Alfred Kazin Biography
(1915–98), On Native Grounds, The New Republic, Fortune, The Inmost Leaf, Contemporaries
American critic, born in Brooklyn of Russian immigrant parentage, educated at City College, New York, and Columbia University. During a wide-ranging academic career he taught at Black Mountain, Harvard, and Amherst, at Cambridge as Fulbright lecturer in 1951, becoming Professor of English at Stony Brook, and latterly Stanford. Kazin began as a freelance teacher, convinced socialist, and student of Modernism. Working in public libraries on the ‘dark seedtime’ of modern American writing, he produced a magisterial survey of the period 1890 to 1940, published as On Native Grounds (1942). His interpretation stressed the evolution from W. D. Howells and Dreiser through to Hemingway, Faulkner, and the socially conscious novelists of the 1930s, and encompassed figures such as Van Wyck Brooks, Thorstein Veblen, and H. L. Mencken, arguing their ‘absorption in every last detail of their American world together with a deep and subtle alienation from it’. The book established Kazin's critical reputation and he became a Contributing Editor of The New Republic and Fortune in the mid-1940s; but he also wrote for numerous other magazines, the essays collected in The Inmost Leaf (1955) and Contemporaries (1962), the latter volume including his astute critique of JFK, ‘The President and Other Intellectuals’. The autobiographical trilogy, A Walker in the City (1951), Starting Out in the Thirties (1965), and New York Jew (1978) includes sketches of the cultural luminaries he encountered. Kazin's other major study of prose fiction is Bright Book of Life: American Novelists and Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (1974), an integrated account of writers prominent since the war, concluding with a chapter on Nabokov. With Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and Leslie Fiedler, he joined the vital mid-century move of Jewish-American literary intellectuals into the mainstream. He championed the Liberal Imagination alongside Trilling, and his friend Edmund Wilson.
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