Class of 1935
Alfred Kazin was a writer and literary critic whose commentary began appearing in print when he was still a student at the College, writing book reviews for The New York Times and The New Republic. By the time he was 27, he had published a masterly study of American literature, “On Native Grounds.”
For more than half a century, his books and essays — about literature, about himself, about the immigrant experience in America — secured his place among a group of politically active writers and critics who came to be known as the “New York intellectuals.” Kazin wrote for Partisan Review, Commentary, The Reporter and many other magazines. He had stints as literary editor of The New Republic and associate editor of Fortune. By the 1960s, he was the most powerful literary critic in America, with essays in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and in Sunday book review sections.
Kazin, who rose from modest beginnings in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he was born on June 5, 1915, was one of the country's great men of letters. He was invited to lunch at the United Nations by Dag Hammarskjöld, then secretary general, and to the White House by John F. Kennedy. He traveled on behalf of the State Department, was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was awarded Guggenheim and Rockefeller fellowships and an honorary doctorate from Columbia, and received the first Truman Capote Lifetime Achievement Award in Literary Criticism. In 1960, the College honored him with a Townsend Harris Medal. He taught at Harvard, Amherst, Cambridge, the State and City Universities of New York and other schools. As a cultural commentator, he appeared on a number of documentaries in the 1990s, including “American Masters,” “The American Experience” and Ric Burns's “New York.”
While at CCNY, Kazin spent his time with books. “On Native Grounds,” published in 1942, was the product of five years in the reading room of the New York Public Library, where he typically spent more than 12 hours a day, five or six days a week. Later in life, he debated literature and politics with such fellow intellectuals as alumnus Irving Howe, Lionel Abel, Leslie Fiedler, Mark Van Doren, Dwight Macdonald and Lionel Trilling.
Kazin was the author, co-author or editor of more than 20 books. The first of his lyrical memoirs, “A Walker in the City,” published in 1951, described how, in his early years, a quest for learning led him to the libraries and streets of New York. A subsequent book about walks in the city, “Our New York,” included photos by David Finn, another member of the CAG Hall of Fame.
Kazin died on June 5, 1998 at the age of 83, the year after the publication of his last book, “God and the American Writer.”