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Alfred Kazin: A Biography
Alfred Kazin: A Biography
Richard M. Cook
Yale University Press, 2008
464 pp., 74.00

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by Roger Lundin

Flying Solo

William James, Alfred Kazin, and the fate of post-Christian Protestantism.

Near the close of his exceptional intellectual biography of William James, Robert D. Richardson pauses briefly to sing the praises of the great man. The occasion for his encomium happens to be a letter that James wrote, only months before he died, to Henry Adams, the curmudgeonly historian who was the grandson and great-grandson of presidents.

James had just finished reading Adams' "Letter to American Teachers of History," a 125-page lamentation over the implications for the study of history of Lord Kelvin's second law of thermodynamics. The dyspeptic Adams read the physics of entropy directly into the philosophy of history, and as he peered into the future, he spied not Al Gore's global warming fires but Lord Kelvin's "terminal ice." Adams envisioned "the last tribe" of humankind dying of hunger in the cold, camping at the equator, "on the shores of the last sea in the rays of a pale sun which will henceforward illumine an earth that is only a wandering tomb, turning around a useless light and a barren heat."

We can only imagine what a typical history teacher might have made of such a letter a century ago, but we know for certain that James didn't think much of it. Although he was dying of heart disease, he rallied sufficiently, in Richardson's words, "to rise in protest against the urbane and learned pessimism of his friend Adams's book-length funk." The philosopher told the historian he had forgotten a crucial fact about history, which is that all that matters is what men and women do with the powers they have. A dinosaur's brain may have "as much intensity of energy-exchange as a man's," James wrote, but it can do little more than unlock that creature's muscles, whereas the human brain, "by unlocking far feebler muscles, indirectly can by their means issue proclamations, write books, describe Chartres Cathedral etc. and guide the energies of the shrinking sun into channels which never would have been entered otherwise—in short make history." So it is, that "the 'second law' is wholly irrelevant to 'history.' "

However irrelevant the "second law" might be to history, it had a special pertinence for William James as he wrote to Adams, for death had planted a viselike grip upon his life, and his vital energy seemed to be leaking away by the day. A year earlier, when he and Sigmund Freud had met at a conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, the aged philosopher could not keep pace on a short walk with the younger psychoanalyst. "James stopped suddenly," Freud reported, "handed me a bag he was carrying and asked me to walk on, saying that he would catch up" as soon as he had recovered from an attack of angina. Only months later, James was so short of breath that he could barely speak as he introduced a distinguished guest lecturer at Harvard. The situation proved to be so dire that William's wife wrote a terse summary of his condition and that of his brother Henry: "William cannot walk and Henry cannot smile."

Nevertheless, here was William James, stymied in speech and walking at a crawl but still able to muster the energy needed to confront the state of entropy head on. "It is impossible, after reading James for any length of time, to refrain from using italics oneself," Richardson concludes:

But even italics fail to do justice to this magnificent outburst, the last stand of William James for the spirit of man. What can one say about the philosophical bravado, the cosmic effrontery, the sheer panache of this ailing philosopher with one foot in the grave talking down the second law of thermodynamics? It is a scene fit to set alongside the death of Socrates. The matchless incandescent spirit of the man!

One is tempted to say something similar about Robert Richardson, because for the past two decades he has been writing, with his own matchless incandescence and stylistic brilliance, a fascinating history of the 19th-century origins of contemporary mainstream Protestantism. Where others—George Marsden and Mark Noll among them—have told this story so well from the outside, Richardson has given us the incomparable feel of this history from within, from under the skin. His book on William James is the third of the volumes in which he has told this story, with outstanding intellectual biographies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau having preceded it.

In turn, the history that Richardson recounts, which runs from 1830 (Emerson's emergence) to 1910 (James' death), provides an all but perfect background for the work of Alfred Kazin, the 20th-century critic whose life Richard Cook has ably presented in his recent study. To move from the account of the one life (James) to the other (Kazin) in these books, is to get a surprising sense of unexpected connections. That is because, taken together, Richardson and Cook tell the story of how Emerson, Thoreau, and James developed in the 19th century a post-Christian Protestantism that came to serve as a secular creed for countless 20th-century artists and critics, Alfred Kazin included.

