|Alfred Kazin: Smug vs. Slug|
IT'S PERSONAL, REAL PERSONAL
[WRITERSCLEARINGHOUSE NEWS SERVICE]
Despite his age, seventy nine, literary guru Alfred Kazin is as feisty -- and nasty -- as ever. Since I thought the old cuss was dead, I wasn't expecting that Kazin, now the unofficial heir to the Edmund Wilson mantle of public intellectual, to rise to any occasion, much less one of such loathing that I encountered recently [3 May 1994] when the eminence grise cum greasy geezer showed up at Harvard's Emerson Hall for the first of a series of lectures reviewing his remarkable lit'ry life.
Oh yeah, he still hates John O'Hara. And I mean it's real personal.
I reread On Native Grounds just to refreshen my acquaintance to Kazin's animus for O'Hara. The book came out in 1942. Kazin was twenty-three. My God, this guy been nursing his O'Hara grudge that long! Not very good for the digestion.
But why? Sure, O'Hara was often a difficult party -- often disliked; sometimes hated. Had he, like others, been the butt of one of O'Hara's drunken tear-ass spats? Or, was O'Hara, the master of 'the perceived slight,' simply seeking vengeance? Was this Kazin's revenge?
See 'Kazin Speaks Out of Class' in right gutter for more on the critic's venomous dislike of John O'Hara
Kazin dutifully checked off all the pre-War writers he had known. Check. Check.Check. New Yorker contributors. Check. O'Hara?
'Why didn't I mention O'Hara?' Kazin said, glaring at me. He gripped the lectern. Then standing back, he blurted, 'Why? I'll tell you [the you was meant to equate me with a moronic slug] why? Because O'Hara was a minor writer. That's why!'
Kazin sputtered. In this moment of tension, the audience -- average age about seventy, I reckoned -- began to murmur and squirm.
Jeez, I guess I asked the wrong question.
'Why do you [that you, again] think that because I was critical of O'Hara in the book [On Native Grounds] that I disliked him? Why do you [gee, now it was getting really personal with me] think that if a reviewer is critical of an author, he dislikes him? I'll tell you about O'Hara. He was not an important writer. He kept on writing the same story over and over.'
The audience tittered. Some faces turned to me with a 'My!-What- Impertinence!' glare.
'He was phony,' Kazin went on. 'I remember what Hemingway once said about him. Let's all contribute and send O'Hara to Yale.'
Yes, an often cited chestnut. Still, the audience laughed. Support.
Later, I asked Kazin to autograph my copy of On Native Grounds. 'This a first edition,' Kazin remarked, smugly impressed that 'you' truly, moronic slug, possessed this edition. He sighed. He signed. Let's call it rather a scribble.
Sure it was personal. George Frazier best described it as a kind of class warfare between the two literary titans.
'Naturally, one reason we have this affinity for O'Hara,' Frazier once noted, 'is that he knows about court tennis and custom tailoring and chic clubs, and if Alfred Kazin doesn't like it, why doesn't he review writers who know about stick ball and where to buy a suit with two pairs of pants and catcher's mitt?'
Kazin looked at me furiously. 'Why do you [I was warming to Kazin's special reserve of venom] insist that I disliked O'Hara?!'
Finally Kazin relented:
'Why do I hate O'Hara? Yes, I hated him. Because how dare this posturing Lace Curtain mick palooka subscribe to the values of the WASP elite?! I, on the other hand, have been loyal to my humble Lower-East-Side Jewish roots. Unlike O'Hara, I haves no pretence.'
OK, I made up that last bit. But I know that was what Kazin was thinking. Like I said, real personal.
[The above article first appeared -- in a different form -- in the Spring 1994 edition of the Mid-Century Society Newsletter. Alfred Kazin died in 1998]