The Man Who Groused

The London Telegraph has a review of Michael Cook’s new biography of Alfred Kazin, a book that portrays the critic as a melancholy, adulterous man who (as a critic at least) shot his wad before he was 30. Grumpy critics may be the most vulnerable people on earth. Witness this catty exchange mentioned in the review: “While he said of his third wife, the novelist Ann Birstein, that no writer ever read less, she countered that she had published more than him if you removed his quotations.” Michael Dirda came away with much the same feeling reading the biography, though the Kazin he describes has an optimism to bolster all that misery:

While Kazin remained throughout much of his career a public advocate for 1930s-style hopefulness — the one aspect of Edmund Wilson he didn’t admire was the great man’s pessimism — he nonetheless poured out his own angst and spite and growing melancholy in his journals. While he consciously believed in human aspiration, moral passion and ideals, within the chambers of his heart he seems to have fought constantly against self-pity and the kind of loneliness we associate with the figures in the paintings of Edward Hopper — or with Melville, Dickinson and many other 19th-century American authors. And yet writers, the critic was convinced, couldn’t wholly retreat from life into the self. He believed strongly that art needed to be grounded in the real, to be an attempt to grasp the complexities of a time, place or people.

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