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Revisiting Native Grounds

ISSUE:  Winter 1985
An American Procession: The Major American Writers from 1830 to 1930—The Crucial Century. By Alfred Kazin. Knopf. $18.95.

In his preface to that extraordinary analysis of modern American prose literature, On Native Grounds (1942), published when he was 27, Alfred Kazin referred with some asperity to the “twin fanaticisms that have sought to dominate criticism in America since 1930—the purely sociological and purely textual-“esthetic” approach.” On Native Grounds contains an incisive, fair-minded account of this criticism, and Kazin’s remarks clearly delineate his own position:

I have traced some of the underlying causes for the aridity, the snobbery, the sheer human insensitiveness that have weighed down so much of the most serious criticism of our day. It may be sufficient to say here that I have never been able to understand why the study of literature in relation to society should be divorced from a full devotion to what literature is in itself, or why those who seek to analyze literary texts should cut off the act of writing from its irreducible sources in the life of men.

Like the best critics of the past, Kazin has remained free of critical “schools of thought.” The hydra-headed phenomenon of contemporary academic criticism, the burgeoning of structuralism, hermeneutics, deconstruction, and all the rest—a prevision of which, in 1942, would have shocked even Alfred Kazin—have not tainted his autonomy and stylistic clarity; his sustained critical identity through the decades, in fact, is an achievement in itself. His new book, An American Procession; The Major American Writers from 1830 to 1930The Crucial Century, shows him extending and refining themes in his previous work but also represents a notable advance in power, focus, and compressed inclusiveness. These virtues are demanded by the scope of Kazin’s endeavor, for the complexity of “the crucial century,” he writes, demands that “we must decipher what history has made of us,” try to comprehend “the reversal of the “century of hope” with which American literature had begun in an age of faith, at the hands of Ralph Waldo Emerson.”

Although Kazin proceeds chronologically, giving discrete chapters to individual authors, his book has a frequently repeated theme; while providing an overview of his American procession, he stresses the Adamic aloneness of each writer, “the peculiar isolation on which so much American literature rests.” This isolation seems all the more poignant as Kazin shows such writers as the expatriate Henry James, the disavowed Herman Melville, and the recluse Emily Dickinson developing strong, conflicted, idiosyncratic voices that fully express the American spirit in its most turbulent decades of change and consolidation. By contrast, such public figures as Emerson, Twain, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald agonized in the “deep and subtle alienation” that has been the fate of American writers. From the beginning, Kazin writes, our novelists and poets conduct “a communing of the self with the self in a world where the individual in his solitude is more real to himself than anything else is,” And again: “It is an odd fact—to those who do not know America from within—that this wholly modern society should have produced as its rarest, profoundest artists writers who were most concerned with the inner life, with the many strange theaters for mental consciousness alone.” It is a procession only in retrospect, then; our major writers work inside a painful but rich solitude, developing bold, original voices and maintaining highly oblique relationships to American society, politics, and history.

According to Kazin, Emerson pointed the way because “The open road, so easy for an American to call his own, was more akin to his sympathies than the historical world of sin and error.” His very ecstasy of faith, with all its “dreams and audacities,” sealed him inside an “island solitude.” The same is true of Thoreau’s “ecstatic individualism,” the “long unconscious loneliness” that each sentence of Walden helped to allay by connecting, in its aesthetic purity, with the writer’s perception of the local world. In succeeding chapters, Kazin goes on to discuss Hawthorne’s “unimaginable solitude in society,” Melville’s self-conceived role as an “isolate,” an anonymous thinker shut away from “a world of indifference,” and of course Emily Dickinson, who “initiates the terms on which her intimate universe is founded, then shifts without warning into recesses of privacy.” Even Henry James and Mark Twain, “despite their great success in society, their attraction . . .for the great and powerful, ended up American isolates.” Kazin’s discussions of Eliot, Pound, Faulkner, and Hemingway extend his theme into the 20th century, and his frequent returns to the biography and works of Henry Adams, a man so intimate with the personalities and events of American history yet without political power for himself, becomes a coda to the literary experience outlined by the book as a whole.

