Skip to content

Kazin to Birstein to a more general question of how we evaluate people’s character based on traits that might, at least at first glance, appear to be independent of character

I read Richard Cook’s biography of Alfred Kazin recently. It was surprisingly interesting—I say “surprisingly” because Kazin didn’t live a particularly eventful life. I wanted to read the book in the first place because I like a lot of Kazin’s writing and I wanted to understand how the pieces fit together. One thing I learned is that his sister married Daniel Bell. Not that the book featured any interesting anecdotes about Bell; still, it was satisfying to see the map filled in. I was struck by how financially precarious Kazin’s life was. After the late 1930s, he was never poor, but it was a long time before he had a permanent job. There definitely seems to be a conceptual divide between those of us with steady jobs (the sort that pay us even if we’re not really working) and people who start each year from baseline of zero income and have to earn every penny. (Well, I guess Kazin had book royalties, but I don’t suppose that was enough to pay the rent.)

My favorite writing of Kazin’s are his book reviews, especially of post-1950 literature, which is what I’m most likely to have read and to be able to relate to. (I just can’t get into that Henry James stuff.) I’d love to read more of that. I have a collection of his reviews that came out around 1962, and it’s excellent. (Not perfect; he sometimes irritates me with a smug all-knowing attitude of condescension, but most of the time it’s interesting. For example, I got a lot out of his essay on John P. Marquand, even though Kazin is less of a fan of Marquand than I am. My take on this: Marquand made it look so easy that his skills were hard to appreciate until decades later, when nobody has come along to replace him.)

Cook takes a lot from the memoir, “What I Saw at the Fair,” that Kazin’s third wife, Ann Birstein, published a few years after Kazin’s death. I went to the library and picked it up and gave it a quick read. She was still mighty angry at Kazin, even to the end, when she found out that he’d sold a collection of letters, including many from her, to the New York Public Library. It’s gotta be a weird feeling to go to the library and come across your own decades-old letters.

“What I Saw at the Fair” is readable and interesting, but running through it is a funny idea—I’d call it pre-modern—that people’s true essences are reflected in their physical appearance. Character after character is introduced as ugly or beautiful, and almost always this is an indicator to the inner being. This strategy works for Dickens, and in addition I’m willing to believe that there’s some correlation between inner and outer beauty (especially given that both are in the eye of the beholder). But I know enough people to know that any such pattern is far from universally true. In reading Birstein’s memoir, I was continually wondering whether she really believed that beautiful people are nicer, that ugly people compensated by being nasty, that Hannah Arendt was really “a Nazi,” Along the same lines, she disparages Norman Mailer’s machismo because his penis was small.

But what really struck me about Birstein’s memoir is that she strongly identifies herself as a writer—she’s published several novels–and she knew lots of writers and intellectuals, including Sylvia Plath, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, and the aforementioned Daniel Bell—but she expresses no interest in any of their writings. Birstein’s anecdotes about these people are interesting, but I’m surprised to see no discussion of their literature or their ideas. Perhaps this is her revenge on them for ignoring her writing all these years. In any case, I think she missed an opportunity. It would be like writing a book that takes place in the Giants’ locker room and not talking about football. Birstein identifies being a writer with fiction writing and thinks it’s funny that Kazin called himself a writer when he was only a critic. “A Walker in the City” has some beautiful phrases and images, but to me it doesn’t read as smoothly as a good novel or even as smoothly as good criticism.

Kazin told Birstein that he couldn’t love her if she weren’t a writer (or something like that; I don’t recall the exact wording), but he didn’t show much respect for her actual writing. But maybe that has to do with Kazin’s career as a critic of classic writing. If he was comparing to Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, etc., then it’s no surprise that Birstein came off second best.

This brings me to a more general point. Birstein appeared to evaluate people based on their looks (or, perhaps, retroactively evaluated people’s looks based on how much she liked them). Kazin perhaps evaluated Birstein unfairly because, as a writer, she was no Saul Bellow. Do we all do this sometimes? I evaluate statisticians based on their ability—not necessarily technical ability (although that’s part of it) but more on whether they “get it” and can solve problems. And the statisticians who are really good at this? I like them as people, almost without exception. Conversely, I get irritated by statisticians who can’t do it—especially those who seem to pump up bad ideas or disparage good ideas—I tend to think of them as lesser on a personal level. Some of this is legitimate, I think—part of being a good person is to recognize how one can be most helpful to others—but I probably lean too far in this direction. Even people who are nearly universally disliked, if they’re good statisticians, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. But if I don’t like their ideas, it’s hard to avoid disliking them.

For a sillier example, I remember reading in Susan Cheever’s memoir that John Cheever rated people based on how strong were the drinks they served. Higher alcohol content = better person. And in playing pickup frisbee, I think that, on average, you’ll be more liked as a person if you’re a better frisbee player. (Although maybe in basketball it goes the other way…)

P.S. What happened to Kazin’s first wife? After they broke up, she didn’t want to get back together with him—a reasonable enough decision, especially considering how his life proceeded in the years after—but then I was mildly curious what happened with her after that, and the biography didn’t say.

One Comment

  1. Juli says:

    Complete side note: Portrait of a Lady is one of my favorite books, so let me know if you ever want to hear more about Henry James despite your current disinterest.

    Note on your general point: I think that people do judge others based on such a hierarchy, but each person's subconscious hierarchy is different. He was comparing her to Saul Bellow; perhaps if his friends were writers "below" her level of writing, she would have seemed like a genius of penmanship to him. Kind of sad for her, I guess, although it's good to know where you stand.