Alfred Kazin and the Great Beyond


It is an axiom of writing workshops that the richly detailed setting of a story is as important as the three-dimensionality of its characters, the arc and twists of its plot, the specificity and authenticity of its “voice.” But what if a storyteller rejected the view that place should be seen as “setting,” as the background against which the “real” material of a story unfolded? What if the story was the place? Could a story be told that progressed not along the axis of linear or even non-linear time but rather, leaving time behind, unfolded on the plane of space? Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City suggests that it is possible to tell a life story almost completely unhinged from events, historical or personal, and situated instead in geography, the concrete topography of the streets of a single neighborhood—Brownsville as it was when it was still a neighborhood of impoverished Jewish immigrants. What emerges from this rewriting of the laws of storytelling is not a map of this neighborhood, although the streets and landmarks and borders are duly and precisely recorded, but rather a map of a consciousness, which is shaped by place—by this place—so deeply and intricately as to be nearly coextensive with it. We are, Kazin seems to say, not so much what we eat but where we first ate, and slept, and walked; geography, in other words, is destiny. “Brownsville,” Kazin writes, “is that road which every other road in my life has had to cross.”

A Walker in the City gives us this Brownsville, but not as a guidebook might. We walk through the neighborhood with Kazin, the rhythm and turn of reading reflecting the meandering of thought melded to a shifting landscape, the changing perspectives of the city scene also the changing moods of the walker who embodies as he traverses it; this walker is the narrator, “going back” to Brownsville, beginning at the platform of the subway station: “From the moment I step off the train at Rockaway Avenue and smell the leak out of the men’s room, then the pickles from the stand just below the subway steps, an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some unexpected tenderness.” But the walker is also the young student among a horde of students: “Down we go, down we go through the school corridors of the past smelling of chalk, Lysol out of the open toilets, and girl sweat.” The walker is also the adolescent, and in the final passages of the book, describes a courtship almost solely through its distinctive “route”: “Summer nights that year I was sixteen and she was fifteen, I used to meet her on East New York Avenue, at the corner of the police station. Our route was always up Liberty Avenue, where the old yellow frame houses looked like the remains of a mining town, and the cracks in the pavement opened up a fissure that trailed into hills of broken automobile parts littering the junk shops.” In books like New York Jew, Kazin traced his life within the larger frame of a generation, writing autobiography as collective biography. But A Walker in the City suggests that autobiography is always and only the unique and individual self, the specific shape and trajectory of a life lived in this space and nowhere else, alongside “the burn in the cover of the ironing board” in the kitchen of the family apartment; in the courtyard under “the pretentious battlements” of the public school; breathing “the stale air of snuff, of old books and old me” in the synagogue.

The paradox that propels this book is the way that Kazin is Brownsville, that Brownsville is Kazin, and that this mutual determination is also radical difference, an urge—American, Jewish, artistic—to be elsewhere. This elsewhere lurks in Brownsville, in the books the young protagonist reads, in his longing to experience the world outside his neighborhood; in one passage, Kazin describes the street that holds both the movie house in which he spends long weekend afternoons and the synagogue to which his family belongs:

Right hand and left hand: two doorways to the East. But the first led to music I heard in the dark, to inwardness; the other to ambiguity. That poor worn synagogue could never in my affections compete with that movie house, whose very lounge looked and smelled to me like an Oriental temple. It had Persian rugs, and was marvelously half-lit at all hours of the day...

In the wonderful darkness of the movies there was nothing to remind me of Brownsville—nothing but the sudden alarm of a boy who, reminding himself at six o’clock that it was really time to get home, would in his haste let himself out by the great metal fire door in front.

Brownsville, then, showed Kazin not only itself but also “two doorways to the East” and beyond. “Beyond! Beyond!” Kazin writes, with the longing of poverty, of youth, of the artist propelling these words.

was “the city,” connected only by interminable subway lines and some old Brooklyn-Manhattan trolley car rattling across Manhattan Bridge... Beyond was the long, shivering blast of the ferry starting out from the Battery in sight of the big Colgate ad across the river in Jersey... Beyond was the burly Jewish truckers from the wholesale fruit markets on Osborne Street sitting in their dark, smoky “Odessa” or “Roumanian” tearooms...

If A Walker in the City is about an old Jewish neighborhood, it is also about the archetypal Jewish experience of leaving the old neighborhood. Kazin’s Beyond thus also captures the vantage point from which Brownsville is retrospectively seen: in the cultured English that frames the immigrant speech and in the perspective of the insider-outsider who descends from the station to revisit the old neighborhood that is also the old self, filled with rage and dread and tenderness.