I don’t know much about Alfred Kazin. I don’t even know how to pronounce his name. But I have owned for some time now two books he wrote – A Walker in the City and New York Jew. I’ve read neither.
Recently, though, I came across another of Kazin’s books, An American Procession, published in 1984. I decided to read it completely out of any context – with no real feel for the author at all.
The book is a book of literary criticism, a field about which I know nothing. It is a long book – about 400 pages, but the pages are each filled with words in small print. Perhaps, it’s more like a typical 600 page book. It’s not easy reading, either. The writing does not really flow smoothly, there are a number of references to things I know, and there also seems to be a lot of repetition – I read a sentence which makes a specific point and my reaction is “I knew that……I saw it 100 pages ago”.
But those are nits. The important thing is what the book attempts to do. Kazin speaks to a series of well known American writers, starting with Ralph Waldo Emerson and ending with Ernest Hemingway. The book was interesting to me because he does three things (as I see it) with regard to each writer he discusses: he gives important biographical material, he talks about the people who influenced the writer and those whom the writer influenced, and he relates everything to what was going on in American at the time – historically, sociologically, and intellectually. So, for each other these authors (some of whom I have read, and some of whom I have not, but all of whom I certainly know something about), I now have much more context in which to appreciate them.
Geographically, he starts with New England writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Melville), and then moves down the coast (Poe, Whitman), before moving to the Midwest (Dreiser, Twain) and further west (Hemingway) and south (Faulkner). He talks of the writers who left the United States for Europe (James, Eliot, Pound), of those who died much too young (Stephen Crane) as well as those who died simply too young. He spoke of those who had trouble with friendships, those who were generally bitter, lonely or unhappy people (Hawthorne, Dickinson, Hemingway), those who started out on top of the world, but did not stay there (Twain, Emerson).
Generally, it seems to me that most of these writers reflected their times, but didn’t quite fit in, or didn’t fit in at all. They were bright and engaged, but something was always out of sync, and they hoped to fix themselves, or at least explain themselves as they wrote.
I will probably hang on to the book as a reference, if I read any of these authors from now on. On the other hand, why? After all, we have Wikipedia.