When Reading Was Everything

Alfred Kazin’s Writing Was Everything is about 20th century US reading. The book could have been titled Reading Was Everything. It’s the text of Kazin’s 1994 Massey Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard. There are four sections, a short prologue, “All Critics Are Mortal,” and three chapters: “Before the War,” “During the War,” and “After the War.” The War is WW II. But it seems we’re always somewhere in this context, before a war, during a war, or after a war. For my generation the during chapter would be Vietnam, and while there have been more recent wars, many of us still seem stuck in the after of that one. Kazin doesn’t even mention Vietnam; for him there was only one war. This doesn’t matter; for all wars are the same, and we are all always before, during, and after one.

Kazin places all relevant writing in a cultural context of social and political forces; the greatest forces for his generation were socialism and totalitarianism. The was in the title is informing; it establishes the value of literature as remembering. Writing is looking back, going home again. Kazin began his writing career during the depression as an independent book reviewer, and he became a professional critic, but Writing Was Everything opens and closes on the critical note that literary criticism is not literature. For it’s literature that was everything, and Kazin deplores today’s “ideologues [who] ignore the imponderables of existence that are still with us after all the work of science, technology, analytic philosophy, psychology, deconstruction, or linguistics, after all the political, racial, and sexual debate so hot in the academy.” For Kazin, literature is the “value we can give to our experience.” Thus he deplores that today’s “academy is so preoccupied with status that it can proclaim literature to be only a branch of criticism, just another ‘discourse’.”

After the war, Kazin discovers Milosz, who invokes Blake’s Ulro: “What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song? / Or wisdom for a dance in the street? / No, it is bought with the price / Of all that a man hath: his house, his wife, his children.” I thought, “this is Job,” and a few pages later we do find Job: “Poetry to him [Milosz] is profoundly a recall, not a mere presentation of lived experience. It resembles what he calls ‘the cries of Job,’ not our endless defenses and explorations of the ego.” When everyone is down, as in the case of Job, when everyone is on trial, as in the case of Kafka, when everyone is hungry, beat, and destitute, as in the case of Simone Weil, an important voice for both Milosz and Kazin, “…when an entire community is stricken…poetry [becomes] as essential as bread.” Milosz claimed not to understand the spirit that prompted his poetry, and therefore, in his own teaching, he “limited [himself] to the history of literature, trying to avoid poetics.” Kazin, in Writing Was Everything, does essentially just that, sticks to the history of the writing, believing that “what gets us closer to a work of art is not instruction but another work of art.” Each writer Kazin introduces is introduced by another writer, until the reader has met them all, albeit briefly (the book is only 152 pages), and understands that their writing is a dialog. There are writers missing from Kazin’s discussion (Beckett, for example, for whom writing really was everything, but Kazin may have had difficulty figuring out what to do with Beckett’s seeming absence of cultural or political context), but I was happily surprised at the space given Flannery O’Connor and Simon Weil, who are among the many writers Kazin talks about that he knew personally.

Writing Was Everything is one of the books I picked up at the Multnomah County Library book sale a month or so ago, in perfect shape, hard back with dust jacket intact, for $1. I’m slowly working my way through the pile of books I picked up at the sale.

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