A life of pique and excitement

biography | Alfred Kazin, by Richard M. Cook, Yale University Press, $35, 452 pages.

'I like this guy because he is excited," Jack Kerouac wrote in his diary after an encounter with Alfred Kazin on the streets of New York in the late 1940s. "He stumbles about, chatting away, almost getting run over by trucks, eager, stuttering, proud, a little piqued at this world, which makes him cast furtive looks out of the corner of his eye."

Kazin, still in his 20s, was already a rising literary star with the publication of "On Native Grounds," his pioneering study of the American realist novel.

Hungry, ambitious and eager for fame, he was more than a little piqued at the world. He would continue to cast the furtive looks of an outsider for the rest of his life, as Richard M. Cook amply documents in "Alfred Kazin," his even-tempered, judicious biography of this notoriously prickly critic.

Introverted and combative, Kazin, who died in 1998 at 83, presents a wealth of contradictions. He was a gregarious loner, attracted to the upper reaches of Manhattan's literary society. As an upstart from a poor Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, he was contemptuous of that society as well.

"There is a gift there, a long-bred talent for sociability, that I certainly lack," he wrote in his journals after watching William Styron's wife greet guests at a party in 1986. "And it makes me bitter, bitter."

A proud Jew and a champion of writers such as Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, he opposed the Zionist program in the 1940s. Toward the end of his life, he wrote that Judaism's sole contribution to human thought is "a summons to prayer, ritual and obedience."

Although a committed socialist, he refused the cultural role of "an armed intellectual," as he put it, and shrank from most of the ideological battles that consumed his contemporaries.

Cook, who teaches American literature at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, examines these and other paradoxes with a discerning eye. He is conscientious and thoroughgoing. But as a biographer, he faces some daunting obstacles, not all of them surmountable.

In the first place, Kazin skimmed the cream. His autobiographical trilogy, "A Walker in the City," "Starting Out in the '30s" and "New York Jew," constitutes a memorable, impassioned chronicle of his own life and times.

Cook relies heavily on these works, but he also deftly introduces hundreds of passages from Kazin's unpublished journals to round out the picture, identify pseudonymous figures and correct the record, which Kazin, by his own admission, shaped for artistic purposes.

Cook can do little about the life itself, however. Once Kazin scored a triumph with "On Native Grounds," he embarked on a decades-long odyssey of book reviews, grants, temporary teaching appointments, academic conferences and, in later years, accolades.

Cook scrupulously records it all, leaving the reader to contend with many sentences of this sort: "In the fall, he arranged with Houghton Mifflin to write an introduction to the Riverside edition of 'Moby-Dick.' "

In Cook's hands Kazin emerges as an arresting hybrid, a somewhat old-fashioned man of letters, with the fervent heart of a first-generation proletarian Jew enraptured and infuriated by America.

The 1930s, a decade of radical politics and economic misery, made him and held him to the last. By temperament and social circumstances, Kazin gravitated to the great realists who set out to take the measure of industrial America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. To a great extent, Cook argues, literary time, for Kazin, stopped with the rise of fascism, the collapse of the socialist dream and the onset of World War II.

Throughout the 1950s Kazin felt himself adrift, a self-described Emersonian aflame with "humanistic moral passion," confronting the inward-looking, alienated fiction of the Cold War and the Beat Generation. He disliked experimental writing. He hated the theory-driven bent of literary studies in the academy. His best writing would be inspired by his own life and by the classic American writers who had captured his imagination in his youth.

Cook bends over so far to be fair that you can almost feel the sinews straining. Kazin was not, by most accounts, a pleasant person. He could be self-absorbed, rude, condescending and humorless.

"I do take myself seriously as a writer and do feel important to myself and other people," he once said in an interview. Emotionally demanding, a serial philanderer, he made life more than difficult for his first three wives. On this score, Cook really does take his subject to task. Bravo.

Kazin shrank from political battle. Cook, you feel, disapproves. He becomes enthusiastic when Kazin, uncharacteristically, enters the lists against the neoconservatives associated with Commentary and The New Criterion during the Reagan years and shows himself a fighting liberal.

More than 20 years later, however, these faceoffs seem less like the Lincoln-Douglas debates than like the petty squabbling of a small population of New York intellectuals.

As a literary critic, Kazin remained true to himself and his moment. This was his strength and his weakness. Everything, for him, was personal.

A critic who could lash out at bedroom wallpaper for being sickening "with its irrelevance," he engaged writers with an almost audacious presumption, feeling the contours of their psyches and clutching them in an intimate, passionate embrace.

The guy was excited.