Alfred Kazin on Loneliness, Love, Otherness, and How Reading Sets Us Free
“Every book I read re-stocked my mind with those great friends… They came into my life proud and compassionate, recognizing me by a secret sign, whispering through subterranean channels of sympathy.”
By Maria Popova
One beautiful summer evening just before sundown, I was walking along the Brooklyn Promenade with my partner, who comes from a family of Orthodox Jews. We passed two young mothers of the same tradition, one pushing a triple stroller and the other a double, both clad in neat but no doubt sweltering attire, their heads covered in lush wigs. I lamented how sad I felt for them — barely out of their teens and without what one might call a proper secular education, they had already strolled and strollered far down a life path that led in a single predetermined direction. These young mothers were among the countless women in the history of the world who have been denied intellectual achievement and creative self-actualization, reduced instead to one primary existential purpose by their culture — a procreational purpose which, if given more options, some may still have chosen for themselves but many would not have.
My partner countered this lamentation with the more compassionate possibility that they might, quite simply, be happy — a possibility out of which arises a larger and more elemental question: What is happiness, really, and what grants any of us the hubris to judge another’s?
Still, there was something deeply disquieting about the notion of being assigned one’s happiness rather than choosing it freely. Tussling with this seemingly unanswerable perplexity, I was reminded of several passages from A Walker in the City (public library) — the wonderful 1951 memoir by the great Jewish-American writer and literary critic Alfred Kazin (June 5, 1915–June 5, 1998), in which he recounts his boyhood in Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood, a place both in New York and magnitudes away.
Kazin paints the vast socioeconomic and cultural divide:
When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world. It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that first gave me this idea. It took a long time getting to “New York”; it seemed longer getting back.
I saw New York as a foreign city. There, brilliant and unreal, the city had its life, as Brownsville was ours. That the two were joined in me I never knew then… We were the end of the line. We were the children of the immigrants who had camped at the city’s back door, in New York’s rawest, remotest, cheapest ghetto… “New York” was what we put last on our address, but first in thinking of the others around us. They were New York, the Gentiles, America; we were Brownsville — Brunzvil, as the old folks said — the dust of the earth to all Jews with money, and notoriously a place that measured all success by our skill in getting away from it.
But nowhere was the cultural rift more gaping than in Brownsville’s attitude toward love and its role in happiness. Like the rest of the community, Kazin’s parents were hardworking immigrants — his mother was a seamstress in a dressmaking sweatshop and his father a house painter. They had a practical, sensible marriage predicated on survival and bound by tradition. But his mother had a cousin with an outlook so radically different that it sparked in young Alfred the sense that love could be something larger and freer than survivalist pragmatism. Along with two friends of similar disposition, the cousin would visit Kazin’s childhood home on Fridays, importing the promise of a wholly different, more wholehearted and liberated life. He recounts:
Our cousin and her two friends were of my parents’ generation, but I could never believe it — they seemed to enjoy life with such outspokenness. They were the first grown-up people I had ever met who used the word love without embarrassment. “Libbe! Libbe!” my mother would explode whenever one of them protested that she could not, after all, marry a man she did not love. “What is this love you make such a stew about? You do not like the way he holds his cigarette? Marry him first and it will all come out right in the end!” It astonished me to realize there was a world in which even unmarried women no longer young were simply individual human beings with lives of their own.
This formative realization that romantic liberty is an essential form of human agency upended all the givens on which Kazin had been nursed. But it was also, he realized, a luxury reserved for those not toiling for survival. He marvels at the contrast between the three women’s disposition and that of typical Brownsville families:
Our parents, whatever affection might offhandedly be expressed between them, always had the look of being committed to something deeper than mere love. Their marriages were neither happy nor unhappy; they were arrangements. However they had met — whether in Russia or in the steerage or, like my parents, in an East Side boarding house — whatever they still thought of each other, love was not a word they used easily. Marriage was an institution people entered into — for all I could ever tell — only from immigrant loneliness, a need to be with one’s own kind that mechanically resulted in the family. The family was a whole greater than all the individuals who made it up, yet made sense only in their untiring solidarity. I was perfectly sure that in my parents’ minds libbe was something exotic and not wholly legitimate, reserved for “educated” people like their children, who were the sole end of their existence. My father and mother worked in a rage to put us above their level; they had married to make us possible. We were the only conceivable end to all their striving; we were their America.
