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This article is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.

The Enthralling Alfred Kazin Tony Roberts
‘It is a horrible book, and the more dangerous, because it sounds (or will sound to so many people) plausible,’ Cleanth Brooks complained to Allen Tate in January 1943. Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds had been published the year before. Brooks, an exponent of the New Criticism, was complaining of the negative comments on ‘The Formalists’ in the book. He was correct. On Native Grounds, which launched Kazin’s career-long study of American literature, is a highly plausible book. More than plausible, it is comprehensive, profound and partisan, a self-confessed attempt at moral history, the summation of a lifetime’s reading by a young man of twenty-seven who had barely begun.

It was an astonishing debut, really a series of mini­intellectual biographies relating to the emergent ‘struggle for realism’ in fiction and criticism from 1890 to 1940. Although Kazin wrote essay after essay with insight and passion for another sixty years, collecting them in such books as the substantial Contemporaries (1963), he could never better it. No wonder it made his name as America’s go-to ‘literary radical’. It was to be more than forty years before he tried something remotely similar, in An American Procession (1984), though time had cooled the radical passion to ingratiating warmth.

Kazin’s motivation lay in his sense of literary criticism as an exalted calling. He committed himself fully to it, being ‘first astonished by gifts that I do not possess, then excited by the chance to make contact with them through my analysis’. Elsewhere in his self-lacerating Journals (2011) he recorded ...

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