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As a critic, Mr. Kazin said writers should be understood in relation to their culture. Unlike the New Critics, he did not engage in minute textual analyses, and he paid less attention to style and form than to the relationship of a literary work to its time.
''Any critic who is any good,'' he wrote in ''Contemporaries,'' a critical survey of modern writing, ''is going to write out of a profound inner struggle between what has been and what must be, the values he is used to and those which presently exist, between the past and the present out of which the future must be born.''
And in an interview, he said: ''Criticism for me was not a theory. It was a branch of literature, a way of writing like any other, of characterization, analysis and almost physical empathy. One could be a writer without writing a novel. Every taxi driver and bartender who told you his story wanted to be a novelist.''
When ''An American Procession'' (1984), his historical survey of American writers, was published, Marcus Cunliffe wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Mr. Kazin had confirmed ''a reservation in the front tier of the reviewing stand, next to his eminent predecessors, Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson.''
Alfred Kazin was born on June 5, 1915, the son of Charles Kazin, a house painter, and the former Gita Fagelman, a dressmaker, both of whom had emigrated as youths from Czarist Russia. From his childhood in Brownsville, Mr. Kazin and his sister, Pearl, were imbued with the immigrant, working-class values that were to sustain a society through the Depression.
''From my first conscious moments I was absorbed in the most intimate problems of the working class, in the fire and color of immigrant life,'' he said in an interview after the publication of ''A Walker in the City'' in 1951. ''I was by temperament created for the idea of revolution, in the sense of making the world over and creating a new society.''
Mr. Kazin remembered growing up as a ''very lonely and unhappy kid'' who suffered from a stammer and sought distraction in books and music. ''Do you know when I stopped?'' he recalled of his childhood stammer. ''When I became a professional writer. I knew I had something that could not be taken away from me.'' He also studied the violin and remained throughout his life ''a poor but determined violinist.''
His parents instilled in him what he later described as ''quaint old-fashioned socialism'' and the ''historic Jewish effort to realize the kingdom of God in this world.'' He escaped the poverty of his youth through the pages of books.
But if literature transported him far from the tenements of his childhood, he never disowned his origins, to which he returned frequently, with affection and wit and honesty, in his writings. He described himself as ''intensely Jewish'' but did not wear his ethnicity on his sleeve.
His entry into the world of letters began almost by accident. Like so many of the new generation of young intellectuals in New York City, sons and daughters of immigrants for the most part, Mr. Kazin attended City College, honing his literary sensibilities and opinions from the many newspapers and magazines that were published in the city through the Depression.
One day in 1934, while riding a subway to classes from Brooklyn, Mr. Kazin was reading a book review in The New York Times by John Chamberlain. The review so enraged him that the young undergraduate got off the train at Times Square and went to complain personally. His arguments against the book so impressed Chamberlain that he wrote a note to Malcolm Cowley at The New Republic, suggesting he hire Mr. Kazin. ''Here's an intelligent radical for you,'' he said, and Mr. Kazin began to write for the magazine.
A Writing Life Begun Fervently
Mr. Kazin spent most of the next 60 years writing. He received his bachelor's degree in 1935 from City College and his master's degree in English three years later. He began writing reviews and essays for other magazines and took a strong interest in the new writing of the time. In 1937, Carl Van Doren, then a professor at Columbia University, suggested that he undertake a book-length study of modern American literature.
He spent the next five years working on the book, writing alongside his friend Richard Hofstadter, who was working on the Columbia dissertation that would establish him as a historian when it was published as ''Social Darwinism in American Thought.''
''We'd work all morning at the New York Public Library, eat lunch at the Automat across the street, play one game of Ping-Pong -- at which he'd beat me -- at a pool parlor on 42d Street,'' Mr. Kazin once remembered. ''Then we'd work the rest of the day.''
Mr. Kazin titled his book ''On Native Grounds,'' and its publication in 1942 established him as one of the bright young critics of his time. The book was a wide-ranging review of the history of American literature beginning with William Dean Howells, through Faulkner.
The book set a standard for literary criticism.
With World War II raging in Europe, Mr. Kazin took an assignment on behalf of the Office of War Information and the Rockefeller Foundation and went to London to study the British labor movement and education in the British Army. On his return, he moved back to Brooklyn and began work on a memoir about a boy growing up in ''Brunzvil,'' as he recalled it being rendered by its residents.
The book was ''A Walker in the City,'' and Mr. Kazin later said he had sought to write something like Whitman's ''Leaves of Grass'' or ''The Bridge'' by Hart Crane in prose. When it appeared in 1951, Leslie Fiedler complained that it ''obstinately refuses to become a novel,'' Norman Mailer thought the boy narrator was too virtuous, and Lionel Trilling said he was a ''schmo.'' But the memoir established Kazin as one of the country's leading postwar voices and commanded a growing readership drawn to its evocative prose:
''In the last crazy afternoon light the neons over the delicatessens bathe all their wares in a cosmetic smile, but strip the street of every personal shadow and concealment. The torches over the pushcarts hold in a single breath of yellow flame the acid smell of half-sour pickles and herring floating in their briny barrels. There is a dry rattle of loose newspaper sheets around the cracked stretched skins of the 'chiney' oranges. Through the kitchen windows along every ground floor I can already see the containers of milk, the fresh round poppy-seed evening rolls. Time for supper, time to go home.''
