Add this to your list of books to avoid unless you enjoy plodding slowly through the glory days of New York intelligentsia, getting PTSD from all the name-dropping. I decided to speed read the entire thing after I found mention of an interesting woman hidden in the cracks of Kazin’s tale, wondering how many other hidden women I could suss out from this overindulgent autobiography. Sadly, not many. Instead I ended up cataloging typical misogynistic comments which I’ll include here to gleefully besmirch his strangely lionized name.
In bragging about his friendship with Richard Hofstadter, Kazin casually mentions Felice Swados whom Hofstadter had just married when they met. “Brilliantly temperamental and sometimes overpowering… She had a graduate degree in philosophy, wanted to be a novelist, and had no sooner become another lowly woman researcher on Time than she set out to write its medicine column. She came from a medical family.” This was the first hidden woman I found and decided to continue reading Kazin to discover more, having never heard of Swados. Naturally, Kazin doesn’t like her, she sounds too smart; Kazin married his own wife Natasha after knowing her for two weeks. Brilliant. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work, he cheats on her in a later chapter where he dreamily explains in painfully explicit detail about how much he learns about sex from his mistress.) But back to Swados. She apparently unmanned her husband, “Dick was directly afraid of power–including his wife’s power over him. Felice was probably the first to recognize just how brilliant he was, and fought him on it.” Kazin goes on a weird tangent here where he compares Felice to his mother “the ugly duckling in a family of just too many girls… she will never be happy or make her husband happy.” The final blow, Kazin accuses Swados of holding her husband back: “Felice’s hearty sense of her own powers [ed: good for her!] tended to put Dick into shadow. He was certainly not to emerge as a historian until he had doggedly looked after her in her sudden, shocking, fatal illness at the end of the war.” As a parting gift to the dead Swados, Kazin admits that he felt “endlessly challenged” by her, but not willing to give her full credit, “not her ideas impressed me, not even her bountiful and coy figure. It was her pride, her belief in mastery.”
Thus begins the name-dropping, not to let up until the bitter end.
Next up on my chopping block is his meeting with Edmund Wilson and his wife, Mary McCarthy. Both are critics, yet out of the sixteen paragraphs devoted to the meeting, McCarthy gets only a few lines despite her being the person who provides more interesting content in their conversation. Kazin heads to their NYC apartment to receive their opinions about his book. Wilson “dismissed my book to my face” so Kazin spends endless words trying to explain why: Wilson was in an irritable mood, he was too busy, he summoned Kazin and in “brief and conclusive” terms, admitted he “was not much interested in it.” Ah, but what about fair Mary?
Then the afternoon took a strange turn. Wilson had been merely impatient with my book. Mary McCarthy was much more thorough. She went into my faults with great care. Since her brilliance in putting down friends, enemies, and various idols of the American tribe was already known to me from Partisan Review and our first meeting at Provincetown in 1940, I was fascinated by her zeal. She warmed to her topic with positive delight; she looked beautiful in the increasing crispness of her analysis. I thought of my gentle, distinctly unliterary wife. Although Natasha and I were drifting away from each other, I thought of her with longing in this inhuman setting.
Holy shit, there’s so much here. Let me get out my knives. A brief dismissal by Wilson stung Kazin enough to dedicate many paragraphs into deconstructing it. But then McCarthy (how dare she!) spent more time showing him the flaws and he’s “fascinated by her zeal.” Let’s see, what’s the easiest way to defuse criticism? Turn the critic into an object, “she looked beautiful”… done! He manages to get in a jab about his distinctly unliterary wife, but yearns for her due to McCarthy’s critique… “inhumane setting” seems a bit strong, but men don’t like women with opinions much. Luckily Kazin manages to get in a zinger about Wilson’s work before he leaves, turning McCarthy’s “bite and spirit” towards Wilson. He’s walked to the door of their apartment and Wilson encourages him, grinning, “Write about her sometime!”
Later, Kazin scores a precious teaching assignment at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He of course can’t appreciate this place, there weren’t a lot of male students during wartime, so there were “constant wails of dissatisfaction from the highly charged, over-responsive students.” Perhaps they were dissatisfied because Kazin sucked as a teacher? He has a letter of introduction to Thomas Wolfe’s mother and sister, but upon approaching the house, “in their rocking chairs on the porch the Wolfes, avid for attention and expecting to be recognized, looked so flinty, leathery, and suspicious of Wolfe’s many admirers already collected on the front steps” that Kazin backed off and left.
Another hidden woman, although not entirely unknown to me, was Diana Trilling. Kazin discovers that he is “persona non grata with [Lionel Trilling’s] wife. Why? because she had been writing book reviews for Kazin’s magazine for years before he arrived, but her most recent review listed her as “the wife of Lionel Trilling.” Ah, but Diana, that’s all you ever are to Kazin, as he continues to “wife of Lionel Trilling” her throughout the remainder of these pages. “Despite all my efforts to explain away this stupidity and to make amends, Diana fixed me with an unforgiving stare that was to last forever.” 150 pages later, “Trilling’s wife, Diana, writing about Allen Ginsberg and other disturbances in ‘The Other Night at Columbia…’ ”
Hannah Arendt alone seems to have been a woman worthy of knowing, in an intellectual sense. And yet there is something dismissive about his description, “She quoted, quoted, quoted. ‘Nietzsche writes like a charlatan but is a philosopher. Schopenhauer writes like a philosopher but is a charlatan.’ The network of life was made up of the paradigmatic individuals, the great thinkers. They possessed Hannah, were the filaments of her brain.”
Unfortunately for us, Kazin discovers sex. “There were suddenly lots of girls, girls more plentiful, passionate, and proficient than I could have imagined… woman free in bed and dynamic life instructor out of it… women found the much-married man not without promise, but definitely in need of guidance. One by one they cheerfully made their way [to my house]…” He’s oblivious to the dispassion of one woman who he is providing zero pleasure, “Even on all fours, one woman… talked and talked that I was shocked by her relative inattention to the physical pleasure she was demonstrating…” This swirl of coitus ends in the lap of young, blond Beth who provided valuable editing services for his [terrible, couldn’t finish it] book, A Walker In The City, free of charge I’m sure, although he does later marry her for a brief time.