Alfred Kazin published his first and best book of literary criticism, On Native Grounds, in 1942, when he was 27 years old. It told, in highly wrought, dramatic prose, the story of American literature from what Kazin called 'the opening struggle for realism' in the 1890s to 1940. It was written over the course of four years but reads as if it had been done in white heat over six weeks; each written page represents the compression of a thousand pages read. The moral pressure is extraordinary: with just a few happy exceptions, the story of each writer is told as a miniature tragedy, a squandered opportunity, a failure. 'What was it he had missed?' Kazin asks of William Dean Howells, whose modest novels fought the battle for realism as best they could. 'Howells had missed something, and he knew it as well as the generations after him were to know it . . . He had spoken in all the accents of greatness without ever being great himself.' On Howells's successor in the genteel tradition: 'Edith Wharton's great subject should have been the biography of her own class, for her education and training had given her alone in her literary generation the best access to it. But the very significance of that education was her inability to transcend and use it.' Dreiser escaped his limitations, used them in fact as his weapons, but Kazin's not going to do a happy dance: 'As one thinks of his career, with its painful preparation for literature and its removal from any literary tradition, it seems remarkable not that he has been recognised slowly and dimly, but that he has been recognised at all.' It's a 500-page book and written almost entirely at this pitch of judgment.
LRB 19 June 2008 | PDF Download