Books PUBLIC AND PRIVATE LIVES

Kazin and Welty: paying homage to words and truth.

At first glance, Alfred Kazin and Eudora Welty don’t have much in common. In the title of his latest book, New York Jew (Knopf, $10.95), Kazin wears a frequently used term of disapprobation like a Bronze Star on his lapel. There’s something vulgar in the gesture itself, something touchy and defensive. And the book begins with the spotlight clearly focused on our hero, the New York Jew: “One dreamlike week in 1942 I published my first book, On Native Grounds, became an editor of The New Republic, and with my wife, Natasha, moved into a little apartment on Twenty-fourth Street and Lexington.” Kazin is personal, gossipy, alternately analytical and sentimental, a much-married man embroiled in feeling, a participant in famous friendships.

In her new book, The Eye of the Story: Selected Essays and Reviews (Random House, $10), Eudora Welty, on the other hand, locates herself in a position of relative anonymity from which she discreetly delivers opinions, much as Emily Dickinson used to deliver posies and poems before sunup to the doorsteps of her Amherst neighbors. A maiden lady – the antique term fits this reticent, enthusiastic, ironic, fresh voice – Eudora Welty has lived most of her 70 years in the same large white house on a tree-shaded street in Jackson, Mississippi, a few blocks from the state capitol.

Not that she tells us so directly. Directly there are appreciations of Jane Austen, (Katherine Anne Porter, and Chekhov, sensitive discussions of the art of writing, and largely pallid reviews of books by a miscellany of writers from Faulkner to S. J. Perelman. Only at the end of the book does the author openly present herself and her world, in eight brief essays which shimmer with the joy and wonder of this particular life. She intimates that this slow revelation is deliberate in the last piece, when she speaks of “a story-writer’s truth: the thing to wait on, to reach there in time for, is the moment in which people reveal themselves.” Kazin rarely makes us wait on confidences; he comes on strong. For Eudora Welty we must patiently ready ourselves.

I learned early to wait on Eudora Welty. When I was in college in Mississippi, she lived right across the street from my girls’ school campus. Already indiscriminately in love with all writers, male and female, I used to follow her at a distance along the Jackson streets, look in store windows to see what she saw, catch the North State Street bus home when she did, and gaze out the window at the big old houses, the ugly new brick moderns, the capitol grounds. Then I’d sit in my dorm room and read the stories again and wonder how I’d missed it.



At that time I didn’t know a Jew. I met Saul, my first Jew, in Houston when I was 25. We gravitated toward each other, became good friends, but it took me nearly a year and dozens of arguments about Faulkner’s social responsibility – it was 1958 – to realize Saul was Jewish. When, finally, the subject came up – he, a New Yorker as blatant as Kazin, had of course assumed I knew all along – I was as pleased as Crusoe discovering Friday. Exotic, but recognizably human, life! But I certainly didn’t associate him with Eudora Welty.

What a delight to rediscover, as I read these two books in a summer month equally hot in Jackson and Manhattan and Dallas, that under the obvious differences exist a number of similarities of thought and values between the Southern lad; and the New York Jew.

There is in each a love of home and kind and the particularities of regional life. In Kazin, though the scene shifts to London or Paris or Israel, we feel New York. He cannot give us enough places: the reading room. 315, of the New York Public Library; Barrow Street in the Village, which crossed “streets that it had no business crossing” and gave him the idea of writing personal narrative; the Time Inc. executives’ private club on the 64th floor of the RCA building; his big ramshackle studio on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights: Madison Avenue art galleries; Third Avenue movie houses: and, first and last, the Brownsville tenement where he spent his first 20 years, and which his parents left only to die.

Kazin really shows us. in all these film clips, two New Yorks: the burned-out, garbage-heaped slums of the poor and unlettered, and the “other New York, the capital of words, the chosen city” created by “so many clever men, so many stirringly liberated women.” The view is panoramic but exact, and the flavor of the place is communicated by an expert in the ambiguities of love and hate.

Eudora Welty has her Public Library too, to which her mother introduced her at the age of nine with the instructions to the librarian to “Let her have any book she wants, except Elsie Dinsmore.” To the child in 1918, the library was a place of marvels to which you must wear two petticoats (“our librarian wouldn’t let you past the front door if she could see through you”) and from which you could take out only two books at one time “when you were a child and also as long as you lived.” Once little Eudora Alice tried to beat the system:



The librarian was the lady in town who wanted to be it. She called me by my full name and said. “Does your mother know where you are? You know good and well the fixed rule of this library: Nobody is going to come running buck here with any book on the same day they look it out. Get both of those things out of here and don’t come back until tomorrow. And I can practically see through you.”



