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Like all anthologies, Contemporaries has its ups and downs; even allowing for this inherent defect of the form however, this collection of Alfred Kazin's literary and social criticism of the last ten years or so is not as good as it should be. One judges Mr. Kazin by his own high standards: his first, best book On Native Grounds, a study of American literature from then to now, is one of the finest brief surveys of the field, comprehensive yet insightful, carefully thought-out but delightfully without a theory to hawk, Kazin has traveled far on the reputation this book gained for him; unhappily, he has not reached its level in any of his later books, and Contempories marks no departure from this disappointing history. The best of its contents have all the charm and value one hopes for from Kazin; but the book fails as a whole.
For one thing, Mr. Kazin ought to find himself a new editor--if he has an old editor. This collection appears to have been put together directly from the magazines and reviews in which the pieces first appeared. A particularly annoying, if minor evidence of this is the repetition in one essay after another of the same brief quotations and marginal illustrative remarks. Thus, for example, Kazin complains no less than three times in three consecutive essays about Kinsey's statistical approach to American sexual experience; he refers to Emerson's famous lecture series on capital-C "Culture" to make the same point in two essays in a row, and in several others. The publisher should have checked for this kind of thing; so Kazin can lay some blame to Little, Brown for the casual preparation of the book.
But the stuff inside is Kazin's, of course; and a lot of the editing it needs should have been done at Kazin's desk. Far too many of these pieces read like first drafts; they contain only preliminary thought, the superstructure of an essay, which should largely disappear from the finished product. One comes upon the final few sentences of an essay with something of a shock: "What? That's all?"
This is especially true of the pieces to which most readers will turn first, those on contemporary American and British fiction. These articles are grouped under the title, "Famous Since the War," and just everybody is covered, from Lawrence Durrell to J. D. Salinger ("Everybody's Favorite"--but not Mr. Kazin's). While the Salinger article, a review of Franny and Zooey, is shrewd and right, the articles on Mailer, Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas and the others should be read as quickly as they were evidently written.
Perhaps this is unfair to Kazin; perhaps his reviews can only be as good as the rather disappointing post-War fiction he is discussion. In that case, though, one has a further objection, that it may have been unwise to republish these essays so soom after their initial appearance. In some cases, less than a year has elapsed since they appeared in the Atlantic or the Reporter; and even if one were to undertake the serious job of consistent editing the material needs, it would be difficult to establish an underlying point towards which all should tend. (Ihab Hassan tried to do this for post-war literature in Radical Innocence, but with only indifferent success.)
If collections of the sort of Contemporaries have any value at all--and Edmund Wilson, best among many, has proved that hey emphatically do--it must be a value different from and greater than the sum of the worth of the individual pieces. Wilson's collections of literary journalism (The American Earthquake, A Literary Chronicle), for example, have real worth in the anthology form; they are more than bound volumes of old New Republics and New Yorkers. Kazin's occasional pieces, I fear, will never lend themselves to incorporation in new books for new times.
Other sections of Contemporaries are more satisfactory: in essays collectively called "Relevance of the American Past," Kazin is on his own, his native grounds--and, although he has had the hutzpa to reprint the preface from the Riverside paper-back edition of Moby Dick (the edition with all those foolish notes), he has good, sometimes brillant things to say about Thoreau, Stephen Crane and John Jay Chapman, among others. In a later section of the book, he gets into his real meat, the turn-of-the-century naturalists and the generation of the '20's and '30's. Here he is at his best, soundly rebutting silly Lionel Trilling
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