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Books in Review

A New Literary Critic

(March 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 3, March 1943, p. 91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On Native Grounds
by Alfred Kazin
Reynal & Hitchcock, Publishers; $3.75

Whoever is at all interested in the development of American intellectual life during the past half century – and more particularly, its prose literary sector – should read Alfred Kazin’s book. It is a serious, full-dress work, not a haphazard collection of essays. It is written with an enthusiasm and sympathy for the American writer and his work which is rare in contemporary American criticism, and at the same time it is critical rather than rapturous.

While Kazin’s basic thesis, the alienation of the American writer from his native social grounds and his struggle for re-integration, is stated in the preface and returned to in the last chapter, it is not a very powerful discipline binding the individual essays into a tight chain. While his thesis asserts itself to advantage in the brilliant essay on Dos Passos, it is perhaps to the good that it is neglected elsewhere. Kazin is not a critic strictly bound by a “school” or drawing strength from a homogeneous discipline; his major virtue is a youthful freshness and vivacity. He has perceived with some shrewdness, though without much originality, one of the primary molding influences on American literature: the inability of the writer, be he revolutionary or recluse, reactionary Southern agrarian or expatriate aesthete, to find roots for his life and work in a feeling of “belonging” to a rich tradition and vital community. Even those who at present have become the most hysterical or mystical defenders of the status quo (Macleish et al.) prove the validity of this thesis by barrenness of their output.

Interwoven with this thesis are a number of secondary ones. Kazin has borrowed from Parrington, even though he is niggardly in admitting it. The struggle against the genteel tradition, the revolt against the small town, the conflict between Jeffersonian equalitarianism and Hamiltonian aristocratism which had such a decisive influence on American life long after the original issues and persons involved were dead and which survives to this very day in our national life – these themes of Parrington creep through Kazin’s book.

But the reader will find a lot more than thesis in On Native Grounds. The richest yield is a number of individual essays, some of them extraordinarily brilliant, such as the pieces on Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Dos Passos and Ellen Glasgow. Kazin does not have the ability to penetrate ruthlessly the intellectual marrow of a writer’s thought nor is he especially competent at abstruse technical and stylistic analysis; his forte is his readiness to approach each writer as a distinct and unique creator, to visualize his problems, to establish a link of understanding between the strivings of the author and the reception of the reader.

A Criticism of Two Schools

Brief mention must also be made of the chapter, Criticism at the Poles. This is a savage and annihilating attack on the Stalinist “literary criticism” on the one hand, and an almost equally savage attack against the Tate-Ransom-Blackmur school which place an absolute premium on form. One involuntarily blushes at the memory of having in any way been connected with or sympathetic to the drivel which the Hicks-Schneder-New Masses school peddled during the “proletarian literature” days and it is little wonder that the Stalinists printed a vicious and stupid attack on Kazin in their magazine.

These are a few of the high points of the book. From the very sources of Kazin’s accomplishments, however, come also his shortcomings. For one thing, there is often a disturbing eclecticism of approach which is most obvious in his chapter on criticism. It is true enough that Schneider and Tate, for instance, represent two untenable extremes, but it is not sufficient to wish a plague on both their houses. Tate, at the very least, is a talented critic and his group has done much to reawaken respect for economy, discipline and technical competence during the age of gushers; Schneider, on the other hand, is not a literary critic, but a paid hack who slants his reviews in accordance with the Kremlin line. While the alternative would be a false one, we for our part would choose Tate in the field of literature any day in the week if he were the sole alternative to Schneider-Hicks; and Kazin, in his eclectic anxiety to chip away at all tendencies, fails to weigh properly their real significance.

Kazin’s shortcomings find their source in his abilities in still another respect. He has such a talent for the phrase, such a fertility of language and felicity of epigram that he often cannot restrain himself from making a quip at the expense of his theme. Many of his essays would profit from a friendly blue pencil. Sometimes he even loses the thread of his idea because of his fascination with the play of his language; there are one or two essays in which the musical rise and fall of the paragraph line is more obvious than the development of the idea.

The Book’s Shortcomings

But the most serious objection on On Native Grounds is the attempt made in the final chapter to inject a note of strained optimism about contemporary American literature (how unwarranted when one examines what is being written today!) based on a sort of New Dealish nationalism. It is not the strident, mystical nationalism of Brooks and Waldo Frank but a more rational, liberalistic nationalism. Nonetheless, it has no organic tie to the thesis which Kazin begins with, and if Kazin desires to suggest that it is by an attempt at identification with the liberalist-nationalism of the New Deal-directed imperialist war that the writer can solve those deep, knotted problems which are the inheritance of a cultural tradition twisted by a morbidly sick society, then he is making a sorry mistake indeed, and what is more, he knows better.

Kazin is still a very young man. He possesses great talents, and while this book is by no means a completely successful work, it has enough and promises enough for the future to claim the interested reader’s attention.

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