The Nation's Conscience


The Major Writers From 1830 to 1930, The Crucial Century

by Alfred Kazin. Knopf, $18.95.

ALFRED KAZIN is one of the most seasoned and subtle critics of American literature. He has always balanced an awareness of the pressure of external circumstances with a sense that books are also a series of private meetings between authors and ink bottles. He sees writers as at once facing the world and facing their desks. The title of his new book, An American Procession, comes from Whitman, who proclaimed that Enterson was “the actual beginner of the whole procession.” Taking the hint, Mr. Kazin begins his book in 1830, not long before Emerson published his extraordinary essay “Nature.” He ends it in 1930, not long after T. S. Eliot confirmed in The Waste Land his own gloom and that of a generation. Mr. Kazin’s book has “The Crucial Century” in its subtitle because during these hundred years the United States became a planetary force, and its writers had to reckon with the sudden access of perilous grandeur.

Mr. Kazin is too astute to offer easy generalizations about the very different authors who make up his procession. He refuses to view them as a series of Oedipus figures reacting against their predecessors, as he might have done, and points out instead how generously they regarded each other. Nor does he see them as beads on a single string, though

he likes to note such interconnections as a meeting between Eliot’s grandfather and Emerson in St. Louis, and intellectual kinship between Melville and Hawthorne, between Dickinson and Emerson. Mr. Kazin allows them their individuality, as indeed he must; several of them proclaimed that they were what Melville called “isolatoes.” In fact, a good deal of Mr. Kazin’s skill is in his succinct characterizations.

Yet the procession is strung together, at least loosely, by the critic’s mood, which might be described as the malaise of the eighties. A critic reassessing the century in which America became so powerful from the perspective of half a century later cannot help but notice the liabilities that go with the assumption of strength. Mr. Kazin’s point of view is adumbrated in his prologue, which he titles, after T. S. Eliot’s “Gerontion,” “An Old Man in a Dry Month.” It might be expected that the prologue would deal with the period before Emerson began the whole procession, but instead it deals with the end. The principal exhibits are Henry Adams and Eliot. Neither of them affirmed the American experience. Adams, who weaves in and out of Mr. Kazin’s narrative, has an almost archetypal importance. He lived through most of the crucial century. Though a recluse, he was a public recluse; of all American intellectuals he was the closest to the center of things. What especially interests this critic is that Adams was a Cassandra whose Eduration (published posthumously in 1918, at the moment of wartime victory) made his confession of personal failure a confession of national failure. A member of a famous family that believed in progress, he disbelieved in it. Others saw America’s strength;

he saw its entropy. He was dismayed by the onrush of power, lamented the dynamo’s replacement of the virgin, rejected Whitman’s romantic democracy.

In an illuminating comparison Mr. Kazin places Adams next to Eliot, also from a prominent American family and equally unwilling to be complacent about the scene. Not that Eliot was an admirer of The Education; he reviewed it unfavorably, because of its preoccupation with self, and saw in it “the wings of a beautiful but ineffectual conscience beating vainly in a vacuum jar.” Yet, as Mr. Kazin shows, there were ways in which the two men saw eye to eye. Eliot borrowed some images of “depraved May” from Adams’s book and used them in “Gerontion.” Further, he shared the sense of a dreadful night falling over the Western world, and gave it, in The Waste Land, an even more arid label than Adams had. By placing Adams and Eliot shoulder to shoulder in his prologue, Mr. Kazin serves warning that his meditation on American literature will concern itself especially with the distance between aspiration and reality.
To turn back, in the chapter following, to the aspiring Emerson is to recognize a fresh and “primordial” power in American literature of the 1830s. Emerson fomented a new consciousness; the self-reliant self created its world. But as time ran on, Emerson was obliged to acknowledge a certain intractability in that world, a stubborn refusal to be molded or remolded by the self. The Mexican War distressed him so much that he wrote: “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” The immense potentialities he had glimpsed were not being realized. Like Thoreau after him, Emerson was outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act. His enthusiasm was slowly muted, and his vocabulary darkened. As the

problem of life became insoluble, he fell back upon history, as the biographies of representative men. Mr. Kazin sees Emerson’s collapse as not only physical but spiritual; Emerson found it impossible to uphold hope in the midst of despair.

