Monday, August 23, 2010

Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin 1951

"His criticism, his memoirs, have the narrative power of good fiction," stated by Morris Dickstein in an article in the New York Times in May, 1995 discussing the preparations for a celebration of  Kazin's 80th birthday.

This classic memoir was written by a literary critic who was brought up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Born in 1915 to immigrant parents (his mother was a seamstress, his father a house painter), Kazin spent his early years absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of the Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville by immersing himself in it. In order to make the neighborhood come alive for his readers, he includes some Yiddish phrases that were a part of his upbringing as well as re-creating moments he remembers vividly, for example the vitality of the pushcart market in Brownsville and their small apartment where his mother’s clients came for fittings.

Kazin’s memoir takes place during the 1920’s and 30’s when he was a young boy, and then an adolescent. He walked or took the subway everywhere. He describes Brownsville as being very poor, at the bottom rung of neighborhoods where Jewish immigrants lived. For example, he writes that Brownsville Jews referred to those who lived in a different section of Brooklyn along Eastern Parkway as the “alrightniks.”

In its four chapters – “From the Subway to the Synagogue,” The Kitchen,” “The Block Beyond,” and “Summer: The Way to Highland Park,” he describes his neighborhood and community, his home, and then  his venturing further and further away from that world. He also describes his intellectual development: his early reading, some of his school experiences, and some of his intellectual and political friends who had a great influence on his development. And he writes about his listening to the arguments of the Socialists and the Communists and trying to sort out their overlapping but competing political philosophies.

As the child of immigrants Kazin had to find his way in the new world which was at one and the same time intoxicating and anxiety-provoking. Throughout the memoir he conveys his sense of feeling like a perpetual outsider. He was an American, but he was not like other Americans. He was Jewish, but he didn’t live as comfortably as other Jews. He understood that these factors contributed a lot to the man he became.

To read the New York Times obituary for Alfred Kazin click here.

Gita Feyge Kazin – from Dugschitzt, Poland; author’s mother
     Alfred Kazin - her son; author

Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY
Dugschitz, Poland


  1. Interesting on how Kazin notes the description of people who lived in a certain section of Brooklyn in the 1920's were labeled as “alrightniks.”
    Later in the 40's and 50's I wonder if Kerouac took the 'niks' and made another description of people known as ''beatniks.''

    1. That's an interesting comment. Right away I thought of "nudnik." Here is an article that explains the "nik" suffix, including the origin of the word "beatnik." The origin seems to be Russian/Yiddish.