Big City Book Club: ‘A Walker in the City’

Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” which we’re going to be talking about in today’s meeting of the Big City Book Club — welcome — was published in 1951, when Kazin was 36. I am usually suspicious of memoirs produced by writers who have not yet reached middle age, but Kazin, like so many of his provenance and generation, seemed to possess a voice of centenarian authority as a young man. At 26, he had audaciously established himself as a significant literary critic with “On Native Ground,” his magnum opus on American letters of the first half of the 20th century. His writing hardly betrayed a tentative hand.

“A Walker in the City,” parts of which had been previously published in The New Yorker and Commentary, has Kazin telling us of his early life, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where the world of Jewish immigrant poverty — its scents, grievances, prejudices, tastes, feuds, hierarchies — both appalled and compelled him. “When I was a child, I thought we lived at the end of the world,” Kazin, one of the so-called New York Intellectuals, writes early on in the book. “It was the eternity of the subway ride into the city that gave me this idea.” To Kazin, Brownsville was the center of the world and the nowhere of it. Significance lay elsewhere, in Manhattan and the more beautiful quarters of Brooklyn, which might as well have been as far away as the Hollywood he devoured in the local movie house. Prosperous Jews — the alrightniks, as Kazin calls — then lived along Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway in the 1920s and ’30s, the period he is writing about. “Oh those successes of whom I was always hearing so much,” Kazin writes. The alrightniks were “admired despite our socialism.”

Kazin grew up in a time and place when ardent young strivers sought to know and read everything. Inevitably, he finds the library — Dickens, Elliot, Blake and on and on. Kazin walks the city in essence to learn how to be an American in it, and to be an American in his mind is to seek knowledge and beauty in equal measure. Reading the book, it is hard not to lament the extent to which aspirations of the kind Kazin had have become so completely outmoded. The role of the public intellectual has been made ever less significant. And even if it hadn’t, poor immigrants in New York now (everywhere really) have so little chance of achieving the kind of status and career that Kazin did. When he attended City College — along with famous peers Nathan Glazer, Irving Howe and others — it was one of the greatest universities in the country. There is virtually no public university like it today.

Perhaps some you have read “A Walker in the City” long ago; perhaps some have read it now for the first time. But I’m interested in hearing from all of you: How in your view has the immigrant experience changed in New York since Kazin’s time? How have goals and ambitions been redefined? And how do we think the vision of America — of what it means to be an American — has altered?

Additionally, I’d love to hear from any and all who grew up in Brownsville, and about changes that have taken place in a neighborhood that has become one of the poorest and most crime ridden in the city. The live chat begins at 1 p.m.

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