An Infinite Walk

Alfred Kazin’s amazing 65-year journal.

William Deresiewicz

Alfred Kazin

"I have a dream of an infinite walk," Alfred Kazin told himself in 1947, "of going on and on, forever unimpeded by weariness or duties … until I in my body and the world in its skin of earth are somehow blended in a single motion." He was 31 and just beginning A Walker in the City, his celebrated memoir of youth in darkest Jewish-immigrant Brooklyn. Not sitting and studying, not watching or reading, but walking: going out, going through, the self in motion, in the world and with the world and being breathed on by the world—this was Kazin’s master metaphor. And not just walking, but walking in the city, in that city, in his city. Kazin knew that walking in New York is not the idle stroll of flânerie, aestheticized, detached. A moral pressure everywhere surrounds you, streaming from the urgency and clamor, the sirens and grime, from faces alert, beset. You are implicated; you are called upon. You do not float—you press. That is how Kazin moved through the world—A Lifetime Burning in Every Moment, he called a later memoir—and that is how we can begin to understand him as an exemplary American intellectual.

Kazin was the author of more than a dozen books; of more than a thousand reviews and essays; of On Native Grounds, the massive, pathbreaking study of modern American prose that made his reputation at the age of 27; and of Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew, sequels to A Walker in the City and together a dazzling group portrait of the generation of American intellectuals who came of age in the Depression and the war and bestrode American thought in the ’50s and ’60s. Himself among that generation’s signal members, he was perhaps the country’s leading critic, a mainstay on radio and television as well as in the highbrow press. It was the right time to be a public intellectual. In 1961, for the American Scholar, he interviewed the new president at a private luncheon at the White House. In 1966, he was numbered among the "five hundred most famous people in the world" invited to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. But all along his deepest work was being done in private, in the journals he had started at the age of 17 and would continue writing for the next 65 years, some 7,000 pages in all. If his life was an "infinite walk," his journals were the record of that walk.

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