So far as I knew, love was not an element admissible in my parents’ experience. Any open talk of it between themselves would have seemed ridiculous. It would have suggested a wicked self-indulgence, a preposterous attention to one’s own feelings, possible only to those who were free enough to choose. They did not consider themselves free. They were awed by us, as they were awed by their own imagined unworthiness, and looked on themselves only as instruments toward the ideal “American” future that would be lived by their children. As poor immigrants … in their lives combined to make them look down on love as something they had no time for.
Time, of course, was the currency of survival in working-class life — long hours at the sweatshop were what earned Kazin’s mother the wage with which she fed her children. To invest time in love seemed like a reckless use of resources — a gratuitous warping of priorities that rendered love a luxurious function of economic freedom. Kazin writes of his parents’ attitude:
Love, they could have said, was not serious. Life was a battle to “make sure”; it had no place, as we had no time, for whims.
To my mother riches alone were the gateway to romance, for only those who had money enough could afford the freedom, and the crazy boldness, to give themselves up to love.
In stark contrast to this mindset stood Kazin’s cousin and her two friends, whom he came to admire greatly. These “women, grown-up women … talking openly” impressed upon him the idea that a different kind of life was possible — a life where liberty and love coexisted, where one was free to choose one’s own path, and where the path to happiness and freedom was paved, above all, with a deep love of literature:
They had a great flavor for me, those three women: they were the positive center of that togetherness that always meant so much to me in our dining room on Friday evenings… Those Friday evenings, I suddenly found myself enveloped in some old, primary Socialist idea that [people] could go beyond every barrier of race and nation and language, even of class! into some potential loving union of the whole human race. I was suddenly glad to be a Jew, as these women were Jews — simply and naturally glad of those Jewish dressmakers who spoke with enthusiastic familiarity of Sholem Aleichem and Peretz, Gorky and Tolstoy, who glowed at every reminiscence of Nijinsky, of Nazimova in The Cherry Orchard, of Pavlova in “The Swan.”
Kazin was especially taken with the titans of Russian literature — writers like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, whose works entwined the difficult realities of daily life with a romantic view of the human spirit. He recounts:
The heroes of the Russian novel — our kind of people — would walk the world, and I — still wearing a circle-necked Russian blouse “à la Tolstoy” — would live forever with those I loved in that beautiful Russian country of the mind. Listening to our cousin and her two friends I, who had never seen it, who associated with it nothing but the names of great writers and my father’s saying as we went through the Brooklyn Botanic Garden — “Nice! but you should have seen the Czar’s summer palace at Tsarskoye-Selo!” — suddenly saw Russia as the grand antithesis to all bourgeois ideals, the spiritual home of all truly free people. I was perfectly sure that there was no literature in the world like the Russian; that the only warm hearts in the world were Russian, like our cousin and her two friends; that other people were always dully materialist, but that the Russian soul, like Nijinsky’s dream of pure flight, would always leap outward, past all barriers, to a lyric world in which my ideal socialism and the fiery moodiness of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique would be entirely at home with each other… How many millions would be with us! China was in our house those Friday evenings, Africa, the Indian masses. And it was those three unmarried dressmakers from the rank and file who fully wrapped me in that spell, with the worldly clang of their agate beads and the musky fragrance of their face powder and their embroidered Russian blouses, with the great names of Russian writers ringing against the cut-glass bowl under the black lamp. Never did the bowl look so laden, never did apples and tea smell so good, never did the samovar pour out with such steaming bounty, as on those Friday evenings when I tasted in the tea and the talk the evangelical heart of our cousin and her two friends, and realized that it was we — we! — who would someday put the world on its noblest course.
Kazin encountered another defiant model of love entwined with literature in his unusual neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Solovey, who were both exceedingly worldly and utterly destitute. The husband was a writer, a man who not only read but created books, and the wife a scientist — occupations equally foreign to the Brownsville community. He writes:
The Soloveys had been very puzzling; from the day they had come to our tenement, taking over the small dark apartment on the ground floor next to his drugstore, no one had been able to make them out at all. Both the Soloveys had had an inaccessible air of culture that to the end had made them seem visitors among us. They had brought into our house and street the breath of another world, where parents read books, discussed ideas at the table, and displayed a quaint, cold politeness addressing each other. The Soloveys had traveled; they had lived in Palestine, France, Italy. They were “professional” people, “enlightened” — she, it was rumored, had even been a physician or “some kind of scientist,” we could never discover which.
