Our book today is Alfred Kazin’s chatty, superbly eloquent and altogether magnificent 1978 memoir New York Jew, which is, to my amazement, still in print at something like a reasonable price. This assuages my usual default of anger when it comes to incredible volumes like this, which are so often completely forgotten by the very reading public who need them most (we won’t talk about the fact that there are no Penguin paperbacks of Kazin’s work, nor any attention from the Library of America or such houses …).
Every time I re-read New York Jew, I’m freshly amazed at how vigorous it is, how encyclopedic. The Second World War is here, as is the Holocaust and the psychic shockwaves it sent through the whole world, including the humanist intelligentsia of which Kazin was already a paid-up member:
Late one Friday afternoon near the end of the war, I was waiting out in the rain in the entrance to a music store. A radio was playing into the street and, standing there, I heard the first Sabbath service from Belsen. In April a British detachment had stumbled on Belsen by accident, had come upon forty thousand sick, starving, and dying prisoners. Over ten thousand corpses were stacked in piles. Belsen was the first Nazi camp to be exposed to the world, and the London Times correspondent began his dispatch: “It is now my duty to describe something beyond the imagination of mankind.” Now I heard the liberated Jewish prisoners in Belsen say the Shema – “Here O Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One.” Weeping in the rain, I said it with them. For a moment I was home.
That home is also a recurrent theme in this book. As you could guess from the title, Kazin here grapples in wonderfully contradictory and human ways with what his own Jewishness and what it means to be Jewish in the hurtling, flinty America of the postwar generation. The well-worn words of the psalm can prompt a gorgeous aria that is complicated and yearning and irritated all at once:
If I forget thee! We never forgot anything; our holy book, our book of laws and commandments, was a history book, a recital that went back so far and was repeated so fondly that the history of this people seemed magical, unreal, improbable to everyone but themselves. How could one possibly justify the return to Eretz Israel by secular, rational, “normal” reasoning? How could one explain the inordinate zeal of the Socialist Prime Minister Ben-Gurion who said of the “ingathering” of so many “exiles,” “We are living in the days of the Messiah?” There was no justification for any of this except the divine wisdom to the Jews of their mad perpetuation. There was a sacredness that the Jews had made part of their existence, but often understood as little as others understood them. The God who first disclosed himself as fire was, as usual, an impassable barrier. He could not be encompassed in words. We were, above all, creatures of culture, idolaters of words. Words were our culture; culture had to do everything. God did not seem much connected with “culture.” Certainly nothing had so betrayed us as culture, humanism, the fine professions of European civilization.
And his own creative struggles are here as well, captured with clarity and appealing fictionalization. This is more than anything else a writer’s book, especially a New York writer’s book. The city bright avenues and endless weathers exercise Kazin at all times – he calls it warfare, but on every page it reads like love:
Those sleepless hours in the morning dark were difficult and beautiful. The harbor was all around me as I lay in bed listening to tugs hooting a block away. By dawn I would get up to find my painter’s skylight and great north windows awash with sea light. I had coffee with Bach as I struggled my way to the typewriter. I had started a loose unwieldy book about New York-at-large, based on my hypnotized walking of the city. Walking was my way of thinking, of escape into myself, of dreaming the details back. The book was all externals, buildings, loneliness, my daily battle with New York.
(The “loose unwieldy book” would of course end up being A Walker in the City, as odd and lyrical a masterpiece as American letters has ever produced)
But the main attraction of New York Jew – at least in this latest re-reading of mine (check with me in three or four years, and I’ll likely have an entirely different main attraction to crow about) – is the gallery of portraits that unfolds as the book goes on. Kazin excelled in describing people, and he lavishes his best gifts toward that aim in this book. Here he talks about Edmund Wilson’s red, fox-hunting squire’s face, and the nervous, not-quite-sincere self-deprecation of John F. Kennedy, and the febrile animation of Randall Jarrell, and the fact that Mary McCarthy got prettier when she talked about books. He half-jokingly laments the mandarin ways of some of his older colleagues in the glory days of The New Republic:
They had a conscious air; they were the voice of tradition. They came out of their studies with an air ironic, faintly burdened, as if determined to meet the world only halfway.
And he fondly remembers another colleague who came alive for audiences big and small:
He looked, he looked – how much he looked! He seemed as finished, as rounded-out as a character in a novel. I knew him as a performer in conversation, where he played many parts and imitated many other performers. He seemed to keep himself afloat by the comic fixity of his eye even as he grew more and more seductive.
Too often memoirs are mere datebook-jottings coagulated into a mass of unfeeling, unmoving verbiage (if any of you have ever contemplated reading David Rockefeller’s Memoirs, for instance, don’t bother: just stare at a cinder-block for two hours, and you’ll get the gist of it just fine), but oh! How glorious they can be when they seize their own dual nature – the weave of history through the wanderings of memory – for all it’s worth! A once-lionized American statesman once said that the best possible memoir was the one where the writer pens ‘that’s all I can remember’ and then immediately dies. I’m not sure Kazin would have disagreed, although I’m grateful he didn’t have the guts to try it out – after all, I look forward to talking about his other books here at Stevereads some day!