In scenes such as this, in descriptions of the river country off the Old Natchez Trace, of the lighted windows in the shacks of Natchez-under-the-Hill, of the black Baptist Church with its Pageant of Birds, of Ida M’Toy’s secondhand clothes shop, of the “Little Store” where Eudora bought bread for her mother and a cold drink for herself, fetched up dripping from a barrel – “You drank on the premises, with feet set wide apart to miss the drip, and gave him back his bottle” – she conjures up Mississippi for me as surely as Kazin gives Brooklyn back to my friend Saul. The places are different, but the mixture of longing and pain in each author is similar.

The two books are alive with references to the company of remarkable craftsmen, men and women whom Welty and Kazin revere because of the quality of their minds and talents. Kazin is far more pointed in evaluating these personages than Eudora Welty is, and never misses the chance to let us see the personal flaw in the genius. Thus Lionel Trilling tells Kazin that he won’t write anything that will not “promote my reputation.” T. S. Eliot appears as “a Yankee humorist” in a role “imagined by Henry James” – “a man easily cornered and deathly afraid of being cornered.” Edmund Wilson, wearing a white dress shirt and a Panama hat on the Cape Cod beach, explains pompously, “I have only one way of dressing.” And even Saul Bellow, much admired by Kazin, is smugly “affronted by the stupidity of others.” “It would be my function in life, like that of all critics,” Kazin concludes sadly, “to disappoint him.”

Eudora Welty is not much of a critic. She recently described herself in an interview as “not a born critic” but “a born appreciator,” and the distinction holds in this book. Her approach to the writers she likes – and she writes only of those she likes – is testimonial rather than analytical. She never talks about personality as Kazin does, but always about the work.

She comes closest to the biographical in her review of an edition of letters of William Faulker, a writer who stands more or less in the same relation to her as Bellow to Kazin – a greater compatriot. Even here, however, she finally turns away from the man and toward the genius:

Faulkner’s letters show honesty, fairness and largeness of mind, genuine consideration for others and compassion: also exhilaration and also despair. They pull no punches. They are in turn funny, sad. angry, desperate, tender, telegraphic, playful, quick in arithmetic and perfect in courtesy, unhappy. But these qualities, in one combination or another, and in some measure, can be found in the letters of a lot of human beings who didn’t write The Sound and the Fury, “Spotted Horses,” “The Bear.” It would deny the author’s whole intent, in a lifetime of work and passion and stubborn, hellbent persistence, to look in his letters for the deepest revelations he made.



But this dissimilarity between Kazin and Welty is more apparent than real. Kazin wouldn’t write about Bellow even to criticize him if Bellow weren’t a brilliant writer: there are no untalented people in New York Jew except the author’s relations. Welty unabashedly defends Faulkner against the personal charge of being, “after all, only a white Mississip-pian” – thus joining me belatedly in my ongoing argument with Saul – by pleading his wise individuality: “Only meaning lasts. Nothing was ever learned in a crowd, from a crowd, or by addressing or trying to please a crowd . . . Fiction has, and must keep, a private address. For life is lived in a private place.”

Thus both Eudora Welty and Alfred Kazin pay homage, in their individual ways, to the power of words as a medium of truth. This recognition is their greatest bond. Eudora Welty casts her faith in “using the language to search out human meanings.” in arriving at “some fresh approximation of human truth.” Fiction, the grandest lie. is for her the grandest reality, because, as she says. “Human life is fiction’s only theme.”

More skeptically, as befits the streetwise. Kazin hedges a bit. He begins and ends New York Jew with chapters entitled “Words.” But. as there are two New Yorks, there are good and bad uses of words. Words can lose their meaning, like the Communist slogans of the Thirties in the reality of Brownsville of the Seventies: “Worker.” “Imperialism.” “Class enemy.” “People’s democracy.” “Progressive.” They can fail, like Elie Wiesel’s speech on the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Belsen: “There was no word that might say an end to anguish . . . The Jews could not state their case without seeming to overstate it.” Or they can attempt to hold private experience, hold the truth of all that is involved in the year 1978 in the single word. “Jew.”” Holding truth, however imperfectly, makes words endure, and makes them necessary. Kazin quotes the fat German in the comic skit. “You Chews are always talking about you Chews!”

Words will always fail, as they fail Kazin in his shaky prayer over his father’s grave. But they must inevitably be attempted. Offering his weak litany. Kazin holds onto the reality of his father:



Standing by the grave. I shakenly say Kaddish. My proudest memory of my father is that when I was a boy and stood with him on Sunday mornings as he waited in the crowd of house painters on Pitkin Avenue to be tapped for a new job. he would shyly but with unmistakable delight introduce me around as his Kaddish. “Meet my Kuddish.” Meet the son and heir who will see me to the grave and say the last prayer over me.

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments