His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he even begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.
“Why I Write” (1946)
The system of organized lying on which society is founded.
Outline for 1984 (1943)
“Not one of us,” said the Labour party secretary in Limehouse. I was a reporter in wartime England interviewing him on Labour’s plans for the postwar society, and had asked him what he thought of George Orwell, a name then better known to Americans on the anti-Stalinist left than to most English and American readers before Animal Farm and 1984 made him world-famous. Orwell had been writing the “London Letter” for Partisan Review, and he had written in Homage to Catalonia (1938) what I fondly thought of as our version of the Spanish Civil War: homage indeed to the Spanish anarchists and to the proscribed POUM, in which Orwell had served, with other unaffiliated British radicals sympathetic to the Independent Labour party; unyielding bitterness about the Stalinist apparatus in Spain that had helped give victory to Franco by its frustration of the spontaneous Spanish revolution and by its attempt to kill opposition on the left.
To the solid trade union official representing the Labour party in Limehouse, George Orwell the novelist and book critic, a columnist for Aneurin Bevan’s left-wing Tribune, was just an intellectual and perhaps a class enemy as well. Without having read his books, the official knew that Orwell was an old Etonian and had gone to Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police. It was bitter winter, early 1945. Allied forces had not yet crossed the Rhine. The reconstruction of society that I heard so much of in British Army discussion groups—morale after Dunkirk was so low that the War Office, in a phrase inconceivable to Americans, announced, “We are going left with the troops,” and instituted the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, hard-hitting discussions officially part of the weekly routine—of course depended on the defeat of Hitler and in the postwar elections a Labour victory that seemed unthinkable in the face of Churchill’s dominance. “Let Us Face the Future” was the title of Labour’s program in the 1945 elections. A common regret of the period: “If only Churchill were Labour!” Even as winter yielded to the glorious spring of 1945 and the first Michaelmas daisies sprouting in the bombed damp earth were shown on morale posters reading “Renascence,” much of the grime, violence, and deadly fatigue that were to go into 1984 remained all too familiar on the streets of wartime London.
In Orwell’s novel thirty rocket bombs a week are falling on the capital; nothing more is said of them. Like the “atombomb” that explodes over Oceania’s “Airstrip I”—England—and by destroying a church provides a hiding place in the belfry for the lovers in an…
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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.”
The most essential parts of “Alfred Kazin’s Journals” plug his own essential solitude into his sense of American writing. He dilates on “the terrible and graphic loneliness of the great Americans.” At bottom, he observes, “they have nothing in common but the almost shattering unassailability, the life-stricken I, in each. Each fought his way through life — and through his genius — as if no one had ever fought before.”
Kazin weeps frequently and openly in these journals, over books, over his children, over the foundation of a Jewish state, over cheap films like “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I was reminded of my own reaction to “On Native Grounds,” his profound and blood-warm study of American writers from 1890 to 1940. It’s the only work of criticism that brings me to the brink of tears, such is its mastery and the intense flow of its feeling.
He wouldn’t have wanted to hear it. “I’m so tired of being told my writing is ‘moving,’ ” he writes here. “I want to be told it is convincing.” His journals are both.Continue reading the main story
ALFRED KAZIN’S JOURNALS
Selected and Edited
By Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press. 598 pages. $45.