The Passionate Encounter: in 65 years of keeping a journal, a noted midcentury critic had much to say about his fellow writers and the literary world they shared.

Author:Kazin, Alfred

In a tribute published in The New Yorker following Alfred Kazin's death on June 5, 1998, David Remnick wrote that "unlike his friend, Richard Hofstadter, who died with a stack of manuscript pages by his hospital bed, Kazin died having completed more or less what he had set out to do. There is a lucky roundness to his career." Remnick was correct to note Kazin's achievement and the fullness of his career. Author of a dozen books and more than 2,000 essays and reviews, he was known as one of the country's most influential public intellectuals of the postwar years. But Kazin had his own stack of manuscript pages by his bed when he died. Since high school he had been writing almost daily in a private journal that he had hoped to publish. He never did, though he published a memoir, A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, based loosely on a few dozen undated and heavily edited entries. Why the journals or a substantial selection of entries never appeared is unclear. Other projects apparently intervened, and Kazin eventually despaired of working his way through the "pile-up of words," 7,000 pages, amassed during 65 years of journal keeping.

The journals, which he once called his "precious lifeblood" and "the most exciting and influential form of my life," tell us a great deal about the psychological and intellectual sources of Kazin's work. "Everything that is fundamental in me has first found its expression here." They also provide memorable portraits of many writers and intellectuals as well as shrewd assessments of the nation's culture. The following entries on writers and the writing profession are excerpted from an edition of Alfred Kazin "s jourrials to be published in the spring by Yale University Press.


May 3,1945

Interview with T. S. Eliot, at his offices (Faber & Faber). Eliot now, if I calculate correctly, must be 57; face has aged and relaxed greatly, so that one's first impression of him physically is of a rather tired kindness as opposed to the otherworldliness & hauteur of his early pictures. He was extremely kind, gentle, spoke very slowly and hesitatingly, livened up a bit when I pushed the conversation on to literary topics (at first, because of my official business, he spoke a little about popular education and his own experiences teaching for the WEA and LCC). He looks like a very sensitive question mark--long, winding, and bent; gives the impression that his sensibility is in his long curling nose and astonishing hands. I was so afraid that he would be standoffish or just reluctant that I spoke more than I wanted to, just to keep the conversation going. He said things which just verged on "you Americans," but I grinned when he spoke of Truman and Missouri and he grinned back. When I gave him [Benjamin] Spencer's regards he brightened up considerably and asked me if I was a Harvard man.

May 15, 1948

Saw [William] Shawn at the NYorker office late yesterday afternoon. Very charming and sensitive little man--how much of his charm lies in his being so unlike the expected picture of the NYorker managing editor hard to say. Had a red jacket sweater under his coat, and bustled around timidly in that high comedian's whiny voice, full of anxiety. Yet very firm under all this, and beautifully sincere. The old business about "fitting" the style of the magazine, about heavy critics and light critics, and Wolcott Gibbs, whom they all so much admire because he writes "by not saying things" Certainly. How can I ever get down on paper the really fantastic business of magazine writing in NY--the wearing need to fit the writer into shape, to take him into just the required space and tone. Fundamentally all this is obscene, for it rests on real hatred of the writer as individual spirit. Nothing so far from their minds as wanting the best of the writer, of serving, releasing, providing opportunity, for him.

November 8, 1951

Remarkable piece by [Lionel] Trilling in the Reporter on Dreiser, [Sherwood] Anderson, and the problem of the anti-social, the utterly isolate American writer. Remarkable because it sums up his own position, or rather his findings, vis-a-vis the British situation--and illustrates his need to legislate the situation away (in America) by reason. And confirms in me his deepseated fear of the genuine artist (Dreiser, Anderson) and his long repugnance to me, thoroughly based, I see now, on a fear of the "extremism" or whatnot he finds in me. On the lowest, the purely personal and vexed problem of his relations with me, the article helped to heal something of the continuous ache about Lionel and his nervousness with me, for it told me as clearly as can be that it is myself, inherently and initially and potentially, that troubles him, exactly as Dreiser & Anderson do, and that nothing whatever can be done about this. I seize this opportunity, I who have so often been needlessly bitter about him and how many others who seemed to reject me out of hand--I seize this irremediable opposition between us, to (from my own part, as far as I can tell) be more just to him, less petty and therefore less anguished. What is in these matters is, as it was with Carol [Kazin's recently divorced wife]: there can be no bridge made here without falseness.


October 6, 1952

The literary...

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