added more.”

Dickstein says that Kazin’s novelistic curiosity extended to his interest in people, and he loved to tell stories about those he met. “He probably learned more about the lives of the doctors and nurses in the hospital than most people would dream of.” When he recently visited Kazin in the hospital, he found him reading “Fortunate Son” by Lewis Puller, about a marine badly wounded in Vietnam. Kazin the patient was determined to get his facts straight on the background of the Vietnam War. But his real fascination was with the war’s human dimensions.

Perhaps the last book Kazin read was an advance galley of Ted Solotaroff’s upcoming autobiography, “Truth Comes in Blows.” Solotaroff, an author, critic and former literary editor a generation younger than Kazin, says that last week Kazin dictated some kind words to his wife as a blurb for the book. For Solotaroff, Kazin’s “experience of reading his way through the classics of American literature was the guide that I and many others followed.”

A former student comments that Kazin taught the way he read, presenting a story and weaving interesting connections and interpretations. His friends and family say that Kazin, a grandfather and step-grandfather who married 4 times, thrived on great conversation, good food and walking. A writer who frequently met him at book parties describes his walk as a kind of shuffle, as though he were wearing slippers. Sometimes, he’d steal away from the crowd, leave the room unnoticed, perhaps looking for stories.

Eva Fogelman, a psychologist and author who is Kazin’s cousin, recalls visiting the Kazins as a child on Sunday mornings, when he’d already be at his typewriter, in an apartment filled floor to ceiling with books. “He became a role model for me in terms of thinking of books and writing as something very important.”

For someone so up front about being Jewish–who titled a memoir “New York Jew”- -Kazin seemed to have a complicated relationship to Judaism.

“It’s hard to imagine someone as obsessed by Judaism and so little comforted by it,” his daughter says. She notes that he frequently read the Bible and Psalms, and that his prayer book was full of underlining, although he never attended synagogue. “He was not indifferent to Judaism. It was like an unhappy marriage.”

About her moving to Israel, he was “really broken-hearted,” she says, although she is pleased that during his last week she was able to talk to him about why she loves living there. He was reassured, she says, and realized it “didn’t mean I had become ultra-Orthodox or right wing.”

Kazin’s sister Pearl Bell, also a writer and literary critic, says that he was never close to Judaism as a religion, but long interested in Jewish culture. He was “cool toward the religious establishment,” as Michael Kazin points out. His father “had a deep spiritual longing and wrote about it. Everything he wrote, everything he was, came out of being Jewish.” As he says in “New York Jew,” “the Jews are my unconscious.”

If Kazin had been able to finish the book he was working on, his Jewish identity might have been illuminated. The book was to have been titled “Jews;” it was to be a personal vision of Jewish history and culture. His son, along with Kazin’s wife, writer Judith Dunford, will review the manuscript to see if it can be published. At his bedside last week, his daughter read excerpts of it to him. She recalls his retelling of a wonderful conversation he had with a taxi driver related to a famous Chasidic family.

As he requested, Kazin had a small funeral service and his body was cremated. It wasn’t a Jewish service, his son says, although he said Kaddish.

In “New York Jew,” Kazin writes about “shakenly” saying Kaddish at his own father’s grave. “My proudest memory of my father is that when I was a boy and stood with him on Sunday mornings as he waited in the crowd of house painters on Pitkin Avenue to be tapped for a new job, he would shyly but with unmistakable delight introduce me as his Kaddish.” (A memorial service will be held in the fall.)

In January, Kazin spoke at Symphony Space in New York City at an evening devoted to Bernard Malamud’s work. It was Kazin who introduced Malamud to his long-time editor, Robert Giroux. Using a walker, Kazin entered, crossing the stage and then sat down and spoke quickly, to get as much as possible into his allotted few minutes. He praised Malamud’s great ability to capture the speech of poor Jews-” people like my mother and father, people of great soul,” citing favorite examples.

Kazin’s exit from the stage was striking then and, perhaps, more so now. Quoting from “Take Pity,” he pronounced the character Rosen’s description of the cause of another’s death as “broke in him something.” Kazin read, “Rosen, say goodbye, this guy is finished.” And then the eminent critic added, “And so am I.”

Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away. From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness. It is over 10 years since I left to live in “the city”-everything just out of Brownsville was always “the city.” Actually I did not go very far; it was enough that I could leave Brownsville, yet as I walk those familiarly choked streets at dusk and see the old women sitting in front of the tenements, past and present become each other’s faces; I am back where I began. –“A Walker in the City” (1951)

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