From the archive
…Yet one of the many revelations in Kazin’s journals, published now for the first time, is the sense they impart of how ill at ease — how tender, how easily wounded, how roiled — he was behind his bluff cosmopolitan mien. “I could weep when I realize how much time I waste,” he confided in a 1948 entry, because of “my anxiety, my useless shadow-boxing with the imaginary censure and rejection by others.”
Anxiety could curdle into rage. “I am poisoned,” he writes, by “hatred of others […] who are ‘better,’ more efficient, who do not flatter and love me unceasingly.” He says, “I am a critic-teacher-authority to so many, but to myself, a raging id, a volcano of passions.”
Those passions — for sex, for novels, for ideas, for talk, for city life — spill from “Alfred Kazin’s Journals,” edited by his biographer, Richard M. Cook. This is a remarkable book, easily one of the great diaries and moral documents of the past American century. What it lacks in cohesiveness it makes up in its frankness, its quick-pivoting angularities. Kazin dismisses his journal at one point as a “disorderly pile of shavings.” That disorder only adds to its amplitude.
Journal keeping, for Kazin, was a ritual. He wrote regularly in his for more than half a century, and it ultimately ran to more than 7,000 pages. “Alfred Kazin’s Journals” represents about one-sixth of that total. Kazin has mined some of this material before, heavily editing and rewriting a bit of it for his book “A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment: From the Journals of Alfred Kazin” (1996). But this is the first time this writing has been seen in its original form. Kazin was deeply chagrined, Mr. Cook writes, that he was unable to see them published during his lifetime.
The entries in “Alfred Kazin’s Journals” — the first from 1933, the last from 1998, only a few months before his death — cover an enormous amount of ground: his development as a reader and critic; his lifelong consideration of his lodestar American writers (Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman); his four marriages; his shifting sense of his own Jewishness; and his reactions to world events, from Pearl Harbor through his loathing of Ronald Reagan.
Kazin’s libido pokes out of this material like a submarine telescope and is the source of much of this book’s humor and slanting sunshine. Kazin loved the “fantastic sensuality of New York” and could hardly walk a block without registering the aesthetic dimensions of his own cravings. He loved “the blousy half-nakedness of the girls in the streets,” the “faint drops of sweat on their lips,” the “breasts and hot purple mouths of the Bergdorf Goodman women.”
His need for sex haunted him; it swamped him. He had many affairs during his marriages, and he berated himself for his promiscuity. There’s earthy comedy, though, in the way even married women threw themselves at him. “This unbelievable availability of women,” he wrote in 1968. “I have the spark for many of them — Miss Baker runs in and out of my office crying ‘I love you!’ “
Kazin’s journals, packed with couplings, are also packed with deft and often acid portraits of his contemporaries. He detects a “fatal particle of vulgarity” in Irving Howe; he dislikes the “specious ‘reasonableness’ “ of Lionel Trilling’s prose. Norman Podhoretz has a “brutal, little mind.” About Harold Brodkey he says, “You wanted to kill him for letting his misery wash all over you.” He’s suspicious of the chic young Susan Sontag; in 1978 he refers to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the future Supreme Court justice, as “duck face.” John Cheever is “the performer,” J. D. Salinger “the cute child,” John Updike “the professional.”
There’s this excellent line about his sometime friend Saul Bellow: “Saul: who like a precious jewel may let himself be handled, but who is impermeable.” There’s a wonderful riff on Elizabeth Bishop’s hair. It “rises electrically up her head” and “seems to shoot up straight, connected node to node by sparks.” He writes, “That upsweeping electric hair is the poet’s helmet, his rooster comb.” He has a funny way of turning names into mock-titles: “Murray the Kempton,” “Gordon the Lish.”