In New York Jew, published in 1978, Alfred Kazin recalled that the “twin reading rooms” of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street “gave me a sense of the powerful amenity that I craved for my own life, a world of power in which my own people had moved about as strangers…. I was hungry for it all, hungry all the time. I was made so restless by the many minds within my reach that no matter how often I rushed across to the Automat for another bun and coffee…I could never get back to my books and notes…without the same hunger pains tearing me inside.”
What, exactly, was the “it” that the 22-year-old Kazin was so hungry for, sitting in the library in 1938? It was the English language. Not the American, the English. He was mad to read it, and also to write it, teach it, interpret it; to swallow it whole; to possess and be possessed by it. This was the “powerful amenity” he craved for his own life. Immigrant Jews who had fallen in love with English had been sitting in public libraries in New York since the 1880s, and many of them had longed to be intimates of the language in exactly the same way; but at the turn of the 20th century, to think of the language as anything other than a means to an end would have meant that you had climbed the ladder of acculturation three steps at a time. It wasn’t until the late 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, that this longing had begun to articulate itself with some real, rather than fantasy-ridden, hope of fulfillment. The first generation of college-educated Jews, born in America around 1914, was itself only half-in, half-out; but the hybrid experience alone allowed for their consideration of the exotic notion that English as a destiny might be seen as something other than utopian.
The Depression was one of those periods in American social history when, out of the breakup of class stability, there arises a promise of change experienced as both salutary and threatening. It had brought about a definite leveling of social hierarchies; suddenly, all kinds of people didn’t know who they were or where they stood. People who had never before experienced themselves as outsiders walked around feeling stunned; those who were familiar with the experience often felt themselves oddly privileged; some even saw themselves as walking metaphors.
“There are times in history,” Kazin wrote of the Depression, “when a group feels that it is at the center of events…. It seemed to me obvious that everywhere, even in Hitler’s Germany, to be outside of society and to be Jewish was to be at the heart of things…. I hugged my aloneness, our apartness…as a sign of our call to create the future.”
That’s how Kazin might have seen himself; as for how he was seen by others, that was a slightly different matter. For intellectually ambitious Jews, the late ’30s and early ’40s were the equivalent of life for African-American intellectuals in the ’60s and ’70s: The door of assimilation had been pushed sufficiently open so that some of them could walk through (if they turned sideways), even though just across the threshold the natives stood gazing quizzically, regarding them with thinly disguised distaste or open hostility. At The New Republic, where he was briefly literary editor, Kazin met the poet Allen Tate, one of many upper-class Southerners who were “disturbed by Jews—obsessed, condescending, always just veering off with a smile from some irreversible insult. They were not used to taking Jews seriously.”