Kazin, Bellow and Trilling: A Tryptich

I have a stake in Zachary Leader’s new huge first volume biography of Saul Bellow that has just appeared. Bellow was a friend and Leader gives a brief account of the exchange I had with him days before he died. When I visited, his assistant told me that Saul had not been speaking for days and would I try to get him to speak. I asked Saul “what do you have to say for yourself?” A pause and he lit up. “I’ve been thinking: am I a man or a jerk?” I said “would you believe my answer?”

He assented, and I said “you are a man.” He seemed pleased. Word of the exchange got around, and when heard by Martin Amis, Bellow’s question underwent a change. In a memorial service in New York, Amis altered “jerk” to “joke.” I distinctly heard “jerk,” and Leader, who accurately reports what I heard, notes that “jerk” was the word Saul’s father applied to him. He also translates “man” to “mentsch,” which is a richer word meaning human being as well as resonating with moral worth. I have written elsewhere about Bellow as a man and as a writer. I want now to take a more indirect route and place him in the company of two eminent critics of his generation, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling.

Kazin was a gifted verbal portraitist, his subjects other writers past and present. In portraying them, he portrayed himself as well. A short essay (an excerpt from New York Jew) on Saul Bellow and Lionel Trilling turns into a triptych of all three—illuminating them as writers, Americans and Jews. The Bellow of the essay is of a time when he had published short stories, but before he had published a single novel. Kazin reflects on Bellow’s power of observation and immense confidence in his destiny as artist. “As I walked him across Brooklyn Bridge and around my favorite streets in Brooklyn Heights, he looked at my city with great detachment. He had the gift—without warning, it would follow a séance of brooding Jewish introspection—of making you see the most microscopic event in the street because he happened to be seeing it. In the course of some startling observations on the future of the war, the pain of Nazism, the neurotic effects of apartment-house hunting on his friends in New York…he thought up some very funny jokes, puns, and double entendres. It was sometimes difficult to catch the punch line, he laughed so fast with hearty pleasure at things so well said, in a voice that already shaped its words with careful public clarity. He explained, as casually as if he were in a ballpark faulting a pitcher, that Fitzgerald was weak, but Dreiser strong in the right places. He examined Hemingway’s style like a surgeon pondering another surgeon’s stitches. Then, familiarly calling on D.H. Lawrence…as our particular brother in arms he pointed to the bilious and smoke-dirty sky over the Squibb factory on Columbia Heights. Like Lawrence, he wanted no “umbrella” between him and the essential mystery. He wanted direct contact with everything in the universe around him… Listening to Bellow, I became intellectually happy—an effect he was soon to have on a great many writers of his generation” (171-72).

Kazin’s exuberant language captures the spirit of Bellow’s presence. (Note incidentally or not so incidentally the use of the possessive case in his reference to the streets of Brooklyn and to the city itself: my streets, my city. Philip Rahv once mocked him: “Hey Alfred, What’s this about our mountains, our rivers?” Solotaroff, xv.) Kazin’s sense of identification with Bellow is complete, though for various reasons not to be sustained over the years that followed. (A liberal throughout his career, Kazin and Bellow found themselves on different sides politically as the aging Bellow turned conservative. Bellow, always hypersensitive to criticism, took umbrage at Kazin’s unfavorable view of Mr. Sammler’s Planet.) The essay does not provide a single passage that Bellow had written. Here as elsewhere in much of his writing, Kazin focuses on the man, the character of the artist; the art is more or less assumed, left for detailed analysis and interpretation to close readers. Kazin says the following of his own work: “my tendency as writer and critic [is] to dwell on ‘high points’ of a text, the emotional peaks, the ‘isolated beauties,’ instead of theargument of a book. My weakness as a literary scholar and as a writer is to opt for the creative moment rather than for the argument But only the argument settles anything in a book…” (Journals, 325-26). In his characterization of Bellow’s powers of observation and expression, Kazin is declaring his own aspiration.