The course that liberal Protestantism ran in the 19th century led from the apologetic reduction of Christianity in Friedrich Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799) to the wholesale forsaking of Christian particularity in James' The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Schleiermacher sought to preserve the essence of Christianity by blunting its distinctives, but no matter how much substance he softened or pared away, he still professed to "believe in the living power of religion and of Christianity." James, on the other hand, explicitly rejected the idea that "a particular theology, the Christian theology," offered any definitive clues as to the identity of the "more" with which the human spirit seeks "union." If we were "to define the 'more' as Jehovah, and the 'union' as his imputation to us of the righteousness of Christ," James explained, "that would be unfair to other religions" and would constitute "an over-belief."

For James an "over-belief"—a faith in a personal God who has the power to forgive sins and raise the dead—would be, like Papa Bear's porridge, "too hot," while the acceptance of icy indifference as the law of life would be "too cold." For a belief whose feel would be "just right," James turned to private experience. In a passage that Richardson highlights from Varieties, the philosopher says that ultimately "personal religion will prove itself more fundamental" than theology or the church. Churches and the theological enterprise both "live at second-hand upon tradition; but the founders of every church owed their power" to "their direct communion with the divine." Richardson acknowledges that this represents "a radical departure, more radical even than that of Friedrich Schleiermacher," for it assumes that the Alpha and Omega of all religion is to be found only within the span of an individual life and all its conscious conceptions and activities.

To see how radical this departure was and to sense what it came to entail for the liberal tradition in Protestantism, we might consider an observation Richardson offers about James' method in Varieties. The biographer observes that to make his major points in this book, more often than not James offers "a collection of stories rather than a logical argument." Firsthand accounts do almost all the heavy lifting for the Jamesian experiential apologetic, and in fact, Richardson notes, "one has to go back to Fox's Book of Martyrs to find a comparable example of religious writing that rests its entire enterprise on narrative testimony."

This analogy is convincing, but only to a point. John Foxe does indeed pack his martyrology with harrowing stories of saintly suffering (by Protestants) and glorious incidents of divine retribution (against Catholics), but there is a profound difference between the foundation on which his narrative rests and the one that supports William James' enterprise. In an impressive study of martyrdom in early modern Europe, Brad Gregory explains that although Foxe's book contains some outright errors, the most important question was not whether "factual errors were sometimes made, but rather how the events they recounted were understood."

Gregory's point has to do both with the meaning of particular events in the saga of Reformation martyrdom and with the underlying system of belief that placed those events in a meaningful context. Within the view of providence that governed the Protestant view of history, every sudden death of a priest, every fire in a monastery, and every outbreak of the plague in a Catholic region could be interpreted as a sign of God's judgment. If the Reformation represented the restoration of the pure, unalloyed Gospel, it only made sense to assume that God would punish its corrupt opponents even as he sustained its persecuted supporters. This is the logic that drove the actions of Protestant martyrs and the interpretive practices of Reformation chroniclers such as Foxe. Gregory, himself a Catholic, says that regardless of the correctness of Protestant beliefs, the Reformation "worldview was comprehensive," and "all events had to fit somewhere, even if their meaning was not always transparent." [1]

This, then, is the foundational difference between the world of William James and that of John Foxe, and it is there, no matter how much the Book of Martyrs may resemble Varieties in its reliance upon "narrative testimony." For Foxe, that testimony rests upon and is encompassed by a complex view of God's sovereignty; and in turn, that view of providence is buttressed by a belief in the authority of Scripture, a conviction about the spiritual significance of natural phenomena, and a trust in the redemptive, covenantal activity of God throughout history. So in a fundamental sense, we can no more say that Foxe's enterprise rests entirely on narrative testimony than we could claim that the play in a child's room is grounded upon the second-floor carpet alone or that the deliberations in the corporate boardroom rest solely upon the steel beams that crisscross the 38th floor.

