Cover: Writing Was Everything, from Harvard University PressCover: Writing Was Everything in PAPERBACK

The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in American Studies 1995

Writing Was Everything

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$15.00 • £12.95 • €13.50

ISBN 9780674962385

Publication Date: 04/01/1999

Academic Trade

Alfred Kazin is our grand old man of letters, supreme keeper of the now-flickering literary flame… Prolific, indefatigable, ambitious on a scale that seems quaint in this day of academic specialization, Mr. Kazin has never been one to bore his readers with detail. He prefers the sprawling canvas, the hard-to-categorize narrative that mingles scholarship and reminiscence, polemic and personal history… One of Mr. Kazin’s great strengths as a critic is the sheer passion he brings to his task: from the beginning, his books have been hymns to the centrality of literature, its capacity, as he puts it in Writing Was Everything, to ‘make the world shine’… In the end, what of [the legacy of Mr. Kazin’s generation] will survive? To my mind, the novels of Saul Bellow, a handful of Delmore Schwartz’s poems and the urgent, rhapsodic prose of Alfred Kazin.—James Atlas, The New York Times Book Review

With his heart simultaneously bursting and broken, [Kazin] has had to ransack through books in search of what he loves but knows he cannot find—not small entertainments and pleasures but ‘everything.’ Never has a man turned to books with more ardor and hope! And, among the new books that I myself have read this year, his is the one I love the most.—Paul Berman, The New Yorker

A list of the best writing on writing published in 1995 would have to include two beautiful little books from Harvard, [Writing Was Everything and Nadine Gordimer’s Writing and Being]… Elegant… [Kazin offers] rich portraits and fluid sketches of his contemporaries… Kazin’s power to blend biography, autobiography, history, and criticism does much more than deliver a coming-of-age story of his country’s literature to a nation hijacked by Hollywood and television. It splashes a bucket of cold water on Critical Theory, that academic Goliath now presiding over the legions of philistines who have invaded our nation’s colleges and universities… Kazin’s and Gordimer’s…new books are true criticism, which means they are work of art. Each of them overflows with music that could melt the stars.—James R. Hepworth, Bloomsbury Review

This fabulous genre, memoir and criticism, this Monday morning quarterbacking on history and culture and literature, surely must be the Tiffany watch we allow our lifelong literary critics. The name-dropping, the constellations reconfigured, the slights on which a career is made or broken, could anything be more delicious?… Kazin distills, with grace and sophistication, the nuggets he has carried with him from the great works; from Proust, from Richard Wright, from Simone Weil.—Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

To delight in the dull and feel ecstasy in the presence of the commonplace is very much the privilege of youth. Alfred Kazin has captured more than a patch of that feeling in his short memoir, as he could hardly have done if it had not been there from the beginning.—Robert M. Adams, The New York Review of Books

[Kazin] takes up what it means to practice ‘the curious business of being a critic,’ which amounts to grappling with the meaning of life—his and in general—and its relationship to literature. In the course of it, he discusses the writers he has admired and offers sketches of some he has known.—Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Sunday Globe

[Writing Was Everything is] satisfying in blending autobiography and literary reflection. Kazin tells his personal story by way to the books and authors that meant most to him… [There is] emotional power [in] Writing Was Everything.—Mark Krupnick, The Chicago Tribune

Writing Was Everything is drawn from lectures Mr. Kazin delivered at Harvard last year and, like all his work, it is well organized, thoughtful and thought-provoking…[and] concise and brilliant, a combination that few writers think is possible. After discussing authors whose lives and works he has studied, he continues to look ahead, searching for the writer ‘who will have the inner certainty to see our life with the eyes of faith, and so make the world shine again.’ In that quest is found the reason literature matters.—Philip Seib, The Dallas Morning News

Gives a splendid insight into the mind of this passionate New York intellectual… It is his power to communicate his enthusiasm for a life of reading that gives these lectures their distinction.—Anthony Curtis, Financial Times

[Kazin’s] concerns are those of our bewildered and bewildering times: shrinking hope, the indirection of society and loss of faith… An impressionistic, unashamedly subjective tour of the most important writers of this century, Kazin…writes engagingly and provocatively… Writing Was Everything…[is] one man, a life-long writer and reader, and his views on what matters in literature.—Guy Lawson, The Globe & Mail

Most impressive is Kazin’s continuing ability, already evident more than half a century ago, to quickly and convincingly characterize an author and place him or her in the context of the times. His discussions of writers like George Orwell, Edmund Wilson and Flannery O’Connor, to name the most bold and remarkable, reminds us of what literary criticism was—and should be today.—Dave Wood, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

This is a relaxed and affectionate look back at [Kazin’s] career from his early days as a free lance on The New Republic, when the New York Public Library inspired in him, as in so many others, an almost humanly personal affection, and gives account of his meetings with most of the notable American writers of the past half century.—Douglas Hewitt, Notes & Queries [UK]

Over nearly six decades of literary life, Kazin has met and read practically everyone, a fact which Writing Was Everything records in full measure. What remains amazing is the persisting freshness and generosity of his response to literary texts, contemporary thought, events and personalities. Above all, it is his insistence upon the moral implications of his experience that distinguishes his critical sensibility from that shaped by current critical practices… If experience is ever to regain a central place in our critical and theoretical efforts, then Alfred Kazin’s work will be one of the most luminous reminders as to how it might be done.—Richard H. King, American Studies

In this brief, colloquial, lucid volume, which is at once autobiography, criticism, and history, Kazin, dean of American literary critics, reaffirms his faith in the ability of literature to recapture the ever-receding present… Kazin’s three chapters…are at once witty, exuberant, and wise. From Dickens to Sartre, Kazin identifies in each chapter the writers and works that, during 60 years, have had a major impact on his intellectual growth. A summary both sweeping and detailed of his own life as a writer who still speaks to the common reader, Kazin’s volume furnishes an overview of literature in our century. Highly recommended.Library Journal

Reflecting with graceful erudition on literature, litterateurs and his own work, noted critic Kazin…offers a distilled summa of his engagements with the word.Publishers Weekly

Awards & Accolades

  • A New York Times Book Review Notable Book, 1995
  • Alfred Kazin was Awarded the First Truman Capote Literary Trust Lifetime Achievement Award in Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin
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