The greatest mystery was why they had come to live in Brownsville. We looked down on them for this, and suspected them. To come deliberately to Brownsville, after you had lived in France and Italy! It suggested some moral sickness, apathy, a perversion of all right feelings. The apathy alone had been enough to excite me. They were different!
But what made the couple most intriguing was that the husband and wife were bound by a love they had elected themselves — a passionate, impractical love which magnetized them with a strange and alluring fusion of absolute devotion and absolute despair. Kazin writes:
Whenever I saw the strange couple together, the gold wedding ring on his left hand thick as hers, I felt they were still lovers… And there was that visible tie between them, that wedding ring even a man could wear, some deep consciousness of each other, that excited me, it seemed so illicit.
The lovers, though their love had been spent, still lived only for each other. And it was this that emphasized their strangeness for me — it was as strange as Mr. Solovey’s books, as a Brownsville couple speaking Russian to each other, as strange as Mrs. Solovey’s delightfully shocking blondness and the unfathomable despair that had brought them to us. In this severe dependence on each other for everything, there was a defiance of the family principle, of us, of their own poverty and apathy, that encouraged me to despise our values as crude and provincial. Only in movies and in The Sheik did people abandon the world for love, give themselves up to it — gladly. Yet there was nothing obviously immoral in the conduct of the Soloveys, nothing we could easily describe and condemn. It was merely that they were sufficient to each other; in their disappointment as in their love they were always alone. They left us out, they left Brownsville out; we were nothing to them. In the love despair of the Soloveys something seemed to say that our constant fight “to make sure” was childish, that we looked at life too narrowly, and that in any event, we did not count. Their loneliness went deeper than our solidarity.
And so I loved them.
These encounters with his cousin, her friends, and the Soloveys expanded Kazin’s scope of possibility beyond what his community could imagine and provided the springboard for his leap from the small and separate life that Brownsville had predestine for him to a connected and expansive life as one of the world’s finest literary critics.
But while these insurgent role models had inspired in young Kazin a deep desire to rebel against the norms of his community and transcend its limiting life-possibilities, he had no idea how to build the bridge between his small world and that other, expansive world of love and liberty. There was another essential building block. In a passage that calls to mind the heartening story of how James Baldwin read his way out of Harlem and into literary greatness, Kazin recounts how literature unlocked for him the gates to freedom:
I did not know where or how to begin. I knew only that I could dream all day long while pretending to be in the world, and that my mind was full of visions as intimate with me as loneliness. I felt I was alone, that there were things I had to endure out of loyalty but could never accept, and that whenever I liked, I could swim out from the Brownsville shore to that calm and sunlit sea beyond where great friends came up from the deep. Every book I read re-stocked my mind with those great friends who lived out of Brownsville. They came into my life proud and compassionate, recognizing me by a secret sign, whispering through subterranean channels of sympathy: “Alfred! Old boy! What have they done to you!” Walking about, I learned so well to live with them that I could not always tell whether it was they or I thinking in me… Sometimes I was not sure which character I was on my walks, there were so many in my head at once; or how I could explain one to the other; but after an afternoon’s reading in the “adults’” library on Glenmore Avenue, I would walk past the pushcarts on Belmont Avenue … proud and alien as Othello, or dragging my clubfoot after me like the hero of Of Human Bondage, a book I had read to tatters in my amazement that Mr. W. Somerset Maugham knew me so well.
Although his dear friend Hannah Arendt would come to write beautifully about outsiderdom as a source of power and privilege, for Kazin the sense of being in America and yet outside it was a source of only loneliness and anguish. It was in books that he found himself and his place in the larger world, a world of which he was a part as equal and deserving as any other. The love of reading was his liberation. It eradicated his sense of separateness and granted him permission to love life rather than merely survive it. He writes:
I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville.
So that when, leaving the library for the best of all walks, to Highland Park, I came out on Bushwick Avenue, with its strange, wide, sun-lit spell, a thankfulness seized me, mixed with envy and bitterness, and I waited against a hydrant for my violence to pass. Why were these people here, and we there? Why had I always to think of insider and outsider, of their belonging and our not belonging, when books had carried me this far, and when, as I could already see, it was myself that would carry me farther — beyond these petty distinctions I had so long made in loneliness?
A Walker in the City is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with Ursula K. Le Guin on how libraries unlock freedom and Rebecca Solnit on the solitary connectedness of reading, and the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on how books liberate the human spirit.
Published July 5, 2016