Alfred Kazin


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A Biography

Richard M. Cook

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The first biography of Alfred Kazin–inveterate New Yorker, autobiographer, and perhaps the last great man of American letters in the tradition of Edmund Wilson

Born in 1915 to barely literate Jewish immigrants in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Alfred Kazin rose from near poverty to become a dominant figure in twentieth-century literary criticism and one of America’s last great men of letters. Biographer Richard M. Cook provides a portrait of Kazin in his public roles and in his frequently unhappy private life. Drawing on the personal journals Kazin kept for over 60 years, private correspondence, and numerous conversations with Kazin, he uncovers the full story of the lonely, stuttering boy from Jewish Brownsville who became a pioneering critic and influential cultural commentator.

Upon the appearance of On Native Grounds in 1942, Kazin was dubbed “the boy wonder of American criticism.” Numerous publications followed, including A Walker in the City and two other memoirs, books of criticism, as well as a stream of essays and reviews that ceased only with his death in 1998. Cook tells of Kazin’s childhood, his troubled marriages, and his relations with such figures as Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow, Malcolm Cowley, Arthur Schlesinger, Hannah Arendt, and Daniel Bell. He illuminates Kazin’s thinking on political-cultural issues and the recurring way in which his subject’s personal life shaped his career as a public intellectual. Particular attention is paid to Kazin’s sense of himself as a Jewish-American “loner” whose inner estrangements gave him insight into the divisions at the heart of modern culture.

Richard M. Cook teaches American literature at the University of Missouri—St. Louis. His articles on Alfred Kazin and other figures in American literature have appeared in American Literary History, Michigan Quarterly, American Studies International, and elsewhere. He lives in St. Louis.

"A thorough, balanced, and very thoughtful life of one of twentieth-century America's premier critics and writers."—Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

"This is a splendid book, written with something of the verve of Kazin himself."—Denis Donoghue, author of The American Classics and Speaking of Beauty

"Ten years after Kazin's death, first-time biographer Cook tells the intellectually rich and psychologically complex story of Kazin's public triumphs, infamous literary dustups, failed marriages, and other private woes. Cook fully appreciates Kazin's critical gifts, influence, and responses to the tumultuous changes of the times, fitting within his meticulous biography a vivid history of modern American literature studded with portraits of Kazin's peers, including Edmund Wilson and Saul Bellow."—Booklist

"[An] even-tempered, judicious biography of this notoriously prickly critic. . . . In Mr. Cook's hands Kazin emerges as an arresting hybrid, a somewhat old-fashioned man of letters, whose critical models were Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson, with the fervent heart of a first-generation proletarian Jew enraptured and infuriated by America."—William Grimes, New York Times

"A full-featured portrait, Richard Cook's Alfred Kazin is also a group photo of thousands of immigrants' children, who came storming out of the tenements of Brooklyn, Newark, Chicago, Buffalo and Manhattan at a certain moment, armed with only their intellects, their hungers and their dreams, asking America for their own main chance and the opportunity to redeem their parents' disappointments. Alfred Kazin mad good on those dreams, and Richard Cook's portrait is as striking in its close-ups as it is surehanded in its panoramas, where Kazin dissolves into the group picture of his generation to become a representative figure."—Mark Shechner, The Buffalo News

"Cook's account of Kazin is a splendid example of connecting an intellectual biography to the life as lived."—Steve Weinberg, St. Louis Dispatch

"An excellent biography—sympathetic yet critical, as good on the works as on the life of the eminent literary critic."—Robert K. Landers, Wall Street Journal

"A comprehensive, well-written, and judicious biography. . . . We are . . . in Richard Cook's debt for this study of a man of great achievement in a relatively long, sometimes happy and somtimes unhappy, life."— Gerald Sorin,

"This diligent biography draws heavily on Kazin's own insights about himself and his surroundings, offering a testament to the struggles and triumphs of a writer who, though hampered by self-seriousness, 'bourgeois' neuroses, and a string of marital failures, kept his social and aesthetic ideals intact throughout decades of turmoil. Kazin was nevertheless a ruthless assessor whose greatest legacy is his resolute honesty."—New Yorker 

"Cook is a very sympathetic biographer; he is attuned to his subject and understands the forces that made this complex and difficult man tick. . . . Cook shows a sure grasp of the issues at stake throughout the tumultuous decades of Kazin's life and is an intelligent interpreter of his political values, motivations and actions."—Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

"Elegant. . . . One strand of Cook's biography traces Kazin's literary and academic triumphs, his encounters with books and authors, critics, intellectuals, scholars, politicians. This strand alone is worth a reader's time as Cook brings a pre-Internet, pre-blog writing culture to vivid life, full of intimate connection, passionate confrontation and deep engagement. . . . Another strand of Cook's biography, his account of Kazin's private side, is riveting on its own and amplifies the story of public achievement. . . . A balanced, readable, stimulating literary biography, bringing the man, his life and his times into focus, and renewing a reader's interest in Kazin's work."—Floyd Skloot,

"[An] exhaustively researched biography."—Damian DaCosta, New York Observer

"Kazin, the great critic, reviewer and memoirist, was himself one of the glories of American literature."—New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

"The lesson of Cook's engaging, judicious book is simple: You can take the kid out of Brownsville, but you can't take Brownsville out of the kid. . . . Cook successfully argues that everything in Kazin's life, from his literary successes to his matrimonial failures, was overdetermined by his simultaneous attachment to, and revulsion for, his childhood home in Brooklyn."—Mark Oppenheimer, Forward

"Will probably be the definitive work on this difficult and combative man."—Sheldon Kirshner, Canandian Jewish News

"Richard M. Cook has taken on the daunting task of writing a biography of a master autobiographer, and the result is a lucid, fair-minded piece of work."—Jed Perl, New Republic

"Cook's new biography, for which he enjoyed access to Kazin himself as well as to his family, friends, and ex-friends, carefully and serviceably narrates the enormous whirl of activity in Kazin's life. Cook is honest, thorough, even-handed and conscientious."—Carol Iannone, Commentary

"Cook has written an engrossing, even-handed biography, neatly balancing the public intellectual against the private man. Perhaps it will even encourage at least a few readers to seek out some of Kazin's criticism. Cook's own prose is brisk and engaging."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

"Well researched and lively. . . . Black and white photos and an extensive index round out an engaging and useful account of the life this influential writer-critic and one of the great American men of letters."—Jewish Book World

"Richard M. Cook succeeds in making Alfred Kazin readable and even fascinating. . . . Cook's narrative is shapely and satisfying."—Edward Mendelson, New York Review of Books

"A timely, well-researched biogrpahy that recovers Kazin as an important figure in American literary and cultural history. . . . This biography reminds the reader of Kazin's extensive influence on American literature and its study and in so doing contributes to American modernist studies and to literary studies in general. At a time when the humanities battles for public recognition of its importance, Cook's text offers an example of a critic who defined that project in relevant, important ways. Highly recommended."—Choice

"Rich, authoritative, well-researched, and analytic.—Stuart E. Knee, The Journal of American History

Selected as a 2008 AAUP University Press Book for Public and Secondary School Libraries.

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title from 2008.

Selected as one of the best books of 2008 by the Washington Post in the Biography category 
ISBN: 9780300115055
Publication Date: January 28, 2008
464 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
20 b/w illus.
Alfred Kazin's Journals

Selected and Edited by Richard M. Cook

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