Although Thoreau died with serenity, his career shows similar signs of unrest. In the flush of transcendental enthusiasm Walden was, as Mr. Kazin says, the perfect mate for him. Slowly, however, his romantic genius fell out of step with the realities of American power. Thoreau attacked the Fugitive Slave Act; he pleaded for Captain John Brown. The world was not easy to transcendentalize. Mr. Kazin sympathizes with Thoreau in his efforts to cope with stubborn and dismal events, and in his motive for writing “Civil Disobedience.” But he thinks its anarchic views futile in the coercive atmosphere of the modern state.
As the procession winds on, Hawthorne makes his appearance, with Poe beside him. The two form a useful contrast. Hawthorne was rooted in village life, while Poe saw himself as landless and homeless. The characters in Hawthorne’s fictions are full of ancestral memories yet weary of them; if they could, they would give up the old order. Poe’s characters search for order in terror of their immediate chaos. Both men were haunted by ghosts. The one lived in sin, without quite believing in the Puritan consciousness; the other in anxiety, punctuated by a succession of extremes.
Whitman, when he arrives on the scene, is exhilarating. For a time he exhibited the spirit of the early Emerson, and Emerson paid him a great tribute. Yet there is a difference between the poems in the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) and those added to the edition published after the Civil War. In the earlier poems Whitman was confident that the self was master of its own fate; in the later ones he was aware that young men do not gloriously amplify and exfoliate—they kill each other and die. In Drum-Taps and Specimen Days the old confidence was shaken, and Whitman, once so euphoric about the national present and future, bit his lip.
MR. KAZIN LIKES the transcendentalists, but he likes them better as their condition approximates his own malaise. When he comes to Melville, he has no such equivocations. To him Melville is a figure like Rimbaud or Beckett rather than like Hardy or Conrad. Melville went the limit; in book after book he broke into the unknown. He spoke of pitting himself against this “wolfish world” with “my splintered heart and maddened hand.”Mr. Kazin welcomes Melville as a fellow New Yorker and as a thoroughly modern mind. He was no transcendentalism Though he admired Emerson personally. Melville had no truck with his theories. “ To one who has weathered Cape Horn as a common sailor what stuff all this is,” he said. He knew from the beginning what Emerson and Thoreau had to learn with the utmost reluctance: that power has a tragic quality. “All men who say yes, lie,”he told Hawthorne. Captain Ahab seeks almightiness and in the access of power wrecks everything. Mr. Kazin commends Melville for evoking the most ferocious unfavorable view of modern society to be found in classical American literature.
Emily Dickinson may not have been ferocious, but she was terrifyingly candid. She had the conviction that the Puritans had: that every instant of life was morally important. 1 hough not irreligious, she found in religion no easy reassurances. (iod appeared less as a father than as an eclipse. Mr. Kazin admires her skepticism, her sense that there is no obvious linkage among things, her recognition that there arc confines to human knowledge.
Emilv Dickinson is followed by an odd pairing, of Mark twain and Henry James. Neither of them could bear to read the other’s works. The native talent is contrasted with the international one, the “lawless narrator" (as twain referred to himself) with the devotee of form. Mr. Kazin feels that Twain in his later days faced up to the aggressiveness of American society in a way that James did not. Twain came to feel that nothing existed except the mixed-up pieces of human nature, arranged by a spirit he considered baleful rather than beneficent. James, while skirting the problems of American power, filled his books with acts of duplicity and corruption that may circuitously register a reaction to the larger issue by means of smaller instances.
For Mr. Kazin the first modernist in the procession is Stephen Crane, but the triumph of modernism comes with Fliot and Ezra Pound. Neither of them is entirely to Mr. Kazin’s taste: he does not like Pound’s abolition of all historicism in favor of present fashion, nor does he like Eliot’s traditionalism. Both men were skillful anatomists of their age, but Eliot’s paeans to the past, and especially Pound’s fascism, show modernism at wit’s end.
By this time Mr. Kazin has come up to the 1920s, and his theme appears to be fully expressed. But, perhaps to end on a less negative note, he continues the procession into the early 1930s. There is now a burst of energy, though the writers’ vision has none of the Emersonian euphoria. We pass in review Faulkner with his sense of historical decay, Hemingway disconsolate yet stylistically brilliant, Dos Passos chronicling the times even more than his characters’ lives. These last members of the procession are too close to Mr. Kazin ‘s own mentality for their positions about power to be detailed. They bring up the rear of the “frantic steeplechase toward nothing" (Faulkner) that Mr. Kazin finds in their “pitiless century.”
The critic’s presentation of this literary array is authoritative and deeply considered. Mr. Kazin writes, as always, with pith and wit. Though the writers fit in with his mood, he also tries to fit in with theirs. At moments the procession seems incomplete: Stevens, Frost, and Williams appear to have fallen by the wayside without a trace. And while an element of disheartenment is certainly prevalent in American literature, it is sometimes in danger of being magnified at the expense of a very different element.
Mr. Kazin, though sensitive to style, is not inclined to emphasize the writers’ victories over conventional attitudes, their “extravagant excursions into forbidden territory,” as Joyce called such things. Energy, innovation, and tenacity in their art balance disillusionment in their outlook. But no one in 1984 will deny Mr. Kazin his right to malaise, or question the validity of the struggle that he finds in American writers to be the conscience of their power-happy race. □