NEW YORK — In his last weeks of life, Alfred Kazin was still reading with passion, discussing books with friends who'd visit in the hospital, thinking about the book he still wanted to write. The author of "A Walker in the City," a keen observer of New York, could no longer walk, but his mind was ever curious. His silence will be deeply felt.
The author of 13 nonfiction books and editor of 10 literary collections, Kazin died of cancer on June 5, his 83rd birthday, in his Upper West Side apartment. Born to Russian immigrant parents — his father was a house painter and his mother a dressmaker — in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the distinguished literary critic had a career spanning more than 60 years.
Kazin's prose was direct and penetrating, a delight to read and, as many colleagues and friends have commented, awesome in its breadth. His prime subjects were literature and his own life. He kept a daily journal and continued to publish frequent reviews and essays; his poem, "River Mornings" appeared in The New Republic last month.
In 1934, while a student at City College, Kazin began writing for the New York Times Book Review. His first book, "On Native Grounds," about American literature, was published in 1942 and remains in print. Other books include works of criticism like "An American Procession" and memoirs "Starting Out in the 30's" and "New York Jew."
His latest book, "God and the American Writer" was published last year. While writing, he taught at many universities here and abroad. Since 1973, he has been a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
"He was a unique figure among New York Jewish intellectuals," Morris Dickstein, a critic and colleague at the Graduate Center, comments. "Early on, he was strongly interested in American culture when others were more interested in Europe, and he was interested in his Jewish background when other intellectuals looked toward the mainstream."
Kazin's daughter Cathrael, a lawyer and former professor of English who moved to Jerusalem two years ago, describes him as "the last of this great line of men of letters. There is no one with his hugeness of vision."
What made his criticism special, according to Dickstein, was his "human interest in literature rather than a technical interest or purely linguistic interest." He characterizes Kazin's style as having a "tremendous eruptive vitality" with "strong continuities" between his autobiographical and critical writing.
Michael Kazin, the writer's son who is an author and professor of history at American University, notes that his father's "great gift was to write about novelists with the lyricism of a novelist."
Dickstein says that Kazin's novelistic curiosity extended to his interest in people, and he loved to tell stories about those he met. "He probably learned more about the lives of the doctors and nurses in the hospital than most people would dream of."
Perhaps the last book Kazin read was an advance galley of Ted Solotaroff's upcoming autobiography, "Truth Comes in Blows." For Solotaroff, Kazin's "experience of reading his way through the classics of American literature was the guide that I and many others followed."
His friends and family say that Kazin, a grandfather who married four times, thrived on great conversation, good food and walking.
Psychologist and author Eva Fogelman, who is Kazin's cousin, recalls visiting the Kazins as a child on Sunday mornings, when he'd already be at his typewriter, in an apartment filled floor to ceiling with books. "He became a role model for me in terms of thinking of books and writing as something very important."
For someone so up front about being Jewish –who titled a memoir "New York Jew"– Kazin seemed to have a complicated relationship to Judaism.
"It's hard to imagine someone as obsessed by Judaism and so little comforted by it," his daughter says. She notes that he frequently read the Bible and Psalms, although he never attended synagogue. "He was not indifferent to Judaism. It was like an unhappy marriage."
About her moving to Israel, he was "really broken-hearted," she says. But during his last week she was able to talk to him about why she loves living there. He was reassured, she says, and realized it "didn't mean I had become ultra-Orthodox or right wing."
Kazin's sister Pearl Bell, also a writer and literary critic, says he was never close to Judaism as a religion, but long interested in Jewish culture. He was "cool toward the religious establishment," Michael Kazin notes. His father "had a deep spiritual longing and wrote about it. Everything he wrote, everything he was, came out of being Jewish."
As Kazin says in "New York Jew," "the Jews are my unconscious."
If Kazin had been able to finish the book he was working on, his Jewish identity might have been illuminated. The book was to have been titled "Jews," and it was to be a personal vision of Jewish history and culture. His son, along with Kazin's wife, writer Judith Dunford, will review the manuscript to see if it can be published. At his bedside last week, his daughter read excerpts of it to him.
As he requested, Kazin had a small funeral service and his body was cremated. It wasn't a Jewish service, his son says, although he said Kaddish.