May 2003

A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin

By the time he died in 1998 at the age of 83, Alfred Kazin was one of America’s most celebrated literary critics, the author of a dozen works, and the editor of almost as many more. Yet one of his greatest, most memorable books, published in 1951 when he was only thirty-six, was a slim volume of memoirs called A Walker in the City.

Kazin wrote other well-received memoirs, including Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew, but A Walker in the City, an exquisitely bittersweet look back at his boyhood days in the hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, has a special place not only in his work but in the voluminous literature of Jewish immigrant life.

“Every time I go back to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away," Kazin begins. Walking the cement-block streets of his youth is a goad to Kazin’s memory, and no one has written more beautifully, more poignantly, of this kind of city existence, of the hopes and the longings that grew along with the persistent weeds. There is an unselfconscious poetry to Kazin’s language, vivid in its use of details, that makes his book a feast of memories.

Coming alive again in Kazin’s words are the pushcart women of Belmont Avenue, bundled up in five or six sweaters, “their figures bulging as if to meet the rain and cold head-on in defiance." Or Mrs. Baruch, “the ‘chicken lady,’ who sat smack in the middle of her store on a bloody kitchen chair plucking and plucking the feathers off her chickens with such a raw hearty laugh that you could hear her a block away." Some of these details resonate with me because I also grew up in Brownsville. My time was thirty years later than Kazin’s, long enough to see the housing projects that he viewed as a hopeful sign turn into emblems of decay. But despite that decades-long difference, whenever I reread this exceptional book, I’m struck by how little had changed from his day to mine, and how wonderfully he expressed just what he saw.

I remember the same long subway ride, mostly underground. “Light came only at Sutter Avenue," the stop that for me was home. Then there was the glamorous electricity of Pitkin Avenue, “the self-conscious confusion of Brownsville’s show street." Even the nameless souls with long-forgotten occupations ring true, like the furtive pushke entrepreneur:

Each spring a bearded little man would suddenly appear in our kitchen, salute us with a hurried Hebrew blessing, empty the boxes (sometimes with a sidelong look of disdain if they were not full), hurriedly bless us again for remembering our less fortunate Jewish brothers and sisters, and so take his departure until next spring, after vainly trying to persuade my mother to take still another box.

These small details point to the book’s potent truth about the emotional tenor of Jewish immigrant life. The heartbreaking nature of “the most terrible word, aleyn, alone," and the joy that came with its socialist-tinged opposite, tsuzamen, together. How much stock parents put in their children: “We were the only conceivable end to all their striving; we were their America." And always, a focus of all yearnings, how much the young Kazin pressed to reach out of Brooklyn to that most magical locale, “Beyond!"

It was the printed word, finally, that got Kazin out: “I read as if books would fill my every gap, legitimize my strange quest for the American past, remedy my every flaw, let me in at last into the great world that was anything just out of Brownsville." Books did not let Kazin down, and he more than repaid the debt with this heartfelt volume of his own.