“Emerson made me a Jew” – Alfred Kazin, Journals
Ralph Waldo Emerson is the prophet pointing out of the Puritanical church into the “Crucial Century” of American Literature, which, according to Alfred Kazin’s “The American Procession,” reaches from the 1830s to 1930s, from Emerson to “The Sound and the Fury.”
Kazin is a band-leader, deftly trotting out a parade of stars that begins with Emerson walking out of his stable ecclesiastic life to preach the true American faith: every one is free to build their own church house. (This was Kazin’s religious bent too, and they both failed to notice that not everyone CAN build their own chicken shack, let alone church-house. Not everyone can write like Kazin, let alone Emerson.)
After Emerson comes Thoreau, poking at the leaves in Walden, creating himself through his journals. (Kazin’s own journals were exhaustive, covering some 7,000 pages.)
There’s Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrestling with his Puritanical past, like Kazin wrestled with the immigrant background that he both sentimentalized and could not wait to leave. (Escaping from the Russian hood in Brownsville was one of his biggest childhood motivators.)
Edgar Allan Poe, declaring the universe a dazzling catastrophe in his “Eureka.” (Kazin was one of the few American writers who did not condescend when talking about Poe. It’s the kinship of critic to critic: few today remember Poe as the biggest American literary critic of his time.)
Walt Whitman, ambling triumphantly through Manhattan like Kazin used to (Kazin’s first big biographical book was called “A Walk in the City.”) Whitman reaching out to Lincoln, at a time when Lincoln was not necessarily today’s beloved emancipator (The London Herald: “Mr. Lincoln is a vulgar, brutal boor.” The London Standard : “Never was so great a place in history filled by a figure so mean.”) I was reminded of Kazin’s meeting with Kennedy, in preparation for an essay on the president.
Herman Melville, a co-religionist in the Church of the individual, so forgotten upon his death that the belated New York Times obituary mourned him as “Henry” Melville.
Emily Dickinson, the recluse’s recluse, sending letters out of Amherst that must have bewildered the receivers: “I eat evanescence slowly.” (Who among us has correspondents who could reply to THAT with anything other than: “Cool story, bro”?)
Mark Twain, preaching a further variation on Emerson: the religion of irreverence.
Henry James, too bored with Boston to even dislike it, and finding opportunity to say far more about Americans as an exile in Europe. William James, letting his neuroses become the expression of his philosophy.
There’s Theodore Dreiser, whose sexual exploits and disordered marriages almost make Kazin chuckle with recognition (Kazin was a four-time husband and, according to the notch-on-the-bedpost journals, quite a sexual success himself.)
Henry Adams, “the meteor mind,” again and again, like Kazin relishing the role of observer but refusing to be an spectator.
Stephen Crane, reporting on the war he hadn’t seen with more insight that many a confused eyewitness, much like Kazin reacted to news of the Holocaust.
T. S. Eliot, Emerson’s adversary, Emerson’s double, making the journey to his faith in isolation, but, unlike Emerson, distrustful of that very isolation, and therefore leaning on English authority, religious and cultural. (Kazin would never have admitted this to himself, but from his seat as the literary editor of “The New Republic” and contributor to The New York Times Review of Books, he had no need to turn to authority himself. He WAS the authority.)
Ezra Pound, making sense of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” and sending out Fascist broadcasts so extreme and deranged that one Italian official assumed he HAD to be an American double agent using a code. (Kazin, a disappointed socialist, a Jew who felt betrayed by Israel, knew plenty about political confusion.)
Then we hear the louder strains of American modernity. William Faulkner, accepting the inevitability of failure (“To try something you can’t do, because it’s too much, but still to try it and fail, then try it again. That to me is success.”) Ernest Hemingway, rebelling against an essential injustice, some irremediable wrongness at the heart of things.
The parade concludes in the 1930s with John Dos Passos and F. Scott Fitzgerald and, this goes unsaid, with Kazin’s coming of age. We all define the historic past as whatever came before our adolescence. After that, there’s just a critic dealing with the contemporary.
Kazin wrote about himself, consciously or not. This might be what all writers do, and inadvertent autobiography is not an unusual result of literary criticism. I don’t wonder about the egregious oversights (there’s no Edith Wharton or Willa Cather here, for instance): Kazin didn’t see himself in them. “An American Procession” is not only about a parading century of great American writing, but also about a man shouting out when he recognizes his own features in the faces in the marching band.