Other books followed, including such volumes of criticism as ''The Inmost Leaf'' (1955), ''Contemporaries'' (1960), which Mr. Kazin dedicated to Edmund Wilson, and ''An American Procession'' (1984), as well as the memoirs ''Starting Out in the 30's'' (1965), ''New York Jew'' (1978), ''A Writer's America'' (1988), ''Our New York'' (1990) and ''God and the American Writer'' (1997).
The books often viewed American letters through a particular prism. ''A Writer's America,'' for example, examined the influences of the diverse American landscape -- urban as well as rural -- on its writers, just as ''God and the American Writer'' looked at the effects the country's religious heritage had on its literature. ''An American Procession'' charted the path of the nation's letters over the course of what Mr. Kazin called ''the crucial century'' from 1830-1930, and ''Contemporaries'' was a survey of writers in this century.
Recreating a World Of Jewish Intellectuals
''Walker in the City,'' ''Starting Out in the 30's'' and ''New York Jew'' were memoirs in which Mr. Kazin explored the childhood, adolescence and young adulthood of a son of immigrants, recreating the world of the liberal Jewish intellectual that was to have such a profound influence on American culture in the 20th century.
In between publication dates, Mr. Kazin earned his living writing reviews and essays for newspapers and magazines like American Mercury, Partisan Review, The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine. He was literary editor of The New Republic and an associate editor of Fortune. He also wrote countless introductions to reprint editions of both classic and more contemporary works.
Mr. Kazin was also a guest professor at universities in the United States and abroad. He taught at Harvard, Smith, Notre Dame, Berkeley, Cambridge, Cologne and the University of Puerto Rico, to name only a few. He later held distinguished professorships at State University College at Stony Brook, N.Y., and at the City University of New York, at Hunter College and the Graduate Center.
Political Battles Of the 40's and 50's
As a critic, Mr. Kazin could be exacting. Although he had sympathy for the disdain the Beat generation in the 1950's had for the excesses of American society, he was dismissive of the writing it produced. ''The 'Beats' are mostly middle-class kids looking for kicks,'' he wrote in 1960. ''They're bored by the fat-dripping society around them. The kids coming up now see a bunch of tired liberals shooting off their mouths about what happened in the 30's. They can't get interested.''
By contrast, he admired the spirit of the civil rights movement of the 1960's and observed, ''The young Negroes demonstrating in the Southern sit-ins are not bored, you can be sure.''
Mr. Kazin himself was active in the civil rights movement and was involved in other causes. He joined the fight against the United States Post Office Department's attempt to ban ''Lady Chatterley's Lover'' as obscene, and as a member of a remarkable and acrimonious circle of Manhattan intellectuals took part in the political and esthetic disputes over socialism, Communism and Western culture that invigorated New York life in the 1930's, 40's and 50's.
His colleagues included Irving Howe and Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Lionel and Diana Trilling, William Barrett, William Phillips, Mary McCarthy, Sidney Hook and Harold Rosenberg. Many of the friendships did not survive professional jealousies and the rise of neoconservatism.
Mr. Kazin, an unreconstructed liberal, never forgave Mr. Podhoretz and Mr. Kristol when they turned to the right. ''I detest their politics,'' he said of the neoconservatives in New York magazine in 1995. Mr. Podhoretz retorted: ''I think Kazin's gone off the deep end myself.''
Mr. Kazin was admired for his scholarship, his broad range of interests and his emotional vitality. He wrote in a deliberate style that was infused with wit and grace. His critics sometimes felt that his views rambled. John Gross, reviewing ''Contemporaries,'' a collection of essays, said Mr. Kazin's criticism sometimes lacked a ''compulsive central theme, a fixed view of men and books.''
There was little that Mr. Kazin found wholeheartedly good in modern literature. In later years, he expressed doubt that much writing of this century would find a lasting place in history's library. ''There's always Faulkner, of course,'' he would usually add.
Once, asked about his favorite writer, he said: ''The book I most often dip into is Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.' I like to reread Gibbon in the anxious watches of the night because he is so reassuring about history and himself. Gibbon knew -- he thought he knew exactly -- what was virtue and what was courage.''
His love affair with literature carried him through a sometimes stormy private life that included four marriages. His first was to Natasha Dohn, also the daughter of Russian immigrants. The marriage ended in divorce, and he married Caroline Bookman, with whom he had a son, Michael. That marriage lasted three years, and in 1952, he wed Ann Birstein, a novelist, with whom he had a daughter, Cathrael. He married Judith Dunford, also a writer, in 1983.
A dashing man with almond-shaped eyes hooded by bushy brows, Mr. Kazin was a charming and soft-spoken conversationalist who, as one interviewer described him, ''carried his erudition lightly.''
He enjoyed good food and wine and talk and loved to travel. ''My idea of heaven is to settle down in a jet with a book, a notebook and a martini,'' he once said.
He is survived by his wife; his son, Michael, of Chevy Chase, Md.; his daughter, Cathrael, of Jerusalem; two stepsons, Jonathan Dunford of Paris and Nathaniel Dunford of New York, a stepdaughter, Hilary Shanahan of New York; a sister, Pearl Bell of Boston; two grandchildren, and five step-grandchildren .
Mr. Kazin made no apologies for being a hard critic. ''I am dissatisfied, profoundly so, with the world as it is,'' he once observed. ''But I would be dissatisfied with any world. And I'd hate to lose my dissatisfaction.''Continue reading the main story