For William James, it does indeed seem to be the case that the foundations hover somewhere in the air. Because nature, Scripture, and history no longer serve as sources of authoritative support for the spiritual life in James' world, the carpet must somehow fly on the winds of experience alone, and the boardroom's beams must somehow be levitated by the psychic energies of the corporate cohort. It is in that sense that the Jamesian move to personal experience as the exclusive source of spiritual authority turns Protestantism, or at least this branch of it, into a form of post-Christian therapeutics.

Richardson says the inspiration for James' embrace of radical experientialism was none other than "Emerson the liberator, Emerson the champion of the single self." From the Concord essayist more than anyone else, James acquired his deepest conviction, which was "that the innermost nature of things is congenial to the powers that men possess." "History is an impertinence and an injury, if it be any thing more than a cheerful apologue or parable of my being and becoming," Emerson had written in 1841, and both William James and Alfred Kazin were to take him at his word. "The axis of reality," James concluded, "runs solely through the egotistic places—they are strung upon it like so many beads," and God, Kazin surmised, cannot be a person but is instead "a property of the human mind inquiring into the infinity of our relationships."

On the surface of things, James and Kazin make an incongruous pair. Almost two decades before the start of the Civil War, James was born into a family that was admittedly a bit off-center but remained securely tethered within the circle of the Protestant élites. Richardson describes William's father's convictions as "strong, idiosyncratic, and not easily located in the history of thought." Yet those convictions, and the connections they established for Henry James, the father, were sufficient to pave the way for his sons, William and Henry (the novelist), and his daughter, Alice, to work their way to the heart of American intellectual culture in the late 19th century.

In comparison, Alfred Kazin—who was born in 1915, less than five years after the death of William James—had to scrap and write his way into the mainstream of the American literary establishment. Born to Jewish parents who had only recently emigrated to the United States, Kazin developed at a young age a view of Jewishness primarily as a category of individualism and isolation. "My favorite notion of the Jew in history," he explained late in life, had always been "the high and low, the first man and the last, the nearest to God (he thinks) and the pariah, the 'prophet and the bounder' (Proust), … the most 'in' and the most 'out.' " For Kazin, to be a Jew was simply and supremely to be an individual, with all the loneliness and sense of singular purpose that entailed.

Such individualism appears to come straight out of Emerson, and more than once, Kazin described himself as a Jew who had found his home in the Emersonian tradition. "I love being Jewish," he told an interviewer at the end of his life, "but I pursue my own way in these things. I'm an Emersonian and always have been." At the same time, Kazin realized there were serious limits to this approach. Spiritual self-reliance often led to feelings of "intellectual homelessness," and a fundamental question remained for him: "Can one really worship the Jewish God privately?" Kazin was not sure. "He chose to pray alone," Cook reports, "often lying awake at night, lonely, frightened, beseeching." Like Emerson in his adulthood, Kazin shunned formal and corporate worship, for "I just am what I am. I have my own feelings."

Kazin tried to take solace from his belief that each human life is a story of what Emerson, quoting Plotinus, had called the "flight of the alone to the Alone." To be fully human is to commune with other great minds whose only companions are their own ideals and abstractions. "With us now everything, anything, is first seen as psychological. An honest believer is always on the couch," Kazin wrote in his valedictory work, God and the American Writer. From the "embattled lonely beginnings" of this culture to the present, "each church in America" has been "separate from and doctrinally hostile to others." And the culture's greatest religious writers have not really believed "in anything—except the unlimited freedom that is the usual American faith." [2]

Where Robert Richardson gives us the life of William James from the inside out—his is a life of the mind told from the vantage point of a companionate successor—Richard Cook's account of Alfred Kazin's life is a narrative told from a considerable distance. Clearly and straightforwardly, he relates the story of a life that began in the tenements of Brooklyn, and then moved with frenetic energy and an insatiable appetite from library to library, campus to campus, and bed to bed for almost half a century, before the last of four marriages, and the dividing of time between rural Connecticut and the Upper West Side, brought a measure peace to a most restless man.