Kazin’s Trilling is another story: it begins in acceptance and appreciation (Trilling had praised On Native Grounds) and ends in rejection and disappointment. Here is Kazin’s portrait of Trilling. “[He] already had his distinguished white hair over a handsome face that seemed to be furrowed, hooded, closed up with constant thought. The life was all within, despite his debonair practiced easiness of manner. With his look of consciously occupying an important place, his already worn face, his brilliant discriminations as we talked, he quietly defended himself from the many things he had left behind. He seemed to feel more than the usual literary connection to things English and proudly told me that his mother had been born in England. Victorian England would be his intellectual motherland” (173). Whatever Trilling may have told Kazin, Trilling’s intellectual homeland extended beyond England to the Europe of Goethe, Stendhal and Freud, among many other European writers, as a reading of his essays shows.

Having inadvertently offended Diana, Trilling’s wife, on the first and only visit he had made to their apartment, Kazin became persona non grata. The estrangement, however, had a deeper source, his Jewishness, which he wore upon his sleeve. “For Trilling I would always be ‘too Jewish,’ too full of my lower class experience.” Bellow was comfortable in his Jewishness, though he did not make it front and center as Kazin tended to do. In the essay, Kazin shifts abruptly from the Jewish theme to Trilling’s mildly favorable, though somewhat condescending, review of Augie March in order to expose the abstractness of Trilling’s diction and his tepid prose—as if, one might surmise, Trilling’s anglophilic temperament was a case of repressed Jewishness, something neither Kazin nor Bellow could be accused of. Here are two sentences from Trilling’s review of Augie March: “It is a good subject; it has its own implicit richness; one can almost say that if a writer comes to it with honesty and painstakingness, he can scarcely fail to make something good of it. We have then a prose that is articulate to that last degree, very fluent and rapid, yet thick with metaphor and epithet” (Solotaroff, 173). Not a felicitous instance of Trilling’s prose, but hardly representative of its capacity elsewhere for “brilliant discriminations,” as Kazin himself acknowledges. Kazin tells us what we already know: “I felt more at home with Bellow’s attitude toward experience.” (His resentment toward Trilling, as expressed in his journals, became obsessive, doing justice neither to Trilling nor to Kazin.)

The differences between Bellow and Trilling and Kazin’s relation to them throw unexpected light on their different attitudes toward America. Without abandoning the Yiddishkeit of their origins, both Kazin and Bellow embraced an America that, despite obstacles, seemed to beckon to them. I am an American, Brooklyn born, Kazin could have said echoing Augie March. With this qualification: Kazin was intellectually and emotionally volatile. In one mood he would embrace America as if he were in full possession of the country, and in another mood declare his insurmountable sense of being an outsider. In the journals, he writes: “I’ve never felt like an American. But that’s because I’ve given up trying to feel like an American…[And] yet Americans feel deprived of what they once had. They feel that it is no more their country. No wonder that the Jewish writer comes in to fill the vacuum” (305). Wasn’t Kazin one of those writers? Not knowing Kazin personally, but on the evidence of his work, I don’t think that he ever stopped trying to feel like an American/

Kazin and Bellow were at a rare moment in American history when gifted first generation Jews could look back with affection to a parochial past they were leaving behind as well as forward (in Kazin’s case with great apprehension, uncertainty and high anxiety) to an expansive future of American adventure and opportunity, a double-mindedness that informed and enriched their imaginations. (In an introduction to an anthology Kazin’s America: Critical and Personal Writings, Ted Solotaroff notes that Kazin began a draft of his memoir Walker in the City with the following sentence: “Every time I go back to Brownsville, it is as if I had never lived there” only to change the last two words to “been away,” the change made after he had paid a visit to his family, another instance of Kazin’s volatility and self-contradiction.) The fact is that Jewish writers of Kazin’s, Bellow’s and Bernard Malamud’s generation never really left their past behind. As Kazin remarks of Malamud’s characters: “they all speak with vigor the same depressed sounding dialect, giving a Yiddish cadence to New York English.” The Yiddishkeit of Jewish American writers infiltrated American culture.

