Friday, September 23, 2016

Writing Was Everything, by Alfred Kazin

Writing Was Everything (Harvard Univ. Press, 1995) is based on a series of lectures by Alfred Kazin for the William E. Massay Lectures in the History of American Civilization in 1994 at Harvard.  It’s a literary memoir in which Kazin recounts his experiences as a literary critic, the writers he has known, and their work.  Although he discusses his acquaintance with a number of writers, he gives his main attention to their work.  This is not a memoir that takes pride in how many names it can drop or how many claims it makes for the importance of its writer.  Kazin expresses unhappiness in his introduction his with the advent of literary theory and of literary criticism that serves a social purpose.  He believes the value of literature is intrinsic, not extrinsic.  He believes a critic’s main duty is to introduce readers to good literature in a way that is not prescriptive (he dislikes the New Critics who are, he feels, too focused on making readers like a narrow brand of writing).  He is particularly irritated by an MLA session he attended in the late 1980s on the subject of Emily Dickinson and masturbation. 
Kazin suggests that many of the great writers he admires, from Dickinson forward, are torn by religious skepticism or by anguish over the void created by the decline of religion. He sees the 20th century as a time of great tumult when traditional values and western civilization seemed at risk.  World War II was its central event. Although Kazin was a lifelong liberal, the writers important to him come from all points on the spectrum, from Joyce and Eliot to Dickinson, Bellow, Faulkner, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, and others.  He seems especially impressed by Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil.
Were he alive today he would not be happy with the state of affairs.

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