Cook documents all of this carefully and copiously, sometimes quoting at length from Kazin's journals and published autobiographical writings. He lingers in particular, as Kazin himself did, on the first of the writer's infidelities, committed five years into his marriage to his first wife. Of making love to his "beautifully lawless and outrageous" partner, Kazin wrote that it was "one of the true privileges of the human condition … . Being with her spread such a circle of peace, easiness, perfection that I acquired a respect for sex that I had never known before." There is more of this, much more, in the unexpurgated versions given in Cook's biography, and most of it passes before the reader's eyes with little or no comment on its meaning for the life of the lonely Alfred Kazin.

No breathless sex is described or hinted at in Richardson's account of James' intellectual development, and about the raciest thing the Harvard philosopher appears ever to have done was perhaps to brush his leg, inadvertently, up against a psychic medium at one of the many "sittings" he attended. In going to these sessions—we would now call them séances—James was fueled as much by a desire to prove the possibility of psychic contact as he was by any yearning to hear from dead family members or friends. For all his bravado in taunting the second law of thermodynamics, to the end of his days, James longed to find a way out of the prison house of matter and a hope beyond the destiny of the grave.

One senses with both of these lives—that of the post-Christian Protestant and the non-observant Jew—that the loneliness they simultaneously treasured and lamented was grounded in something deeper and more desperate than personality alone. That loneliness was in fact a microcosm of the cosmic solitude that many had come to feel in the decades after Darwin. At its root, for James and Kazin, this solitude was intertwined with a fear that everything they valued so deeply, from the play of language to the mysteries of intimate personal experience and prolific cultural life, was a curious byproduct, a mental castoff of material life. "Consciousness," James wrote, may "be nothing but a sort of superadded biological perfection—useless unless it prompted to useful conduct."

Yet what was the ultimate purpose of human conduct, however "useful" it might be to the process of living? Although neither James nor Kazin pretended to know the answer to that question, they kept asking it to the end, with James doing so openly and intentionally and Kazin pursuing the matter in a more displaced and oblique manner.

Less than a year before he died, James mounted one last attempt to fight his way out of the metaphysical box and find a cure for his cosmic loneliness. He wrote a report titled "The Confidences of a 'Psychical Researcher,' " which was meant to defend his experiments in parapsychology, to explain his disappointment over the meager yield of those explorations, and to reassert his hope that a word from beyond might still break through someday. Calling himself not a "spiritist" or a "scientist," James said, "I still remain a psychical researcher waiting for more facts before concluding."

In the meantime, as we watch and wait, we do so alone. The "Psychical Researcher" essay closes with a heart-rending picture of the human condition as it appeared to an unblinking observer at the dawn of the 20th century. From his experiences with psychic phenomena in particular and the long run of his life in general, James reports that "one fixed conclusion dogmatically emerges." It is "that we with our lives are like islands in the sea, or like trees in the forest." If we listen closely, we may hear "the maple and the pine … whisper to each other with their leaves," just as the lonely towns along the New England coast may "hear each other's fog-horns."

For James, the only hope for human life lay in the tangle of unseen connections that he believed must be there, somewhere beneath the seas of our lives: "The trees also commingle their roots in the darkness underground, and the islands also hang together" beneath the bottom of the ocean. "Just so there is a continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge as into a mother-sea or reservoir."

Because both James and Kazin believed neither in a personal God nor in the possibility of eternal life, that plunge of the mind into the mother-sea was to reveal nothing that could be known and yield nothing that could be enjoyed. The first question of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, "What is your only comfort, in life and in death?" and then replies, "That I belong—body and soul, in life and death—not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ." But on the "flight of the alone to the Alone," there is no Son of God to bring comfort and no Spirit to provide communion. "At the end," for William James, his wife reported, there had simply been "no pain and no consciousness." And Alfred Kazin's wife writes that a year after his death, she and a few others dropped the box of his ashes from the Brooklyn Bridge—"halfway from each shore, Brownsville [in Brooklyn] on the right, 'Beyond' [Manhattan] on the left. Then it went down. Just where he wanted to be."

Roger Lundin is Blanchard Professor of English at Wheaton College.

1. Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard Univ. Press, 1999), p. 182.

2. Alfred Kazin, God and the American Writer (Knopf, 1997), p. 259.

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