Trilling, the son of an English Jew, who had migrated to America, lacked that past. His was an English past, and he looked upon America and its cultural achievement from the critical vantage point of an assumed superior Jamesian and Arnoldian anglophilic and Eurocentric perspective. An apparently assimilated Jew, Trilling seemed intellectually less at home in America than the Yiddish speaking Bellow and even the all-too-Jewish Kazin in his affirmative mood. Trilling was preeminent as literary and cultural critic of what he called the moral imagination, which had a source in a selective view of the novel, of which Jane Austen and Henry James were exemplary figures. His critique of American liberalism from the inside still resonates in our political culture. Kazin had an openness to American experience that Trilling lacked—as in the following passage: “Every once in a while some token—a sentence in a book, a voice heard—will recall for me the fresh instant delight in American landscape and culture…The sentence this morning fresh as a spring wind comes from Constance Rourke’s book on Audubon, on the sudden realization that his ornithology showed a national sense of scale, that like Whitman he was a great voice of American nationality” (Solotaroff, xvi). It was Kazin’s view of Bellow and writers made happy by Bellow: Malamud and Roth, the non-Jewish writer, William Kennedy and the English writers, Martin Amis and Ian MacEwan, among others, that prevailed, contributing to the richness of contemporary American and English literature. Though Kazin was by no means an uncritical reader of contemporary fiction (at times he would complain about its sorry state), he was nevertheless a thoroughly engaged reader and saw himself as writing “in the service of contemporary literature.” (Biased in favor of realism, he was an unfriendly critic of technically experimental fiction.)

Here is an irony of the difference between Kazin and Trilling. Kazin was more or less comfortable in his role as critic and man of letters. One has only to read On Native Grounds to appreciate his enthusiasm as critic of American fiction at the outset of his career. Trilling, on the other hand, never really happy as critic*, despite the acclaim he received, longed to be a novelist (he did complete one novel and a few stories), but had little affinity for American fiction being written in his time and in the past. “I’m always surprised to hear myself referred to as a critic…I did not ever undertake to be a critic—being a critic was not, in Wordsworth’s phrase, part of the plan that pleased my boyish thought, or my adolescent thought, or even my thought as a young man. The plan that did please my thought was certainly literary, but what it envisaged was a career as a novelist. To this intention, criticism, when I began to practice it, was always secondary, an afterthought: in short, not a vocation but an avocation.” Could it be that his frustration as novelist manqué had something to do with his Jamesian sensibility and ties to his Victorian motherland? Would he have found himself as novelist in an earlier time and place?

I am a decade and a half younger than Bellow and Kazin and grew up in Kazin’s Brooklyn. (Walker in the City is a wonderful book about Brownsville, the backyard of East New York, the neighborhood of my childhood and adolescence.) Possessing Kazin’s experience of Yiddishkeit, I made my trip on Brooklyn Bridge (actually in the subway under another bridge) to Columbia where Trilling was my teacher and to Bard College for my first teaching job where Bellow became by friend. I met Kazin only once. In their different ways, Bellow and Trilling enlarged my experience of America and the world. I should add I had the good fortune of never having offended Diana.

A personal anecdote: A student at Columbia College age nineteen or twenty, I was interviewed for admittance to an advanced colloquium in literature at Columbia. One of the interviewers, Quentin Anderson, a Jamesian friend and disciple of Trilling, asked me to name a book I particularly admired. I said An American Tragedy. Dreiser’s novel was iconic in the Marxist environment in which I had grown up. It also had a reputation for bad prose among admirers of James. Anderson invited me into his office afterwards, informed me that I was admitted to the colloquium and then told me the crushing news: I was an intelligent and serious student, but would never experience the higher triumphs of the imagination (for example, James’s novels), if I remained an admirer of Dreiser. I did become an admirer of James’s work, but I regret never asking Bellow, who was an admirer of Dreiser, about “the right places where Dreiser was strong.”

What all three have in common is the instability of their American identities. Bellow’s wholehearted embrace of it in Augie March was a phase in his career. In Ravelstein, he laments the insufficiency of the American language to convey dark thoughts as if he wanted to fall back on the Yiddish of his upbringing. I asked him once about his friendships at Boston University. He didn’t come up with any names, and I mentioned a distinguished critic whom I thought was his friend. He said that he was a fine man, but what was lacking in him for the full satisfaction of friendship was knowledge of Yiddish. I was fortunate to have the knowledge. Kazin approached America with wide open arms, but, feeling rejected, he said he gave up trying to be American. And Trilling without a recognizable Yiddish background and with a Jamesian sensibility seemed to observe the American scene from across the Atlantic. America is an ideal, an abstraction, made concrete by the hyphenate status of the people who make up the country. In introducing himself, Augie March describes himself as an American Chicago born without mentioning that he is Jewish. He did not have to. His Jewishness is evident in the way he enriched the American idiom, as Kazin was among the first to appreciate.