Although Kazin works meticulously to draw out every nuance of relationship between his procession of American isolates and the great unassimilable march of historical events, his essentially biographical and interpretive method repeatedly casts us inside the deracinated viewpoints of the writers themselves, holding to their stubborn visions and kept in a begrudging state of wonder at the complexity of the American experience. Romantic ambivalence inspired both celebration and skepticism. In one of countless arresting sentences in this book, Kazin writes that “Romanticism remains a vital expression of the modern mind because it prolongs into the world of actual necessity every criticism made by our dreams,” and in this sense Kazin is the critic as Romantic, excitedly telling and scrupulously critiquing his story as he goes. An American Procession is a narrative more than an argument or “theory”; it proceeds through finely balanced, essentially lyric insights to create its powerful image of American history and literature, focusing upon the experience of our bedeviled writers and ultimately relating everything to everything else in a loosely woven tapestry of history, biography, literary criticism, and literary ideas.

Both the glorious achievement and the major problem of this book are related, in fact, to Kazin’s distinctive style. His gift goes far beyond the ability to assess, discriminate, and interpret the authors before him; he virtually plunges into their lives, their historical contexts, and most important into their literary creations with a startling empathic ardor, almost as if no one else had ever read them before. His condensed, allusive, often somewhat elliptical style, which serves him brilliantly when he moves in for a close inspection of specific works or ideas, does not prevent his standing back at crucial points to offer concentrated, crisply worded summations. For example, his beautiful paragraph on Mark Twain:

From the beginning, Mark Twain’s real subject—against a landscape of unlimited expectations and constant humbling—-was the human being as animal nature, human cussedness taken raw, single traits magnified as fun, pretense, burlesque, spectacle, and violence. He took from the blatant demonstrativeness of frontier humor its central image of man undomesticated, removed from traditional surroundings—a stranger wandering into a thin and shifting settlement of other strangers, then plunging into a dizzying succession of experiences always “new.”

In three sentences he states the paradox of Emerson’s contemporary reputation: “The “word,” once given out, never lost its sanctity for Ralph Waldo Emerson. But not always received in the spirit that sent it forth, it made him seem even loftier—a special case among Americans. Emerson in his later phase was taken for a mahatma, a great soul, rather than the instigator of a revolutionary consciousness.” And his wit, a commodity not always possessed by literary critics, can be right on target: “Dreiser usually finds the right word, but only after scrabbling for it in full view of the reader.” An American Procession is preeminently a written work, a work of style, and as such is a model of criticism raised to the level of literary art.

Kazin’s reflections are honed with such lapidary precision, in fact, that the reader often feels shut out; in this book Kazin is not a “practical critic” but rather an exquisite memoirist of his own reading, attempting a finely wrought meditation on a century’s literary art and its relation to politics, history, and culture. These meditations, moreover, despite a repetition of basic themes and a wilderness of cross-references, are not subjugated to a unified critical design. This surely adds to the vigor and originality of specific passages, but it also makes the book seem a glittering mosaic of ideas and personalities, better browsed among than read straight through. Kazin’s chapters, and even individual paragraphs, often seem discrete and free-floating, linked together after the fact and, it would seem, written at widely spaced intervals. This perhaps accounts for his frequent, bothersome repetitions. It is unsettling to read, on three successive pages, that “Gilbert Osmond is one of [James’s] finest creations” (228), “the sharpest portrait in James’s international gallery is Gilbert Osmond” (229), “Osmond is one of James’s finest creations” (230). We are told in one chapter that the draft law of 1863 “created the worst riot in American history” (113); in the next chapter, that same law “created the worst insurrection in American history” (137). On numerous occasions the reader wishes Kazin would have stepped back from his beautifully wrought paragraphs and thoughtfully aligned them, for the sake of clarity and continuity, within his larger structure.

Aside from style, there is some unevenness in the commentary itself. Kazin is generally more persuasive on 20th-century authors than on those of the 19th; he is much better on fiction than on poetry. Though his chapter on Emily Dickinson, for instance, displays the beautiful and passionate empathy found in most of Kazin’s literary portraits, he succumbs more than once to overly romanticized and outdated viewpoints. No Dickinson scholar would accept the contention that “the Civil War . . .led to her writing more than a poem a day”; at another extreme, the characterization of her work as “one of the fullest records ever left of a life” shows the limitation of Kazin’s biographical approach. These are small matters when weighed against the moving and frequently incisive discussion of Dickinson as a whole, but in this chapter, as in others, Kazin’s absorption in the dramatic excitement of his story sometimes allows for lapses of critical acumen.

It is perhaps appropriate that An American Procession, like many Romantic narratives, is more impressive in its parts than as a whole. Both comprehensive and lengthy, the book nonetheless feels “unfinished,” which is a tribute to Kazin’s honesty as a writer and to his appreciation for the inexhaustibility of his profound subject. In future years we will perhaps receive another installment from Alfred Kazin covering yet again the same decades, the same problematic and indispensable writers; and again we will be grateful.


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